In parts of Australia, gas pumps are known colloquially as petrol bowsers. In England, Bowsers refer to large mobile water tanks. Bowsers can also refer to aircraft fuel tankers, army fuel tankers, seaplane refueling boats and vehicles that transport fuel for construction equipment, including excavators and bulldozers.
In all cases, the source of the name is Sylvanus F. Bowser, an inventor from Indiana.
Sylvanus Freelove Bowser was born August 8th, 1854 in Fort Wayne, and was the first person to build and sell gasoline pumps. Bowser’s first pump was sold in 1885 as a dispenser to re-fill kerosene lamps, but by the early 20th century, he was altering his invention to accommodate the automobile.
In 1905, Bowser added a dedicated hose and adopted various safety measures, rebranding his invention as the “Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pump”.
The Self Measuring Gasoline Storage Pump consisted of a 50-gallon storage tank, a wooden cabinet, a manual suction pump and a flexible hose. The contraption was typically set out on the curb in front of a store.
The invention proved successful, and Bowser formed a company. S.F. Bowser & Co opened branches across the country and later throughout the world. Like Kleenex and Coke, Bowser’s brand became synonymous with his product.
For a number of years, “Bowser” was used to describe any vertical gasoline pump. Although the term is no longer used in the United States, as mentioned earlier, it is still common in Australia and New Zealand.
Bowser died in 1938, having lived long enough to see his invention grow successful, but not quite long enough to see just how dependent the country would become on the automobile (and gasoline pump) in the post war era.
In 1969, the company was taken over by the Keene Corporation, an insulation manufacturer from Tennessee. In the 1970’s, Keene divested the oil purification side of their business and began trading under the name Enervac.
Today, on top of the over 100,000 gas stations in the United States that serve as a reminder of Bowser’s invention, there is a Bowser Street in Fort Wayne that pays homage to this ingenious Hoosier inventor.
Michigan may be home to the automobile, but it wouldn’t have gotten far without Indiana’s own self-measuring gasoline storage pump.