Musings On The Sea of Life

On People, Places and Changes In Course

Grandpa And The Colored Balls

Posted by Gordon Jump, Jr. on June 2, 2010

In your early days as an automobile driver or passenger, did you or the driver ever stop to buy gas for the car? And, while pumping that gas, did you ever notice the little glass globe on the side of the pump that was filled with spinning, colored balls? Did you ever wonder what the balls did and who put them there? Well, you’re about to find out the answer.

In order to tell this tale properly, I need to digress for a bit and look at the history of gasoline. Oil and gas have played an important role throughout world history. For the past five thousand years, ancient cultures have used naturally occurring oil and tar as a substance for binding materials and as a sealant for waterproofing various surfaces. By 1500 B.C., petroleum oils were used for lighting and tar was used to grease the axels of carts and wagons.

In 1650, Romania was the site of Europe’s first commercial oil reservoir and a major source of oil for Europe. More than 200 years later, Romania became the site of the world’s first oil refinery. As a result, Europe was the source of all petroleum oil and tar until oil was discovered in Pennsylvania, in the early 1800’s. America’s oil and gas industry was born.

The invention of the kerosene lamp in the mid 1850’s led to the establishment of the first U.S. oil company, the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company. The first major oil company, however, was the Standard Oil Company, founded by John D. Rockefeller in 1870. Standard Oil built its first oil refinery in Pennsylvania, later expanding its extensive operations nationwide. After a decade of fierce competition, Standard Oil became the industry’s most dominant company controlling 80 percent of the distribution of all principal oil products, in particular kerosene.

In these early days of oil refining, gasoline was an almost useless, highly volatile, by-product of the petroleum refining process. Closely related to Naphtha, gasoline was to volatile to burn in lamps, so like Naphtha, gasoline was sold as a cleaning fluid to remove grease stains from clothing. It was also sold in small bottles, as a treatment against lice and their eggs. Obviously, this treatment method is no longer common, because of the inherent fire hazard and the risk of dermatitis.

With the invention of an engine that would run on gasoline, in 1870, the world automobile market was born. From 1893 to about 1905, the fuel tanks on most cars were only a gallon or two in size. Gasoline was purchased in one-gallon or five-gallon cans at the local hardware store and car owners would refill the car’s tanks from these cans.

With improvements in roads and the increased use of automobiles, gas tanks were made bigger to increase the car’s range and the gas station was born. The world’s first dedicated gas station was constructed in St. Louis, Missouri in 1905. The world’s second gas station was constructed in 1907 in Seattle, Washington and almost no time at all, there was one in almost every town. The dramatic increase in “filling-stations” also created a corresponding need for a huge number of gas pumps, but who could supply Standard Oil with the pumps they needed? The answer was Frank M. Tait, founder of the Dayton Pump and Manufacturing Company, in Dayton, Ohio.

Dayton Pump was already manufacturing water and fluid distribution systems for municipalities and oil and chemical pumps for the oil industry. Making a pump to dispense retail gasoline was easy. Their early gasoline pumps had a calibrated glass cylinder on top; not unlike a gigantic measuring cup. The desired quantity of fuel was pumped up into the cylinder as indicated by the calibration. Then the pumping was stopped and the gasoline was let out into the customer’s tank by gravity.

As the volume of gasoline sold increased, the calibrated glass dispensing method became too slow. Dayton Pump introduced the first metering pump around 1921 (Hey! That’s about when Grandpa started working there! But I don’t know if he worked on the project.) The new pump had a small glass globe with a spinning turbine inside. This glass replaced the measuring cylinder on the old style pump and assured the customer that gasoline was really flowing into their tank.

Up until 1923 or so, all gasoline was clear and sold with no additives. The lack of additives, however, allowed the gas to pre-ignite in the cylinder and caused “pinging” and engine damage. Tetraethyl Lead was found to eliminate engine pinging and gas stations began selling two types of gas; white gas (the old style) and Ethyl (the new additive containing gas.) The only problem with lead containing fuels was, the lead eventually coated the inside of the glass flow meter until it was impossible to see the spinning turbine.

Changing out the flow meter was costly (you had to shut down the station) and it required a special technician to do the repair. So, the oil companies insisted that Dayton Pump develop a method of keeping the inside of the flow meter glass clean, which would eliminate the need of shutting down for a replacement. The task was assigned to……….Edward W. Haas; yup, my Grandpa.

Grandpa worked on the project for a couple of months, trying internal brushes, wipers and every other thing he could think of that might work. In those days, Grandpa used to chew gum a lot (that was before the false teeth.) He never went to work without a bag of gumballs in his lunch pail and chewed the stuff constantly. One day, as he was working on the dirty glass project, just for the hell of it, he picked up a handful of gumballs and threw them in the flow meter after removing the turbine. When the pump was started, the gumballs whirled around inside the glass and, until they finally dissolved, scoured the lead off of the inside of the globe. Grandpa had solved the problem.

Thereafter, the little balls in the flow glass were made of Bakelite (it held up a lot better than gumballs.) And, while all rights for the invention belonged to Dayton Pump (that’s just the way it was back then), the company always made the cleaning balls in different colors, in silent recognition of their origin and who discovered their use in keeping the flow glasses clean.

I first heard this story about 25 years ago, long after my grandfather had departed this earth. Those pumps, with rotating balls in the flow meter, were still in use long after I was driving and buying gas. I had watched those whirling balls a thousand times while filling my car’s tank, never knowing that my Grandpa invented them.


One Response to “Grandpa And The Colored Balls”

  1. like my grendpa…ilove you grendpa

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