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Abraham Gesner, 1797-1864


Abraham Gesner was born on May 2, 1797, in Cornwallis Township, Nova Scotia, the third son of Colonel Henry Gesner and Sara Pineo.


Although Abraham's passion appeared to be geology, he studied to be a doctor in England at the request (and with the sponsorship) of his future father-in-law before settling in Parrsboro, on the north side of Minas Basin, where he opened a practice. He deliberately chose Parrsboro because it lies in an area rich in mineral occurrences and curious geological features. As he made his visits to patients, either on foot or on horseback, he recorded observations and gathered specimens.


In 1836, he wrote his first book, Remarks on the geology and mineralogy of Nova Scotia (Halifax). The following year, he was asked to examine certain areas in New Brunswick for coal and, for the next five years, worked as New Brunswick's provincial geologist. Gesner wound up his affairs in Saint John in 1843 and returned to Cornwallis Township to settle down as a farmer and general practitioner, and had he been willing to confine his restless intellect to farming and "doctoring," he might have prospered in them. Instead, he spent much of his time, and no doubt some of his small income, on scientific experiments. These led him, in 1846 (or perhaps earlier) to the investigation of hydrocarbons.


During earlier voyages to the West Indies, he had probably seen the great pitch lake of Trinidad, and he stated in later years that it was with material from there that he began his experiments. By means of a specially designed retort, he was able to distill this bitumen and obtain, among other products, a light oil that could be used much more effectively than sperm whale oil in Argand lamps, the last word in domestic illumination at that time. In 1846, the government of Prince Edward Island invited Gesner to make a geological survey of that province. He accepted and, in addition to his fieldwork, undertook a series of public lectures in Charlottetown. According to Gesner's own account, it was at one of these lectures in August 1846 that he gave the first public demonstration of the preparation and use of the new lamp fuel. His audience was enthusiastic, but unaware that they were witnessing the birth of the petroleum refining industry.


In 1848, Gesner moved to Sackville, a village north of Halifax, and two years later moved to Halifax, where he made the acquaintance of Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, who-at the age of 75, after an incredible career as a naval warrior-was commander-in-chief of the North American and West Indian station of the Royal Navy. Dundonald had long been interested in the improvement of illumination, and had acquired control of the Trinidad bitumen deposits in the hope of exploiting them for fuel. With Dundonald's encouragement and probable participation, Gesner resumed his experiments with the hydrocarbon lamp fuel.


Gesner had been trying to organize a company to manufacture and sell the new lamp fuel. One of his first actions, around 1850 or so, was to coin a name for it. As one residue of the distillation was a kind of wax, Gesner decided to call his lamp fuel wax-oil, and combining the Greek words for wax and oil came up with "keroselain" and "keroselene" before finally settling on kerosene as neater and more analogous with such established names as benzene and camphene.


Lack of interest in Halifax must have finally convinced Gesner that the future of kerosene was elsewhere. In 1853, he moved to New York City, and with the participation of Horatio Eagles, Erastus W. Smith, Philo T. Ruggles, and others formed the Asphalt Mining and Kerosene Gas Company.


In June 1854, Gesner obtained U.S. patent numbers 11,203, 11,204, and 11,205 for "improvement in kerosene burning fluids." The three patents are essentially the same in text, but cover respectively what Gesner called "A," "C," and "B" kerosene. Under Gesner's guidance, the Asphalt Mining and Kerosene Gas Company set up a factory at Newtown Creek on Long Island, changing its name to the North American Kerosene Gas Light Company.

By 1857, kerosene was being advertised as an illuminant and lubricant throughout the United States and the British American provinces and Gesner's company prospered, allowing him a comfortable life in Brooklyn, where he became a prominent figure in the local church and community.


Unknown to Gesner, however, a Scottish chemist working in England in 1848 had distilled boghead coal to produce a light oil that when purified, made an excellent lamp fuel. He obtained a British patent for "paraffine-oil" in 1850 and an American patent two years later, fully two years before Gesner received his kerosene patents. Gesner's Kerosene Company was eventually forced to pay a royalty to the Scottish chemist to continue manufacturing kerosene.


By 1859, commercial production of petroleum had begun in northwestern Pennsylvania and southern Ontario, and by converting to petroleum as their raw material-a switch made easy by Gesner's flexible design-the kerosene factories were able to produce the illuminant at about one-quarter of its former cost. The age of the kerosene lamp and the petroleum industry was launched but Gesner benefited little. He had made his contribution to refining technology and was replaced as the chemist of the Kerosene Company.


He stayed for a time in Brooklyn, but in 1861 returned to Halifax where he began preparation of the second edition of his landmark textbook, A practical treatise on coal, petroleum and other distilled oils. That edition was published by his son, George Weltden, a year after Abraham's death in April 1864.


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