Wednesday, 13 March 2013

A Walk Through Gasoline Alley

Gasoline Alley 2I have been visiting Heritage Village on and off for over 40 years. I loved the place as a kid, as did my children. On a quick trip to Calgary this summer, I decided to stop by and see what was new since my last visit.

What was new was Gasoline Alley.

Not the comic strip, but a collection of old automobiles and gas station pumps. It was a wonderful visit that presented a whole host of photographic opportunities.

The exhibit has the prerequisite antique automobiles and while I did take some snaps of the cars and trucks, it was the old gas pump exhibit that caught my eye. There were a lot of things I didn't know about how gas was sold, back in the day.

Like the fact that the first pumps had calibrated glass tanks at the top of the pump. An attendent pumped gas into this tank - no self-service back then! They stopped the pump and then drained the required amount of gas into the automobile using gravity. This is a bit like using a measuring cup when you are baking!

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While kind of neat, this process was slow. It also meant having a volatile liquid sitting around exposed in an era when people smoked a lot. Improvements in metering meant that the gas station could always store gas underground and pump it on demand, using a reeled meter that measures the gas flow. The glass tank disappeared off the top of the gas pump and a meter appeared on the face. As an aside, many pumps had a small glass bubble on the side with either a ball or a revolving paddle inside to show customers that gas was actually flowing. You can usually still see them on modern pumps.

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Most of the pumps on display were from this era, and there were a lot of them.

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When the glass tank disappeared, gas companies used the space on top of the pump to present their brand, leading to a whole series of different glass pump toppers.

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The first fuel pump was invented in 1898 in Cedar Falls, Iowa, by a transplanted Norwegian named John J. Tokheim. He founded a company to build pumps, and it was soon bought from him by some of his employes, who then moved it to Fort Wayne, Indiana. They kept the name and went on to dominate the pump business. The brand name is still around today, so keep an eye out for it when you next fill up.

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As I was tallying all of the pumps to see how many were Tokheim (a lot), I was struck by something I found quite funny. Can you spot what it was?

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This pump can only meter $9.99 worth of gas! Using modern gas prices, as at the time of writing this post, this would be a maximum of 7.4 litres of gas*. So using this pump today would mean having to reset it 8 times while filling up an empty tank!**

Perhaps I was thinking about the % rise in gas prices or maybe it was the % capacity of gas tanks, but when I saw this old car, all I saw was a "%" sign!

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If you are ever in Calgary, I highly recommend a stop by Heritage Park. If you do not have a full day to spend at the park, at least book an hour to walk through this little piece of it. The exhibits are wonderful and the friendly staff are very helpful.

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* using an average price of gas of $1.35 / liter. Prices from

** I am assuming an average car gas tank of 56 l.

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