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An Overview of Sylvanus Freelove Bowser’s Early Gas Pumps

Soon after as the automobile came into use there was a need to find a safe and efficient means of handling the sale and transfer of gasoline to the motorist’s car. Inventors stepped in to fill the need, and by the 1920s the visible glass-cylinder pumps as seen at H.A. Rose’s store and filling station (above) in Jackson, Pennsylvania were in use across the land.

But the origins of fuel dispensing systems go back much further in time to one of the first storage and pumping units that were invented and patented by Sylvanus Freelove Bowser in the late 1800s. While there were many gasoline pumps designed and produced by others, the rest of this post uses only patent drawings, advertisements and photos of S.F. Bowser & Co. pumps to illustrate the progression of his designs.

Old Bowser Gasoline pump

The first pump by Bowser’s was his patented (1887) kerosene pump he manufactured and sold to store owners for dispensing the fuel. At the time, it was an important commodity used for lighting and other purposes. The counter top unit was used to fill a container for the customer.

Old Bowser Gasoline pump

Sensing the opportunity to not only sell pump units for kerosene, but also gasoline for the horseless carriages that were just being developed and brought to market, Bowser took his designs further. This is of the first of several of his rack and pinion operated self-measuring pump designs that was patented on February 19, 1895. You can see one of his later and more advanced designs of this type that was patented in 1915 here.

Old Bowser Gasoline pump

As seen in this advertisement in The Automobile, December 6, 1902 issue, S.F. Bowser& Co. was not only offering pump designs, but also a complete system for use in the car owner’s carriage house. The buried outside tank supplied fuel to the indoor pump.

Old Bowser Gasoline pump

By the mid-teens, Bowser’s first hand-cranked style of pump was still being used but the design had progressed to include a sediment chamber, hose and nozzle for filling gasoline tanks directly. At the same time the more advanced Red Sentry unit, illustrated in the upper left-hand corner (above) was offered and became popular for use at garages and gas stations. Found in the Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal, June 1914.

Old Bowser Gasoline pump

The Red Sentry unit was further improved upon and later offered as the Chief Sentry. This design illustrated in the Automotive Trade Journal, September 1921 issue, shows a more advanced style of a mechanical pump. The new design used a combination cover and column with a lighted glass globe on top, which lowered over the mechanism when not in use.

Old Bowser Gasoline pump

A Bowser Chief Sentry unit minus its globe can be seen at a Penn Oil Co. station in this image, courtesy of Shorpy taken in Washington, D.C. in 1920. The car at the pump is a Studebaker.

Old Bowser Gasoline pump

An automatic shut-off nozzle patented by Bowser on February 11, 1921, helped to prevent spills.

Old Bowser Gasoline pump

Above is one of the Bowser Visible-Style gas pumps that continued to be used for decades, even after the advent of the motor driven automatic pump. The gasoline was pumped up into the mesh-covered glass cylinder (#82) by operating the pump handle (#89). After the desired amount of gas was pumped up to the cylinder gallon markers (#83), the switch lever (#170) was actuated which allowed the fuel to flow through a hose to the cars gas tank. More details of its construction can be found it its March 18, 1929, patent application. 

You can view many more old gasoline station related posts here on The Old Motor. 

8 responses to “An Overview of Sylvanus Freelove Bowser’s Early Gas Pumps

  1. Do you suppose the panels hanging from the roller track on the side of Mr. Rose’s building slid around covering the glass windows for security ?

    My sympathies to the sign painter who had to do all that lettering on corrugated walls.

  2. I’d wondered why a fuel truck is, or was, called a “Bowser” in the Royal Air Force.
    Mystery solved.
    Very interesting history, glad I “happened onto” it.

  3. Very interesting article, the referance to a fuel dispencer as a Bowser now makes sence.

    What brought me to this article is that I have found a BOWSER pump which was removed many years ago from a linen mill and I am trying to find information on this particular pump. Its serial # W 7598.

  4. I have a Bowser Long Distance Pump No. 24244 that has been laying outside for
    70? Years. The exterior is in fair condition. I too am looking for information on this pump.

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