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