This is a very early petrol pump called the Long Distance Gasoline Storage Outfit, made by S.F. Bowser and Co., of Fort Wayne, USA, around 1912 to safely store, filter and deliver fuel. It was the visible part of a system in which petrol was delivered in drums and stored underground in heavy steel tanks, from which small amounts were pumped as required. During transfer, the hand-cranked pump was connected via a hose to the vehicle, ensuring that fuel did not come into contact with the air and thus avoiding spillage or evaporation. For the retailer, or a home-owner with their own tank, there was the added advantage of reduced fire risk and hence reduced insurance premiums. The roadside petrol pump became a ubiquitous feature of cities, towns and highway service stations during the twentieth century, and electronic versions (some delivering entertainment and advertising via built-in screens, as well as a choice of fuels and clear display of quantity and cost) are still the main means of supplying liquid fuel to vehicles today.
In the early years of the twentieth century few Australians owned cars. There were not many formed roads, and no garages, and petrol was only available in tins from a few chemists and grocers. In 1902 S.F. Bowser and Co. marketed a domestic petrol bowser in the USA with a steel underground storage tank that was set up in the "car owner's carriage house", providing convenience and saving time.
It is believed that this pump was for inside use, perhaps in a domestic garage. It delivered measured quantities of fuel: one pint, one quart (two pints), half a gallon (four pints) and one gallon (eight pints, about 4.5 litres) so that any number of pints could be supplied in total. In 1915 Bowser began selling 5-gallon outdoor pumps. By this time, the company had display rooms in Sydney at 4-6 Castlereagh Street, where they had a full display of pumps and tanks for handling petrol and other liquids in public, private and commercial garages, grocery and general stores, factories and dry-cleaning plants.
By 1920 a number of service stations and garages had opened in Australian towns selling fuel from roadside bowser pumps rather than in 4-gallon tins. However, in 1925 some local authorities thought the bowsers ugly and dangerous and tried to have them banned. Municipal councils in Australia also tried to ban all but Australian-made pumps from their footpaths in the 1920s so the S F Bowser company fought them in court. It argued that the Australian content of its machines was high at 60 percent, with the remaining 40 percent of parts being made in another British Empire country, Canada. By contrast, the local Latimer's Hammond pump was 100 percent Australian made.
In 1927 only 65 petrol pumps were imported from all overseas manufacturers but in 1928 the Atlantic Oil company ordered 500 for the string of service stations it planned to open here. In 1929, a few months after the Wall Street crash, the Australian Government increased the tariff payable on imported pumps to help local manufacturers compete. In 1931, Bowser auctioned off the contents of its Australian factory and office, blaming this 'prohibitive tariff'.
Rudder, Debbie, 'These petrol pumps are history, but what's the future?' MAAS Inside the Collection blog, 6 November 2013.
Simpson, Margaret, 'On the move: a history of transport in Australia', Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 2004.
Judy Campbell, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences volunteer and Margaret Simpson, Curator