Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1060:
GASOLINE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1060.

Today, we remember gasoline. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Our past merges so silently into the present that we forget how much change we've seen. That's because the important part of change occurs on such a subjective level -- the forgotten changes of texture -- of tastes and smells. Today, I caught a whiff from sixty years ago. I read a book that brought back the smell of gasoline!

The title was Gasoline. The book showed the contents of the SIRM Museum in Milan, Italy. The museum celebrates the way we dealt with gasoline in the early days of automobiles. It takes us from the first crude roadside gas pumps before WW-I through the 1960s. We see gas cans, logos, and gasoline paraphernalia.

Suddenly, I remember a childhood suffused in the smell of gasoline. We filled cars with dime-a-gallon gas and slopped the overflow onto the pavement. We loaded five-gallon cans of the stuff into our trunk in case we ran out between towns.

When we sang the song, "La Cucaracha," in my high-school Spanish class, we censored it. "The Cockroach cannot travel on, because he has no marijuana que fumar" -- "no marijuana to smoke" -- became, "The Cockroach cannot travel on because he has no gasolina par andar" -- "no gasoline to use."

I used to bike over to the gas station to buy pints of so-called white gas -- unleaded gas -- for my model airplane motors. I mixed it with motor oil so it would lubricate as it burned. Gasoline was omnipresent. We cleaned things with gasoline, started fires with it. We inhaled the fumes of our new motorized world.

model of an old Conoco pump I'd forgotten all that until I saw this book. The gas pumps of my childhood had big glass containers on top. You filled them with the number of gallons you wanted. You displayed this new essence before you let it gurgle into your tank. By the way, that's exactly what the French call their gasoline -- l'essence.

The book shows containers we used to carry the stuff around. The cans proudly display names like Shell, Pennzoil, Conoco and Standard. Today's pumps hide their essence away. They protect us from sensate exposure -- from spills or smells -- from fire or cancer. They protect us from ourselves.

And so the soft lines of 1920 art noveau pumps gave way to streamlined pumps in the 1930s. Now our pumps look like computer interfaces. "Insert your credit card here." "Make sure the seal is tight before you add fuel."

Now, instead of celebrating the liquid that we all take for granted, gas pumps hide it away. We no longer get in the car smelling of fuel. We live longer. We live safer. We live so far from that rich, unsafe old celebration of our new mobility.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Grassi, D., Bossaglia, R., Fisogni, G., Gasoline. Milan: Electa, 1995.

I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and Architecture Library, for suggesting the subject and making the book, Gasoline, available to me. The name of the museum in Milan, which I referred to by its acronym, SIRM, is Società Italiana Ristrutturazione e Manutenzione.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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