| Dorchester Illustration of the Day no. 1314
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Samuel Downer, Jr., lived at the corner of Downer Avenue and Pleasant Street. Born in Dorchester in 1807, he spent six years in a shipping house in Boston, and was then received into partnership by his father, a West India merchant. He afterward engaged in the manufacture of sperm oil and candles, and in 1854 directed a series of experiments in producing hydrocarbon oils by distillation from various substances. Prom a kind of bituminous coal known as Albertite he obtained what is now called kerosene. The demand for this oil increased rapidly, and it was obtained from the mineral Albertite until the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1861. Another result of these experiments, made principally by Mr. Joshua Merrill, superintendent of the Downer works, was the discovery in 1869 of "mineral sperm oil," and the company under Mr. Merrill's patents manufactured these and other products of the distillation of crude petroleum.
Herbert Asbury. The Golden Flood: An Informal History of America’s First Oil Field. New York Alfred A. Knopf, 1942.
Hundreds of laymen and scientists searched for the great desideratum of the nineteenth century—a safe, efficient, and reasonably priced illuminant. An artificial light that would dispel the gloom of darkness and permit Americans to work and play at night had become a necessity in every phase of the national life; it was needed in the trains that had begun to run at night, in the steamboats which crowded the rivers, in the horse-cars and stagecoaches, in the factories and the store, and above all in the home.
There were bountiful stocks of whale oil, but whale oil was unsatisfactory unless refined, and when refined, it was very expensive. High prices and scarcity of supply also prevented the widespread use of lard oil, produced principally by the meatpacking plants at Cincinnati.
There were many chemical “burning fluids” on the market, but most of them were expensive, and all were unsafe. The cheapest was camphene, composed of ether, alcohol, p. 33 and rectified oil of terpentine. It was also the most dangerous. The great majority of Americans lighted their homes and places of business with the humble tallow candle.
Many of the nineteenth-century experimenters who attempted to solve the world’s lighting and lubricating problems made exhaustive inquiries into the possibilities of coal tar and asphalt as sources of oil, procuring enormous supplies of the latter from the great asphalt lake on the island of Trinidad. The most successful producer of oil from these substances was the Downer Company, founded in the late 1830’s by Samuel L. Downer, son of a Boston merchant. For a decade and half Downer was engaged exclusively in the manufacture of candles, and of lard, whale, and sperm oil for lubricating purposes. About 1852 he acquired the rights to “Coup Oil,” a lubricator distilled by the chemist Luther Atwood from coal tar, which was extensively used by railroads and cotton mills for several years. On his return from England late in 1856, Atwood showed Downer some of the water-white illuminating oil which he had produced from James Young’s brown naphtha, but Downer refused to hear anything about it. “Illuminating oil doesn’t amount to anything,” he said. “You can never replace or displace the lard or whale-oil lamp; they are the articles for illuminating purposes.
However, Downer soon changed his mind. Less than a year later he was manufacturing an illumination oil from Trinidad asphalt, using a process devised by Luther Atwood and his brother William. But supplies of the raw material were uncertain, and in 1857 Downer erected a $150,000 plant at Boston, and a smaller on at Portland, Maine, and began manufacturing huge quantities of illuminating oil from a bituminous coal called albertite, found principally in Albert County, New Brunswick. P. 34 At first the Downer Company had considerable difficulty in disposing of the new illuminant, and on September 1, 1858, two hundred thousand gallons had accumulated in the company’s storage tanks; as the superintendent of the plant, Joshua Merrill, once put it: “Mr. Downer became somewhat apprehensive that he had overstepped the bounds of prudence.” But a sudden demand for the oil was created by the appearance of improved lamps in the market, and particularly by the introduction of the famous Vienna burner from Austria. Downer’s surplus stocks began to move late in October 1858, and by the first of the following year his tanks were empty and he was selling as much oil as he could produce.
The Downer Company was not the first to manufacture coal oil in this country, but it was the first to engage in the business on a large scale. The great success of its operatons resulted immediately in the erection of many new refineries, and by the middle of 1860 fifty-three were in operation.
A few employed methods of refining devised by Abraham Gesner, a Canadian chemist and geologist. He transferred the patent rights to the North American Kerosene Gaslight Company, which operated an oil and gas works on Newtown Creek, Long Island. Gesner had originally called his oil “keroselain,” from two Greek words meaning oil and wax, but when he obtained his patents he registered as a trademark the word “kerosene.” For several years only the North American Company and the Downer Company, to which Gesner had granted the right because of Luther Atwood’s association with Downer, were permitted to call their oil “kerosene.” In time, however, the word became the generic term for illuminating oils manufactured from both coal and petroleum.
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Created: June 2, 2010 Modified: June 2, 2010