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Walter O. Snelling

Walter Otheman Snelling (December 13, 1880September 10, 1965) was a chemist and explosives expert who discovered propane and was a pioneer in the development of liquefied petroleum gas. He is often referred to as the founder of the LPG industry.

Snelling, a doctor of chemistry, studied at Harvard, Yale and George Washington University. In 1907, he invented an underwater detonator that was credited with saving the government $500,000 a year during the construction of the Panama Canal.[1]

In 1908, Snelling moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to set up the office which later became the U.S. Bureau of Mines.[2]

Discovery of propane

Propane was first identified as a volatile component in gasoline by Dr. Snelling in 1910. An automobile owner had walked into his laboratory, complaining that the gasoline he purchased was evaporating at "a rapid and expensive rate" and demanded that the government "look into the nature of these disappearing fumes."[1] In his laboratory, Snelling built a distilling apparatus to separate the "wild gasoline" into liquid and gaseous components. The volatility of these lighter hydrocarbons caused them to be known as "wild" because of the high vapor pressures of unrefined gasoline. On March 31 the New York Times reported on Dr. Snelling's work with liquefied gas and that "...a steel bottle will carry enough [gas] to light an ordinary home for three weeks."[3]

It was during this time that Dr. Snelling, in cooperation with Frank P. Peterson, Chester Kerr and Arthur Kerr, created ways to liquefy the liquified petroleum during the refining of natural gasoline. Together they established American Gasol Co., the first commercial marketer of propane. Dr. Snelling had produced relatively pure propane by 1911, and on March 25, 1913 his method of processing and producing liquified petroleum Gases was issued patent #1,056,845.[4]

The first residential installation of a propane system took place in May, 1912 near Waterford, Pennsylvania in the home of John W. Gahring, Snelling's father-in-law.[5]

In 1913, Snelling sold his propane patent for $50,000 to Frank Phillips, the founder of Phillips Petroleum.[6]

The Franklin Institute awarded Dr. Snelling the Edward Longstreth Medal in 1962 for his work.[7] Honorary Doctor of Science, Lehigh University

Personal life

The home of Walter O. Snelling, the scientist who first identified propane, in Allentown, PA In 1919, Snelling married Helen Marjorie Gahring (1901 1976) in Union City, Pennsylvania. The Snellings had seven children and lived their entire married lives in Allentown, Pennsylvania.[8] The family purchased a home at the edge of the city's West Park in either 1940 or 1941, and Walter remained there until his death.[9]

One of their sons, Richard Arkwright Snelling, was the Governor of Vermont.

Another son, Charles Darwin Snelling, is Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (appointee of the President of the United States), a life Trustee of Cedar Crest College in Allentown, a member of the Propane Education & Research Council and past president of the Pennsylvania Society. He recently published a short memoir in New York Times columnist David Brooks's blog: On March 29, 2012 he died:


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