Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 975:
GAS STATIONS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 975.

Today, we ask where gas stations went. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

What do you call places that sell gasoline? The Yellow Pages list them under service stations, but they offer little service these days. The first public gasoline servers were simply called filling stations. They were just curbside hand pumps, and they began appearing in 1907. There was no service in 1907, either. You did your own repairs in those days.

Henry Ford and the great explosion of automobiles after WW-I changed all that. Those millions of new cars needed a huge infrastructure of supply. So a new American institution came into being. It was what we called the gas station.

The gas station started taking shape around 1910. By 1920 it was well-defined. It was a small building with gas pumps in front. But it also offered supplies -- tires, batteries, and oil. It offered simple services -- lube jobs and tire patching.

In 1920, America had 15,000 gas stations and only half that number of curbside pumps. By 1930, we had over 100,000 gas stations, and curbside pumps had all but vanished.

And so gas stations became a new American icon. They joined the mimetic architecture movement -- architecture that made fun of reality. The roadside seized passing motorists with a visual impact that could register in seconds: cafes shaped like coffee pots or Indian tepees, BURMA SHAVE signs.

The new gas stations made that impact in several ways. Some were built like cozy bungalows to welcome weary motorists. Some were futuristic, calling up a modern world of speed and function.

And they carried the logos of the vast new corporations now selling gasoline at 12 cents a gallon -- Standard Oil, Marathon, Conoco, Mobil's Flying Red Horse. Gas Stations offered uniformed attendants. Advertising told us they were good friends who wanted to serve our needs. "You can trust your car, To the man who wears a star." And, indeed, you often could.

By 1970 America had over 200,000 gas stations. Then things began changing. By 1990, half those stations were gone, and their number keeps falling. Today we go to a service station for gasoline, candy, soda, and a car wash. We seldom expect to find even such elementary services as an oil change or a new battery.

Today, batteries, oil, and tires last five times as long as they once did. But cars have grown more complex, and so has their upkeep. So this cultural icon is vanishing, and most of us are only vaguely aware of its death. Yet a whole way of life is passing with it: White Castles, drive-in movies, and, of course, that rubber tube we drove over to sound a bell -- to tell a liveried attendant we'd driven up, expecting to be treated like royalty.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Jakle, J.A., and Sculle, K.A., The Gas Station in America, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1944.

Heimann, J., and Georges, R., California Crazy: Roadside Vernacular Architecture, Tokyo: Dai Nippon, 1985.

Margolies, J., The End of the Road. New York: Viking Press, 1977.

Liebs, C.H., Main Street to Miracle Mile: American Roadside Architecture, Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1985.

Venturi, R., Brown, D.S., and Izenour, S., Learning from Las Vegas, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1972.

Rowsome, F., Jr., The Verse by the Side of the Road, New York: The Stephen Grene Press/Pelham Books, 1965, 1990.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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