Abraham Gesner and Kerosene

A Nova Scotian likely saved sperm whales from being hunted to extinction by inventing kerosene! Here’s the story:

Abraham Gesner (1797-1864) was from Cornwallis Township in Annapolis County.

He was a medical doctor (because his father-in-law, Dr. Isaac Webster of Kentville, insisted that Gesner study medicine in London as a condition of agreeing to Gesner’s marriage to Webster’s daughter, Harriet).

However, Gesner had a passion for geology and was an inventor and entrepreneur at heart - even though his business ventures generally did not work out well for him. For example, at the age of 21, he tried shipping horses from Nova Scotia to the West Indies, but was twice shipwrecked, once off Bermuda and once off Nova Scotia.

After his studies, Gesner opened a medical practice in Parrsboro, partly to be near its extraordinary geology and mineral occurrences. As he visited patients on foot or horseback, he recorded observations and gathered geological specimens.

In 1836, he wrote his first book, “Remarks on the geology and mineralogy of Nova Scotia.” The following year, he was asked to examine certain areas in New Brunswick for coal and became New Brunswick's provincial geologist, making him the first government geologist in a British colony.

However, Gesner was in financial trouble after losing his job in New Brunswick in 1842, so he opened a museum featuring his extensive collection of minerals and wildlife specimens. Unfortunately, the Gesner Museum was a failure and he ended up worse off financially than he was before.

In 1846, the Government of Prince Edward Island invited Gesner to make a geological survey of that province. At a public lecture in Charlottetown that year, Gesner gave the first public demonstration of an innovation he had been working on: the preparation and use of a new lamp fuel that would eventually lead to the birth of the petroleum refining industry.

In that era, whale oil was used as fuel in lamps but two Nova Scotian entrepreneurs had dreams of replacing it.

Pictou chemist James Fraser mined coal with high oil content in Stellarton and extracted the oil for use in lamps. Fraser’s coal oil innovation was successful but only briefly. The term “coal oil,” popularized by Fraser, would later be used in reference to kerosene because Fraser’s product resembled kerosene and was first to market. (See the story at https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/stellar-coal).

Gesner’s invention allowed a light oil to be refined from bitumen. One residue of Gesner’s distillation was a kind of wax, so he combined the Greek words for wax and oil came up with "keroselain" and "keroselene" before finally settling on kerosene as the product’s name.

Gesner tried to organize a company to manufacture and sell kerosene but lack of interest in Halifax caused him to leave Nova Scotia and head to New York in 1853.

There he and several businessmen formed the Asphalt Mining and Kerosene Gas Company and Gesner served as the company’s chemist. He obtained patents in 1854 and a factory was set up under his guidance on Long Island, New York, to manufacture kerosene, which became a common lighting fuel in homes. This likely saved sperm whales from being hunted to extinction for their oil.

However, in 1848 a Scottish chemist, James Young, had distilled boghead coal to produce a light lubricant. He subsequently found that with purification it served as an excellent lamp fuel. Unaware of Gesner’s earlier discovery, he obtained a British patent in 1850 and an American patent in 1852 for what he called “paraffine-oil.”

In the late 1850s, Young sued Gesner’s company for patent infringement and won, so Gesner’s company had to pay royalties to Young to continue manufacturing lamp fuel.

The final blow came in 1859, when oil was discovered in Pennsylvania, site of the first commercial oil well in the United States. Petroleum was a less expensive raw material than the bitumen Gesner had been using and it lowered the cost of producing kerosene to about one-quarter its former cost. This ought to have been good news for Gesner but instead he was replaced as the chemist of the Kerosene Company and did not reap the rewards of his innovation.

In 1863 he sold his patents and returned to Halifax where he was appointed professor at Dalhousie University. He died the following year, never having made the fortune he deserved.

Kerosene is still widely used today. In many parts of the world, kerosene is a common fuel for heating, cooking and lamps. Standard commercial jet fuel is essentially a high-quality kerosene, and many military jet fuels are blends based on kerosene.

In 1933, Imperial Oil Ltd. built a memorial in Halifax’s Camp Hill Cemetery to pay tribute to Gesner's contribution to the petroleum industry. Canada Post issued a stamp in his honour in 2000.