Gasoline: A Unit Study

Gasoline: A Unit Study
Gasoline: A Unit Study

Gasoline is a necessity required by cars, generators, mowers — anything that requires an engine to operate. We dispense gas as a matter of course, but what goes on behind the scenes is a matter of more importance and interest than perhaps one might think.

The First Gasoline Pump

The first gas pump was sold on September 5, 1885, by Sylvanus F. Bowser in Fort Wayne, Indiana. This pump was not for automobiles at all, but rather for filling kerosene lamps and stoves. In 1905, Bowser added safety features and a nozzle, and by inserting gasoline into his pump, he had a automobile fuel pump, the predecessor to today’s gas pumps.

Gasoline: A Unit Study

Most early gas pumps pumped the gasoline into a incremented glass cylinder, the increments indicating how much fuel was going to be dispensed. Once the cylinder was filled, the fuel in it was released by gravity into the car’s fuel tank. Eventually, the ability to see the fuel poured into the car was removed, and the gas was pumped directly into the vehicle without any prior ceremony.

What is Gasoline?

What exactly is gasoline? Gasoline is a highly volatile liquid. Interestingly, the liquid itself is not explosive; the vapors are what explode. Gasoline comes from crude oil, which is a fossil fuel. Crude oil, originally, was skimmed off of water to be used as a lubricant. However, when the ability to obtain it in quantity was discovered in 1859 by Edwin Drake, more extensive use was found for crude oil.

In the early days of the oil industry, the crude oil was converted into kerosene. In refining kerosene, gasoline was also produced. However, it was very quickly concluded that gasoline would certainly not be useful in a kerosene lamp as the vapors had a rather explosive nature. While in these days we would cringe at the thought, for several decades the gasoline produced was merely discarded.

Fuel for the Internal Combustion Engine

It was when the internal combustion engine was produced that gasoline found its real use. With its energy-efficient performance, it was ideal for use in car engines. A car engine relies on the rapid burning of gasoline vapors to push a piston up and down, turning that motion into a rotary motion by means of a crankshaft. The gasoline-powered internal combustion engine replaced steam engines for use, as it could produce much more energy than a steam engine, and was in some aspects safer, not having a high-pressure boiler.

The Role of Octane

Of course, as you’ve probably guessed by now, it isn’t as simple as throwing gasoline into your car and driving away. Octane level plays a major factor. Gasoline, in a pure form, when compressed by the car’s piston can spontaneously ignite due to the pressure increase. This igniting at the wrong time, which is called “knocking,” can be detrimental to the engine, as well as annoying because of the pinging noises the engine produces. To prevent knocking an octane is added to the fuel. Octane increases the pressure required for the fuel to spontaneously ignite.

Originally, a lead compound was added to the fuel as an octane. Obviously, the lead must go somewhere — it accumulates in the engine and is expelled through the exhaust. Needless to say, this mass spreading of lead was considered undesirable at best, and instead manufacturers switched to the less harmful unleaded gasoline. Unleaded fuel is very highly refined, reducing the need for additives. These days alcohol is added to the fuel to act as an octane, although further refinement renders it less necessary. The alcohol used is derived from plants and goes under the name of ethanol.

Further Investigation

First Gas Pump and Service Station
Background, photos, and illustrations (perfect for notebook) at the American Oil and Gas Historical Society.

Sylvanus Bowser
Biography from the Ft. Wayne Historical Society.

How Gasoline is Made
Great concise information at

Fun Oil Facts for Kids
Just the facts at

Oil (Petroleum) Timeline
Great timeline from the U.S. Energy Information Administration of the use of oil as fuel from its use in Mesopotamia to the Deep Water Horizon explosion in 2010.

From a health safety perspective.

Preventing Gasoline Burn Injuries
Facts and prevention information.


Animated Look at a Drop of Gasoline
“Down the Trail” is an interesting animated look at what happens to a drop of gasoline as it works its way from the gasoline tank to do its job in making the car go. (You may want to install an ad blocker before viewing.)

How to Pump Gas
These days this is one of those skills young people need to learn!

Gas Price Math
Comparing gasoline prices.


“A Story that Makes You Take a New Grip On Yourself”
Article appearing on Sylvanus Bowser appearing in an old edition of American Magazine.

Gasoline Characteristics
An easy-to-read 1916 thesis in the public domain.

Unit Studies & Lesson Plans

Charting Historical Gas Prices
Math and statistics lesson plan from

The Price of Gasoline: What’s Behind It
Research and find the answers at

Why Do Gasoline Prices React to Things That Have Not Happened?
A look at gasoline supply and demand for older students from the St. Louis Federal Reserve.

Printables & Notebooking Pages

Oil Refinery Diagram
Extensive flowchart for notebook.

Gasoline Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.

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