A Man Called Freelove and the Fuel Bowser
Regular readers will know I wrote “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” to capture the stories of people whose names entered the English language as words — heroes and heroines (and a fair few villains) whose lives were extraordinary. Since publication I’ve stumbled across a few more. Bowser is one of these and I must thank the QI Elves on the “No Such Thing as a Fish” podcast for putting me on the trail of this one.
What is a bowser? There are two definitions available. Bowser can be a noun for a dog. It was used in the early 1800s and probably comes from the old bow-wow idea for how a dog barks. I don’t think this is in common use anymore, but perhaps readers know otherwise?
The main meaning of a bowser now is that of a truck or pump for delivering liquids — most commonly water or aviation fuel. Water bowsers are deployed in England, for example, when there are water shortages. Fuel bowsers take on various jobs — refueling aircraft at the airport, bringing it to construction vehicles, and you can even have bowser boats to fuel larger ships.
Bowsers get their names from an American inventor called Sylvanus Freelove Bowser (1854–1938). Yes, that really was his name, isn’t it great? He is best know for the invention of the fuel pump for filling motor cars. With the arrival of motoring the world found a need to dispense set amounts of petrol or diesel into them but it wasn’t a liquid you could sell in a bottle or carton like milk or water as you needed large quantities. They needed a way to measure it as you drew it down, so you could be charged, but you couldn’t see it pouring, and because it’s a tad flammable you needed the system to be closed.
He began with a kerosene pump, patented in 1885, as kerosene was important for lighting and heating at the time. He dedicated twenty years of work to the finished concept and finished with the “self-measuring gasoline storage pump” in 1905. The pumps you use to fill your car in New Zealand and Australia are still called bowsers to this day. The same technology is still used, so you can think of him the next time you fill up your car (unless it’s an EV, of course).
Bowser’s pump invention also enabled the creation of the petrol station. For the first twenty years of motoring early drivers had to buy their fuel in two gallon cans from their nearest hardware shop, hotel, or garage.
The first petrol station in Britain opened in 1919 in Berkshire. Motorists were greeted by a uniformed staff member and a single hand-operated pump. The station was operated by the Automobile Association (AA) who, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution (1917) were promoting UK produced benzole fuel (a by-product of burning coal) instead of Russian benzole. By 1923 there were 7,000 pumps across the UK and Ireland as a result of this initiative. With the addition of a canopy to keep you dry while you pump gas and a shop to sell sundries they became the type we use today, all thanks to Bowser’s fuel pump invention.
Irish readers should note that a bowser is unrelated to a bowsie which “The Dictionary of Hiberno-English” tells me is a disreputable drunkard or lout, unless they’re drinking from a fuel pump?
Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,
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Revised for Medium but originally published at http://wordfoolery.wordpress.com on May 10, 2021.