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The Game-Changing Arrival of the Oil Burner


William Newton Best developed the earliest oil burner just as the world entered the 20th Century. Coal was king, but he didn’t let that stand in his way. In this episode, Dan Holohan shares how oil burners disrupted the coal industry.


Episode Transcript

Some years ago, I was visiting a boiler manufacturer. The owner of the company was showing me around the place and I was drooling. I get like that when I’m near big machines that know what they’re doing.

He took me into their lab and showed me this new burner that they were developing for a modulating/condensing boiler. It was on a test stand and not attached to the boiler. He had me stand about eight feet away from the burner. “Don’t move,” he said. He flipped a switch and the burner went from off to bright orange quicker than I could blink. It glowed furiously and silently and made me feel like a bagel in a toaster. “Pretty hot, right?” he said. I nodded, spellbound. He flipped the switch off and quickly moved that same hand onto the surface of what had just been glowing like the sun. I gasped; he smiled.

“The trick is to touch the ceramic and not the metal seam,” he said and smiled.

“Got it,” I said.

That guy had a passion for what he was building and I love being with people like that. He reminded me of William Newton Best. Have you ever heard of him? He developed the very earliest oil burners, just as the world entered the 20th Century. He was as passionate as it gets. He was an expert at burning oil during a time when coal was king. He looked at those people and he said, “I believe that oil is the fuel of the 20th Century.” He was right, of course, and he let nothing stand in his way.

I was reading his 1913 book, Burning Liquid Fuel. There’s a part where he says, “No sane person today would venture near an oil-storage tank with a lighted pipe, cigar, torch, or any light other than electricity, but in order to prevent conflagration or serious loss of property through a steel storage tank being struck by lightning, or getting on fire though some accident, it is wise to run a large steam pipe from the boiler into the top of the tank. “There should be a large number of holes in the pipe that’s inside the tank so that when the steam valve in or near the boiler room is opened, the steam will be widely diffused over the fuel in the tank.”

So you put out the fire with high-pressure steam. Imagine doing that today.

There’s another delicious part of the book where he talks about the necessity of having actual experience with any sort of fuel-burning equipment before talking or writing about it. Listen:

“Several years ago, I read an article on the different methods of burning oil and when I visited the city where the author resided I called upon the gentleman because I desired to ask him several questions on points not clear to me. “This man acknowledged that he had never burned a gallon of oil in his life and that his article was simply a compilation of reports of tests made by others, he not having even been present at any of the tests. The burners described in his treatises all seem to fit perfectly and operate without the slightest difficulty.

“Theory is needed, but without practical knowledge it is like faith without words – it is dead. The most dangerous man on earth is the egotistical Jack of all Trades.”

Blunt, right? That’s passion.

Some years passed and the oil burner replaced coal and this, too, had to do with passion. Mining coal was brutal work, which led to labor unions, which led to strikes and to shortages of coal. Time, which can also be brutal, called forth the discovery of more and more oil right about then. The price of oil plummeted, and that low price joined the convenience and relative cleanliness of the oil burner. Coal lost.

This happened during the Roaring Twenties, when the world was at peace and anything seemed possible. A company called Quiet May arrived and brought with it some brilliant advertising. They made an oil burner, but they sold a lifestyle. Their ads talked about comfort, convenience, ease of use, and the health benefits of their product. The indoor air would be cleaner, and this had particular significance in the years following the Spanish Influenza pandemic.

The woman of the house, who was usually the person keeping the home fires burning, would have more time for herself, as the Quiet May people promised, “to read, to romp with the kiddies, to prepare for guests.” Her house would be immaculate with much less effort. Her family would save money on painting and redecorating because there would be no coal-besmirched walls and furniture. She and her husband could go away for a day or a weekend without fear of pipes freezing and bursting. They now had modern, automatic oil heat.

The advertising never strayed into the technical aspects of how the Quiet May burner did its job. The people at the company knew they had to sell the benefits of the product, rather than its features, and they did this brilliantly.

That’s passion.

My boiler-manufacturer friend could have sat with me in a plush office when I went to visit with him. He owned the company and I would have understood that. But instead, he took me out to where people were building his products. He took me into their lab, where engineers were dreaming up new products, and he showed me that he understood all of this in a very hands-on way by placing his hand on that burner that had just fired so brilliantly. William Newton Best would have been proud of him.

He talked about how his products made life better for so many people and that sent my mind whirling back to the Roaring Twenties and how The Quiet May Company beat King Coal by doing the very same thing.

Passion makes the difference. It’s what attracts good employees and customers. The best companies know this. They have always known this.

Let’s give the last words here to Mr. Best. This is how you burn with passion.

“A college-trained man has many advantages over the mechanic who has not had the benefit of a college education, providing the college man, after graduation, uses his technical training as a foundation on which to place practical knowledge.

“This requires years of sacrifice and hard labor. He must begin at the very bottom, so to speak, and climb, rung by rung, to the top of the ladder. When he has added practical knowledge to his technical education, he can live a life worthwhile and his service will always be in demand.”

And who could disagree with that?

I hope you enjoyed that story. And if you did, please share it with your friends. And please subscribe to this podcast if you haven’t already. I have many more Dead Men Tales to share with you. Thanks for listening. It means a lot.

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