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Propane History

Dr. Walter O. Snelling
Dr. Walter O. Snelling
In Washington, D.C., a young man to become a founder of the LP-Gas industry was fascinated by quite another challenge. Walter O. Snelling, a doctor of chemistry who had received degrees from Harvard, Yale, and George Washington universities was trying, on his own volition in his US Geological Survey job, to develop an underwater detonator for explosives. In 1907 he obtained the use of laboratory space at George Washington University. In a water-filled pipe outside this laboratory window, Snelling tested the detonators he made for underwater blasting necessary in construction of the Panama Canal. The device he produced was credited with saving the government half a million dollars a year in carving the "Big Ditch" from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The following year Snelling and others on the staff moved to Pittsburgh to set up the office that later became the U.S. Bureau of Mines. From this government project came several other men who would play prominent parts in the LP-Gas story. Snelling obtained employment in the Bureau of Mines for a young college graduate named George A. Burrell who was later to become a leading authority on natural gas and allied subjects. Burrell later brought into the department George G. Oberfell, who also contributed greatly to the liquid and gaseous petroleum fuels industry. And the petroleum department head, Irving C. Allen, later pooled efforts with Burrell to publish in 1912 the first extensive government report on the various fuel gases then known.

Into Dr. Snelling's office in 1910 walked a Pittsburgh motor car owner who complained that the gasoline he purchased was evaporating at a rapid and expensive rate. He thought the government should look into the nature of those disappearing fumes. The young chemist soon realized that gases were escaping from the liquid gasoline because the stopper was repeatedly blown from the mouth of the bottle. Experimenting with the fuel and checking the nature of its components, Dr. Snelling realized he had butane, propane and other hydrocarbons to deal with.

Since there were no facilities for preparing the various fractions of his sample fuel, Dr. Snelling, having mechanical as well as chemical skills, set about building a distilling apparatus. Using coils from an old hot water heater and pieces of laboratory equipment, he built a still that could separate or fractionate the "wild gasoline" into its liquid and gaseous components. His work became the basis of one of the two major patented inventions that contributed greatly to the early development of LP-Gas.

On June 6, 1911, Dr. Snelling gave the U.S. Bureau of Mines a full report on his work. On June 12, he put in written form the necessary information about his LP-Gas temperature-pressure methods of distillation that would be required for a patent.

Dr. Snelling's first gas may have been truly the first "bottled gas" because the container he had in his laboratory was a wire-enmeshed glass soda water "squirt" bottle. Later he obtained a German made steel cylinder that enabled him to transport the new fuel easily for demonstration purposes such as lighting gas lamps, fueling hot plates for cooking and performing a variety of metal working jobs.

In October 1911, the dream of an LP-Gas business began to solidify into reality. On October 10, Snelling asked his attorney, C. L. Kerr, to draw up the necessary papers to incorporate the world's first LP-Gas company. Snelling offered to underwrite all the expenses of the new venture during its formative period. On Nov. 11, 1911, American Gasol Co. was incorporated under the laws of West Virginia. Consisting of little more than a very thin shoestring of initial patents, a small shop in Pittsburgh at #75 on 43rd Street and a small LP-Gas demonstration apparatus, the emergence of the American LP-Gas industry had begun.

1913 Dr. Snelling sold his propane patent (#1,056,845, issued Mar. 25, 1913) for $50,000 to Frank Phillips, the founder of Phillips Petroleum Company.

1918 The first propane fueled blowtorch was invented.

1922 National propane sales totaled 223,000 gallons.

1925 Propane sales reached more than 400,000 gallons

1927 The Tappan Stove Company began producing gas ranges.

1928 The first propane bobtail truck and propane refrigerator was built

1929 National sales totaled more than 10 million gallons.

1932 The 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles used propane in all cooking and water heating facilities.

1933 Propane odorant was developed to promote easier leak detection.

1934 Industrial growth in the US had now propelled national sales to 56 million gallons

1936 Twenty pound (BBQ) cylinders were first introduced to enhance portability.

1945 With the end of World War II, great industrial growth had now resulted in propane sales in excess of 1 billion gallons.

1947 62% of US homes now equipped with LPG ranges; the first propane clothes dryer was invented, and the first oceangoing propane tanker was placed in service.

1950 The Chicago Transit Authority ordered 1,000 propane powered buses while Milwaukee converted 270 taxies to operate on propane.

1958 National propane sales reached 7 billion gallons.

1963 The first 50,000 gallon tank car was built and hot-air balloons began using propane.

1965 Chevrolet introduced four new truck engines designed for propane.

1973 Propane price controls were instituted in the wake of the Arab oil embargo. The propane industry trade association, now called the National Propane Association, opened its first Washington D.C. office.

1977 The U.S. Department of Energy was established, and the Federal Energy Administration (FEA) began investigating propane pricing practices, which were then controlled by the U.S. government.

1981 President Reagan eliminated price controls on propane, gasoline and crude oil.

1990 Propane was listed as an approved alternative clean fuel in the 1990 Clean Air Act .

2000's Propane had now emerged to a $30 billion industry in the United States with consumption exceeding 15 billion gallons annually.

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