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The Myth that Kerosene was Invented in New Brunswick

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From the blog at https://johnwood1946.wordpress.com

The Life of Abraham Gesner

or

The Myth that Kerosene was Invented in New Brunswick

 Abraham Gesner 2

 Abraham Gesner

From the New Brunswick Museum, via gnb.ca

Abraham Gesner was a seaman, a medical doctor, a geologist, an archaeologist, a farmer, a chemist, an inventor, a businessman and an author. He had a few interests which he enjoyed more than his medical profession, and so he pursued those interests as his life’s passion. He was self-taught in the areas in which he was most interested, and there were failures along the way. He also came home saying ‘Hi honey, we’re moving’ more often than is recommended. It was unlikely that such a man could have succeeded, but he become famous and is still recognized as a pioneer in the petroleum refining industry.

Gesner was born on May 2, 1797 in Cornwallis Township, Nova Scotia, and received an unremarkable Grammar School education. He went to sea in about 1818 as part of a venture to ship horses to the West Indies. He was shipwrecked twice, however, and the business did not succeed.

He wanted to marry Harriet Webster, but they say that her father Isaac would not approve unless Abraham studied medicine. Whether this is true, or not, he did marry Harriet in 1824 and then proceeded to London with Isaac’s financial support to study medicine at Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital and surgery at Guy’s Hospital. He also studied chemistry and geology in his spare time in London, and attended lectures by Charles Lyell. His association with Lyell continued, and he acted as his guide to geological sites when he visited Nova Scotia in 1842.

Upon his return from London, Abraham set up a medical practice in Parrsboro on the Minas Basin. This place was not chosen for its attractions as a business location for a doctor, but because of the nearby geological riches. Travelling about the countryside visiting patients, he would return home with rock samples, which indicated his real interests. Today, Parrsboro is the site of the Fundy Geological Museum.

Gesner’s travels and observations were remarkable enough that he published Remarks on the Geology and Mineralogy of Nova Scotia in 1836. The following year he was searching out coal deposits in New Brunswick, and with this background he was invited in 1838 to become New Brunswick’s Provincial Geologist. His mission was to prepare a report on the geology and mineralogy of that province. It was at this point, 1838, that he and his family moved to Saint John.

Abraham Gesner spent the years1838 to 1843 travelling throughout New Brunswick on geological expeditions, and compiling his findings. Some of his work would not stand up to critical review today, but it was of a high quality by the standards of the time. It was of more immediate significance, however, that prospectors and developers were attracted to some of his geological sites only to discover that the deposits were either too small, or remote, or of such poor quality or quantity to mine. This generated criticism and by 1841 he obtained a mortgage and bought his father’s farm in Chipman Corner. The next year the New Brunswick government refused to renew his contract and his work in the field and in compiling reports was only continued into 1843 with special authorization from the Lieutenant Governor.

Gesner was in financial straights after he bought his father’s farm with a mortgage, and at about the same time as his contract was not being renewed. So, in 1842, he established a museum named Gesner’s Museum of Natural History in Saint John as a commercial venture. The museum included his collection and maybe a few donations from others. There were 1,051 mineral samples; 212 fossils; 12 corals; 103 shells; 7 fish; 12 reptiles; 185 birds; 40 mammals; 14 Indian relics (tools, cooking pots of stone and copper, grave clothes); and 48 miscellaneous items. The museum opened in April 5, 1842 and almost immediately failed financially. The collections were then bought by a group who donated them to the Mechanics’ Institute. Later they were put into storage and in 1890 they were donated to the Natural History Society of New Brunswick. It is not correct, as is sometimes reported, that the New Brunswick Museum was established as a result of this donation. That museum had been in existence for twenty years by that time.

All reports of this museum stress that there were Indian assistants who helped to arrange the animal specimens in authentic postures. The sources also stress that Gesner’s many field trips were with the assistance of Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik guides with whom he had a good relationship.

Gesner left Saint John in 1843 and returned to Cornwallis Township to farm and to practice medicine and to conduct scientific experiments. It was a while before he turned to experiments on petroleum, and in the meantime he worked on a broad range of subjects involving electricity. In around 1846, however, he started working with a naturally occurring pitch from Trinidad and was able to produce a lamp oil which was suitable for the latest in lighting technology, the argand lamp. This was a lamp which burned very efficiently, having a cylindrical wick with gas circulating both inside the cylinder and around the outside edge. This work on Trinidad pitch was carried out either in Nova Scotia, or in Prince Edward Island which had engaged him as their geologist.

He was also able to refine petroleum products from coals, and from a mineral found in Albert County, New Brunswick, called Albert coal, or Albertite. He was at pains to explain that the so-called Albert coal was not actual coal but solidified natural asphalt. It was “extremely brilliant, breaks with a conchoidal fracture, does not soil the fingers and is strongly electric. It melts and drops in the flame of a candle, and dissolves in naphtha and other solvents, forming a varnish. It has all the essential properties of asphaltum, while it is void of those which constitute true coal.” Furthermore, it was from an “injected vein, situated almost vertically in the earth … It is associated with rocks highly charged with bitumen, and has neither roof, floor, under-clay, nor stratum of stigmaria, nor other accompaniments which distinguish coal deposits from all others….”1

This was the first time that petroleum products had been refined from mineral deposits in North America and built upon work by others going back into the 1780s. Gesner demonstrated his techniques at public presentations in Prince Edward Island in 1846 and later in Halifax. By 1850, he had established the Kerosene Gaslight Company and installed street lighting in Halifax and other cities.

His refining technique was to use a ‘retort’, a laboratory device to distil natural materials into their several components. If coal was placed in the retort “with a condensing apparatus attached, and heat be gently and gradually applied thereto, the first result will be the escape of water in the form of vapor, or steam, and frequently mixed with an extremely light, volatile, and inflammable hydro-carbon, which is but partially condensable into a spirit, or oil… Then as the heat is increased a series of oils of different specific gravities are condensed, the lightest or first distilled having the character of a spirit rather than an oil; finally, when the heat has been raised to 750° or 800° Fah., gas, free carbon, and a number of pyrogenous substances appear… Usually in proper retorts the oils will all distil over at a temperature of 750° Fah. A higher degree of heat produces permanent gases from any volatile matter that may remain in the charge.” 2

The reason that Gesner is so consistently credited with the production of kerosene, which he named in 1854, is that it was such a useful and popular product for oil lamps, and replaced whale oil for that purpose. It would be better, today, to note all of the other hydrocarbons that he also extracted from natural sources and to call him a father of the modern petroleum refining industry.

Gesner wrote New Brunswick with Notes for Emigrants and another book about Nova Scotia, in 1847. Several excerpts from the Emigrants book appeared in this blog in 2011, including one about an Indian burial ground; another about the upper Oromocto River in 1847; and a couple more.

Also in 1847, he was appointed Commissioner to the Indians in Nova Scotia, and a year or so later he sold the farm in Chipman Corner back to his father and moved first to Sackville and then to Halifax.

While in Halifax, Abraham Gesner met the elderly Thomas Cochrane, the 10th Earl of Dundonald, who had similar interests as his in lighting technology. With this encouragement, Gesner sought mining rights for the albertite deposits of Albert County, N.B., but was thrown off the property by William Cairns who held the rights to mine coal in that area. A court in Halifax ruled that the albertite asphalt deposits were not, in fact, coal, and Gesner was again in a position to exploit the resource. There was a second court case held in the same year, 1852, in Albert County, however, and the question of whether albertite was or was not coal was re-examined. It was determined that Cochrane’s lease included coal and ‘other minerals’, and the jury found in Cochrane’s favour. They also found that albertite was coal.

The New Brunswick plans were in ruins, and in 1853 or 1854 Gesner went to Long Island, New York, and established the Asphalt Mining and Kerosene Gas Company which was later renamed the North American Kerosene Gas Light Company and produced kerosene from coals and oil shales. Also in 1854 he patented kerosene in the United States, discovering later that he had infringed upon an 1852 patent belonging to a James Young. Thereafter, Gesner was forced to pay royalties to Young. Oil was discovered in the U.S. later in the 1850’s and making the more expensive refinement of mineral deposits antique.

Gesner had ultimately done well in life but was, once again, at a turning point. In 1861 he wrote his A Practical Treatise on Coal, Petroleum and other Distilled Oils, which established him as the authority on petroleum refining. The North American Kerosene Gas Light Company was then sold to John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and Gesner practiced medicine in New York.

Gesner returned to Halifax in 1863 and was named Professor of Natural History at Dalhousie University. He died there, in Halifax, the following year and was buried at Camp Hill Cemetery. Imperial Oil erected a memorial at Camp Hill to his memory.

— – — – — – — – — – — – — – — – — – — – —

And finally, to the question of why the invention of kerosene in New Brunswick is a myth. The following are noted:

  1. Kerosene was distilled, or extracted, or refined from minerals containing petroleum. It was pre-existing and was not ‘invented.’
  2. Kerosene was not invented, if that is the preferred term, in New Brunswick. It was invented in Nova Scotia or Prince Edward Island.
  3. The idea that kerosene was invented in New Brunswick grows out of the history of albertite. Abraham Gesner was prevented from mining albertite in New Brunswick, and it is not appropriate after this unpleasant experience to claim that N.B. was in any way involved in the ‘invention’.

Notes:

  1. Practical Treatise, pages 21, 22 (both quotes).
  2. Practical Treatise, pages 16, 17

References:

  1. Anon., Synopsis of the Contents of Gesner’s Museum of Natural History, Saint John, N.B., 1842.
  2. Black, David W., Department of Anthropology, UNB–Fredericton, Pioneers of New Brunswick Archaeology II: Abraham Gesner, from http://www.unb.ca/fredericton/arts/departments/anthropology/pdfs/dwblack/gesner.pdf.
  3. Gesner, Abraham, A Practical Treatise on Coal, Petroleum and other Distilled Oils, New York, 1861.
  4. Gesner, G.W., Biographical Sketch of Dr. Abraham Gesner, Saint John, N.B., 1896; reprinted from Bulletin No. XIV of the Natural History Society of New Brunswick, 1896.
  5. Russell, Loris S., Abraham Gesner, in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
  6. Wikipedia, Abraham Pineo Gesner.
  7. Wikipedia, Kerosene.
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Written by johnwood1946

May 7, 2014 at 10:09 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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