January 2022

100th Anniversary

Industry Pioneers: Up to the 1930s

Carl von Linde was a German scientist and engineer who pioneered new technologies in refrigeration and the invention of air separation and gas liquefaction processes.

Nichols, Lee, Hydrocarbon Processing Staff


Carl von Linde was a German scientist and engineer who pioneered new technologies in refrigeration and the invention of air separation and gas liquefaction processes. In the 1870s, Linde’s studies led to an efficient design for refrigeration. The first iteration used methyl ether, which was later switched to ammonia. Towards the end of the 1870s, Linde and five partners established the Gesellschaft fur Linde’s Eismaschinen (Linde’s Ice Machine Co.) in Wiesbaden, Germany. The novel refrigeration device was of extreme importance, especially to the beer brewing industry, as well as the meat industry and cold storage facilities. These inventions quickly replaced ice in many industries, especially in food handling.

In the early 1890s, Linde research shifted to low-temperature refrigeration and the liquefaction of air. This included the technique of obtaining pure oxygen and nitrogen by fractional distillation of liquefied air. In 1895, he successfully liquefied air by compressing it and then letting it expand rapidly, which cooled it. This enabled him to obtain oxygen and nitrogen from the liquified air by slow warming.1 Several years later, he invented a method for separating pure liquid oxygen from liquid air, which provided oxygen to various industries.2 These discoveries led to the creation of Linde Air Products in the U.S. in 1907, which later became part of the Union Carbide company at the beginning of World War I.3


The Canadian geologist and physician, Abraham Gesner, is credited with the invention of kerosene. In the mid-1830s, he worked as a provincial geologist in New Brunswick, Canada, examining coal in the province. In the 1840s, he began experimenting with hydrocarbons, especially bitumen from Trinidad. From these experiments, he developed a process to extract oil, which could be burned. However, the bitumen product was expensive to obtain and the burning of it produced a horrendous odor. Therefore, he started experimenting with a type of asphalt called albertite. Gessner noticed that the oil that was extracted—the process was done by heating coal in a retort4—burned with a strong yellow flame with no odor.

In 1854, Gesner obtained three U.S. patents for his kerosene fuel and set up the North American Kerosene Gas Light Co. on Long Island, New York (U.S.). The company prospered and kerosene began to be the go-to fuel for lamp lighting, replacing whale oil.


Samuel Kier was an American inventor and is thought of as the founder of the American refining industry. Several years after Gesner’s discovery of kerosene, Samuel Kier began his own experimentation on petroleum that would seep into his family’s salt wells near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (U.S.)—at the time, this substance was known as “carbon oil.” Although the substance could be burned for lighting, much like Gesner’s experiments with bitumen from Trinidad, the unrefined material had an unpleasant odor. Instead, Kier used the material for medicinal purposes until it lost its appeal in the early 1850s.

To find another path for the oily substance, Kier experimented with using the substance for lighting. On the recommendation of James Booth, a chemist and professor from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (U.S.), Kier used distillation to extract the best materials for the use of lamp burning fuel. In 1851, Kier began selling his lamp fuel oil for $1.50/gal, a more cost-effective product than whale oil. As demand grew, Kier established North America’s first oil refinery in 1853, which processed 1 bpd–2 bpd of liquid petroleum in its first year, growing to 5 bpd in 1854. The effects of Kier’s refinery not only led Pittsburgh to become the first U.S. city to be illuminated by petroleum, but also led to the start of the country’s refining industry.


In 1870s, the Samuel brothers inherited their father’s import-export business. At the time, their father (Marcus Samuel) built a prosperous business of importing shells from the Far East to be used in interior design.

Around 1880, the Samuel brothers expanded their father’s business to include exporting oil around the world. However, a challenge at the time was oil containers and space on a marine vessel. Oil barrels were prone to leak and took up a lot of space on oceangoing vessels. To overcome this challenge, they commissioned a fleet of steamers to carry the oil in bulk.5 Just as the brothers were revolutionizing crude oil trade, they began to include shipping kerosene to demand centers around the world. In 1896, the brothers renamed the company Shell Transport and Trading Co.

By the late 1890s, business was booming, and the the company established its first refinery in Balikpapan, Indonesia in 1897 (known as Dutch Borneo at the time). In 1901, Shell Transport and Trading Co. merged with a smaller competitor—Royal Dutch—that had set up a sales organization in Asia. The company took the name the Royal Dutch Shell Group. The company’s operations—drilling, exploration and refining—expanded rapidly to various parts of the globe and since it has become one of the largest integrated energy companies in the world.


The American industrialist was responsible for building the largest refining operation in the U.S., which led to the spinoff of several different entities, each becoming some of the largest integrated oil companies in the world.

The company’s origins began in the early 1860s. Rockefeller and other associates owned refineries in Ohio (U.S.), producing kerosene for lamp lighting. Over the next 20 yr, the company expanded exponentially, controlling nearly 95% of refining operations in the U.S. By the mid-1890s, Standard Oil Co. had also become the dominant kerosene exporter to other parts of the globe, such as Asia. However, the company was eventually labeled a monopoly and was split into several entities that would eventually lead to the creation of Amoco, Chevron, Exxon, Mobil and Marathon.


Using fertilizers for agricultural significantly expanded in the 1800s/early 1900s. However, the primary sources to develop ammonia—niter and guano—were not adequate to satisfy demand; therefore, a new process was needed to produce adequate amounts of ammonia and nitrates. This challenge was solved by the German chemist Fritz Haber in 1909 and later commercialized and expanded by Carl Bosch of BASF.

Haber conducted significant research in the early 1900s on the synthesis of ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen. The process requires high temperatures, high pressure and catalysts. Intense research was led by Carl Bosch. After a few years of trial-and-error, the process was a success, and the first ammonia synthesis plant went into operations in Oppau, Germany in 1913.7

The Haber-Bosch process—still in use today—enabled BASF to become the first company to employ high-pressure technology. The Oppau facility’s success with ammonia production expanded to include a second site in Leuna, Germany. This site would not only utilize the Haber-Bosch process to produce ammonia but would also be instrumental in the research and development of synthetic gasoline from the hydrogenation of lignite.


William Burton was an American chemist who is credited for inventing a viable thermal cracking process. In 1910, he and Robert Humphreys developed their own thermal cracking process while working at Standard Oil of Indiana’s Whiting refinery—Vladimir Shukhov (Russia) holds the earliest patent for thermal cracking, which he invented in 1891. However, the Shukhov Cracking Process found little adoption since lighter fractions (e.g., gasoline) did not exist at the time.

According to literature8, Burton’s thermal cracking process involved heating crude oil in a still to 371°C–399°C (700°F–750°F). The petroleum vapors were regulated through a valve system that maintained constant pressure through the entire process. Once the fractions were evaporated, they gathered through a condenser. Lastly, the still was opened and the carbon deposits were collected. The process produced primarily gasoline, gasoil, residual fuel oil and petroleum coke.8 The Burton process was used extensively for more than 20 yr, until the creation of catalytic cracking. HP


Hydrocarbon Processing would like to thank several institutions/companies for the use of archived images of industry pioneers. These include Linde, the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame, Explore Pennsylvania History, Shell, the National Inventors Hall of Fame and BASF.


  1. Wikipedia, “Carl von Linde,” online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_von_Linde.
  2. Britannica, “Carl von Linde,” Encyclopedia Britannica, November 2021, online: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Carl-Paul-Gottfried-von-Linde.
  3. Linde, “Corporate Heritage,” Linde, online: https://www.linde.com/about-linde/corporate-heritage.
  4. Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame, “Abraham Gesner, 1797–1864,” online: http://www.canadianpetroleumhalloffame.ca/abraham-gesner.html.
  5. Shell, “Company History,” online: https://www.shell.com/about-us/our-heritage/our-company-history.html.
  6. Britannica, “Standard Oil,” Encyclopedia Britannica, March 2020, online: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Standard-Oil.
  7. BASF, “Who we are: 1902–1924,” BASF, online: https://www.basf.com/ca/en/who-we-are/history/1902-1924.html.
  8. Gerali, F., “Thermal Cracking,” Engineering and Technology History, 2019, online:

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