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The Unlucky Inventor

The oils from different coals require different treatment. The oils of Albert coal (ashphaltum) [New Brunswick, Canada], Boghead coal [Scotland] and Breckenridge coal [Kentucky] are easily purified, while the oils from ordinary American, English and Scotch cannels, require more skill….The author has made more than 2000 experiments in reference to the manufacture and purification of oils distilled from coal.

Abraham Gesner, 1861

Abraham Gesner was not a lucky man. He was born in 1797 on a Nova Scotia farm, his father, a Loyalist refugee, having fled the family farm in New York at the end of the Revolution. Ironically, the father was then granted land in Nova Scotia that had been expropriated from the French-speaking Acadians in 1755 by the British, who questioned their loyalty and believed these ancestors of Louisiana’s Cajuns constituted a threat to their naval base in Halifax.

After a few years as a trader of horses between Nova Scotia and the Caribbean, young Gesner lost everything except his life in a shipwreck. His father-in-law sent him off to London to study medicine and surgery, and he returned to Nova Scotia as a physician. He established a practice in northern Nova Scotia, and soon becoming fascinated by the extensive fossil cliffs at a nearby shore, published a number of observations about the geology of the area These brought him to the attention of British geologists and to the government of neighboring New Brunswick. In 1838, Gesner was attracted to Saint John, then the colony’s capital, by a commission to do a geological survey of the colony. He remained New Brunswick’s geologist until 1843, when local politics and Gesner’s tendency to overstate the value of some of the minerals he discovered led to his dismissal. His lectures and his fossil collection, moreover, invited some public wrath, stinging at least one pious local churchman: 

“I must confess, that I think it highly improper to introduce before a young audience any statement that will weaken faith, or raise even a doubt as to the correctness of our Scripture testimony”.

One of Gesner’s findings was an extensive layer of coal in southeastern New Brunswick, which he suggested might connect to the Nova Scotian fields that constituted an important source of coal for the American east coast at the time. He also noted the existence of a particular variety of bituminous coal that he called the “Albert mineral” in this New Brunswick stratum. Gesner was aware of the possibility that useful products might come from this type of coal, and began experimenting with the extraction of liquids and gas from it. In 1846, he gave a talk about geology to an audience in the neighboring colony of Prince Edward Island, and demonstrated a liquid he had distilled from the coal. The liquid burned with a light more intense than the crowd had ever seen. Gesner later called the liquid kerosene, a word he invented as a marketing tool.

Gesner then tried to get a company established in Halifax to use coal gas for illumination, but failed for want of venture capital. He also lost a legal case over the raw material that produced his kerosene. The case came down to whether the Albert mineral was a “coal” or a “bitumen,” the latter being an oil. The court decided that it was a coal, not an oil, and voided Gesner’s lease in favor of the coal company’s lease. He just couldn’t win.

Gesner decided to try his luck in New York City, moving there in 1852, where he found partners and established a company to produce kerosene from distilled coal oil. The company prospered, as did Gesner, until they found that even though Gesner had anticipated the distilling of oil from coal, “Paraffin” Young’s US patent predated Gesner’s by a short period, so the company was forced to pay royalties to him. 

Gesner was forced out of the business in the late 1850s, while Young’s patent was hedged about by other patents for different processes and productivity upgrades. Then came the discovery of pools of oil around Titusville in 1859, and the production of kerosene from coal gradually became uneconomic, with nearly all coal oil distilleries ceasing production by 1863 in favor of oil-based kerosene. By then Gesner, at sixty-six, had decided to return to Nova Scotia, where he was offered an appointment as the first Professor of Natural History at Dalhousie University. Unlucky again, he died just months before assuming the position. Posthumously, Gesner’s luck never improved: he is largely unknown in his home province, except for a roadside plaque.

Gesner’s contribution, though, was immense. He produced a product based on scientific experimentation, he gave it a name that became a generic term, and he established a viable commercial enterprise, the New York Oil Works, to produce it in quantity. Finally, in 1861 he produced a report on the relative qualities of the various lighting products of his day, including petroleum, that was at least as good as one that had been produced some time before by a famous Yale chemistry professor. Kerosene from coal was cheaper than whale oil, more portable than coal gas, and produced light that was as good as or better than that produced by any of its competitors. In a final twist, Gesner’s kerosene would become a long-lived product, but not as made from coal, as he had championed. Kerosene is the fuel used by commercial jet aircraft. Unlucky again.