Fill up the tank, check the oil: Antique gas pumps

While some will credit Sylvanus F. Bowser with the invention of the gas pump, the gas pump was never invented – it evolved. Its evolution was influenced by two factors: the size of the pump and the meter. In the 1880s, before the advent of automobiles, gasolene (as it was spelled at that time) was used in lighting fixtures. Most lighting came from kerosene lamps, but some companies made lamps that burned gasoline. Owners of either of these lamps purchased the gasoline and kerosene from the local general store. General store owners kept the products in barrels inside the store and dispensed the liquids into containers usually supplied by the purchaser.

Insurance companies became increasingly concerned about the liability of having such volatile liquids in barrels where spills and overflows were common. Wood stoves generally heated the stores, so it is easy to see that this was an unsafe environment.

In 1883, S.F. Bowser had no dreams of inventing something for pumping gasoline or for use in a general store. He was just tired of drawing water from a well on cold mornings. His idea was for a pump that would draw the water to the surface. The pump didn’t work for long lifts, but when applied to short lifts, the pump was a success. Bowser began making kerosene and other general store pumps and, around 1890, he advertised a pump for gasoline. As the automobile revolution was still some 10 years in the future, this gasoline pump was for lighting purposes as kerosene was still far outselling gasoline.

The automobile came slowly on the scene at the turn of the 20th century. Automobile owners purchased gasoline from general stores and, as sales increased, other businesses such as blacksmiths and even drug stores began selling gasoline. In metropolitan areas, the rich were putting automobiles in the carriage house. Early gas pump companies produced an “outfit.” This consisted of a tank that was put in the ground, close to the surface, with a small hand pump attached directly to the tank. Steel companies – manufacturers of these tanks – soon purchased pumps from pump companies, combined them with their tanks, and also sold them as outfits. This pump was referred to as a “Private Garage Pump.” Generally, there were no meters on these pumps as everything was done by sight and there was no need to measure the amount of gasoline dispensed.

General stores, and the repair garages recognized the need for a better way to dispense the gasoline. Around 1905, the pump companies began to offer a pump that was attached to a large tank, and installed out in front of the business. These pumps were about four feet tall, hand cranked, and called “Curb Pumps.” I do not like the term “Pre-visible,” as it is too general a term and is sometimes used to cover any pump that just looks old.

Between 1905 and 1910, the curb pump was improved. Meters were put on the pumps to measure the amount of gasoline dispensed, rather than using a measuring can. Hoses were attached to the pumps so the gasoline could be pumped directly into the automobile’s gas tank. If the underground tank was placed some distance from the pump, a stronger pump was required and these were referred to as “Long-Distance Outfits.”

Insurance companies and local governments soon saw the curb locations as a hazard. Many local governments passed ordinances prohibiting curb pumps. Again there was a need for something new.

In 1925, “National Petroleum News” recognized the Automobile Gasoline Co. of St. Louis, Mo., as the creator of the first drive-in gasoline station. In 1949, NPN again paid tribute to the St. Louis station when a plaque was placed on the original building. While some will disagree with this being the first gas station, it was the first to offer gasoline on an off-the-street location. No pump was used to dispense the gasoline, just a hose from a tall tank. Today, the plaque and the building are gone and an interstate road ramp sits on the original station site. Before long, oil companies were planning and building off-street locations and even as early as 1915, “National Petroleum News” ran contests for the best-looking gasoline stations.

Around 1912, pump companies started enclosing these curb pumps in cabinets. Some were tall and elaborate, and some were just two swinging doors that enclosed the top half of the curb pump. Many changes in the gas pumps came about around 1920, and these changes probably had the large pump companies confused as to which direction to take. First was the invention of the visible pump. Placing a glass cylinder above the pump, and pumping the gasoline up into this cylinder allowed the auto owner to see the amount of gasoline being purchased. The pump companies were also experimenting with the addition of a clock-style meter on the outside of the cabinet pump, electric motors attached to the pumps to eliminate hand pumping, and remote control, where an outside pump operated one or more pumps.

The first reaction to the visible pumps was to offer a visible attachment for existing curb pumps. Offering the curb pump with the visible cylinder as a complete pump followed this. Around 1923, the large companies started offering a true visible pump. The meter proved to be successful and, with improvements, became the clock pumps of the 1930s. In areas where electricity was available the motor driven pumps were also successful, but in areas without electricity, hand pumps were still necessary. Hand-operated visible pumps were last made in 1948 and hand-operated computer pumps were last made in 1968.

While remote control was a good idea, it would not prove successful and generally accepted until the 1950s when very large stations with multiple pumps were built.

The late 1920s saw fewer visible pumps, and the introduction of more meter pumps. By 1930, clock-meter pumps were being made by almost every pump company. Each year brought a better idea on how to make the meter. Some had two hands, one for gallons, one for parts of gallons. Another, called the “Cash Computer,” had plugged-in price inserts with different gears on the backside. Some of the best-looking clock-meter pumps were the two-meter “Cash Recorder” pumps, one for gallons and one for price (one is shown on the cover of An Illustrated Guide to Gas Pumps).

Everything changed in 1934 with the invention of the “Computer” meter by the Wayne Pump Co. Wayne licensed the “Computer” to the Veeder-Root Co. who made the same basic unit into the 1980s. The mid-1930s also brought about big changes in the market and the future of many gas pump companies. With the offset of the Depression around 1932, many small companies began to merge or just disappear. To illustrate the point, of the six St. Louis pump companies that were in business in 1925, all were gone by 1932. Five just disappeared, and only one merged with another company.

By the late 1930s, all the remaining companies were using the computer. A few tried to invent their own version of the computer, but because of patent infringements, they were all stopped by Veeder-Root. Pumps also became much more streamlined, with flat doors and flat sides.

During World War II, the U.S. government limited production of gas pumps and a permit was necessary to purchase one. When the war ended, the pump companies pulled out the dies of the last pumps they made during the late 1930s and early 1940s and again started production. Wayne even made their visible pump for one more year.

Engineers were put to work designing pumps more in line with the late 1940s. Cars were being lowered and it was hard to see the spinning numbers on the old tall pumps. In 1947-48, every company in the pump business introduced a low-profile pump. Some collectors will refer to these pumps as “50s style pumps” but most were introduced in the 1940s.

In the late 1950s, stainless steel and remote pumps were in fashion. Pumps were again lowered in height, with the introduction of a 48-inch pump, and were made with more stainless and less painted surfaces. Oil companies were opening large stations and the remote operated pump was being used. The 1950s also saw the closing of four more large gas pump companies: American, Martin & Schwartz, National, and the Dayton Pump Co. In 2003, Tokheim closed their doors.


Tokheim Tank & Pump Co., Cedar Rapids, Iowa

John J. Tokheim, a merchant in Thor, Iowa, was looking for a pump he could use to pump kerosene in his general store. Around 1898, he invented a dome oil pump. This pump had a glass cylinder at the top and, while not referred to as a visible, it is conceivable that Tokheim invented the first visible pump. In 1901, Tokheim organized the Tokheim Manufacturing Co. The Tokheim Co. prospered and grew into a large company in Cedar Rapids manufacturing tanks, gas pumps, oil dispensers, barrel pumps, and pumps used in the dry cleaning business.

In 1918, the Tokheim Manufacturing Co. was purchased by a group of Ft. Wayne, Ind., investors led by the former general manager of the Wayne Pump Co., Ralph F. Diserens. The company was moved to Ft. Wayne and named the Tokheim Oil Tank and Pump Co. The company prospered and expanded rapidly. In 1926, Tokheim even expanded into traffic signals with the acquisition of the Signaphore Co. of Ft. Wayne. The manufacturing of traffic signals continued until 1938, when the division was sold off.

While the Depression was hard on many pump companies, Tokheim survived by offering products that were not only excellent in quality, but also in appearance. During World War II, Tokheim made bombs for both Britain and the United States.


Because the name “Sharmeter” is so associated with this company we are using the name here. The “Sharmeter” was actually made by the Sharpsville Boiler Works Co. of Sharpsville, Pa. Sharpsville had long been in business making boilers and tanks. Around 1926 they made their first gas pump. The company was in business until 1936 making only meter pumps, both clock and computer. Sharpsville also made pit and station lights.


Wayne Oil Tank & Pump Co., Fort Wayne, Ind.

In 1891, a number of former employees of the Bowser Pump Co. started the Wayne Oil Tank Co. The company had a hard time deciding on an official name, sometimes advertising as the Wayne Oil Tank & Pump Co. and other times as the Wayne Tank & Pump Co. Around 1928, the company began using the names Wayne Pump Co. and the Wayne Co.

Wayne manufactured a number of products including oil dispensers, grease dispensers, air compressors, air towers, lifts, and car washers. During the Depression, Wayne invented the computer that is still being used in some gas pumps today. This, and the introduction of such outstanding pump designs as the famous Wayne 60, kept Wayne surviving and prospering through difficult times.

Over the years the Wayne Co. purchased Fry Equipment (which included the Marvel Co.), Boyle-Dayton, and also acquired an interest in the Martin & Schwartz Pump Co. For years, Wayne advertised their oil dispensers as Wayne-Marvel equipment. When Martin & Schwartz became part of Wayne, all operations were moved to the Salisbury, Md., location of Martin & Schwartz. In 1958, Wayne became a part of Symington-Gould, which was also a part owner of the Martin & Schwartz Co., and was called Symington-Wayne. Dresser Industries acquired Symington-Wayne in 1968, forming Dresser-Wayne. In 2001, Wayne ceased operations in Salisbury and moved to Austin, Texas. Dresser-Wayne pumps can be found in many modern stations today.

an illustrated guide to gas pumps
An Illustrated Guide to Gas Pumps, Identification and Price Guide, 2nd Edition, by Jack Sim

An Illustrated Guide to Gas Pumps is the most comprehensive pumps price and identification guide you’ll ever find. In addition to close-up illustrations of many rarely-seen pumps, this one guide also includes additional sometimes hard-to-find information.

Available at


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