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The Technological Science of Kerosene The business of manufacturing coal oils and the various products of the distillation of coals, is one of great magnitude in this country , as well as in other parts of the world. Although, comparatively speaking, it is a new branch of enterprise, much capital has been invested in it, and we regret to say, many have unwisely entered into the business in entire ignorance of its first principles, and thus large sums of money have been irretrievably lost, and their unfortunate owners ruined. This work of Dr. Gesner’s is a valuable contribution to technological science. —American Gas-Light Journal, 15 December 1860 In a review of Abraham Gesner’s latest book, Practical Treatise on Coal, Petroleum, and Other Distilled Oils (1860),1 the use of the term “technological science” was both apt and revealing, for it described Gesner’s ability to explain the chemistry and geology of coal as well as the processes for manufacturing coal oil. Gesner had firsthand experience of this intricate working relationship; he was a founder of the North American Kerosene and Gas-Light Company, the consulting chemist at the oil works,and the patentee of Kerosene,the most popular coal oil in America in 1860. Gesner’s book thus offered an insider’s account of a rapidly growing business and an autobiography of a successful scientific entrepreneur . Coal oil was a new midcentury industry relying on the knowledge of men of science and the know-how of practical men. It exemplified the raveling of science and technology. Historians, however, have struggled for years to disentangle the two, and in ingenious ways they have attempted to define or distinguish the one from the other. At the same time, they have also argued against trying to fix such categories. Technology and science need to be treated together in 143 CHAPTER 5 their particular times and places.2 A study of coal oil can shed light on this enduring scholarly debate by pursuing the multiple meanings of “technological science” in mid-nineteenth-century America. As the first manufactured mineral oil,“oil-from-coal” was both a new commercial product and a well-tested result of ongoing scientific research. Geologists and chemists were actively involved in locating and evaluating the best kinds of coal, in developing techniques for distilling and refining oils, and in testing their quality and safety. Men of science helped build competitors to Gesner ’s Kerosene Oil Company and, in the process, extended the practice of consulting . But they were not the only coal oil experts. Companies also relied on “practical men,” most often chemists or engineers with experience in gasworks or chemical firms, who for specific reasons (usually lack of publication and research ) did not have reputations within the self-defined scientific community. Still, other businesses took to (or were taken in by) less-than-honest and notso -knowledgeable “coal-oil men.” These charlatans exploited the very newness of coal oil and the unfamiliarity of its technological science. In effect, a marketplace of expertise sprang up alongside the burgeoning business in coal oils. By the time Gesner published his book, coal oil manufacturing and marketing were national in scale and immensely profitable.3 Coal oils replaced whale oil (and all other animal and vegetable oils) as the dominant lamp oil in America . They also served as durable and reliable lubricants that literally greased the wheels (and other metal parts) of American mechanization. How coal oils “increased with such rapidity” was a subject Scientific American thought worthwhile of investigation, for “their development appears to be something like a phenomenon.”4 Others referred to the progress and promise of coal oils as a “mania,”“fever,” or “El Dorado.”5 Taking a glance at this Kerosene boom is one way of tracing the cutting edge of midcentury technological science. Inventing Kerosene The supreme courts of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had quashed Gesner’s commercial aspirations in British North America. So he decided to take his plans and patents for Kerosene gas and move to NewYork City,where he arrived with his wife and five sons in early 1853.6 Besides its familiarity, the city had an attractive market in gas lighting. Philadelphia, the other city Gesner visited in 1850, had a gasworks that was owned and managed by the city (a municipal monopoly much like that in Halifax). In the NewYork City area, private joint-stock companies supplied the...


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