Learn the Fascinating Mechanics of How a Petrol Pump Nozzle Knows When to Stop


It’s amazing how all around us how simple physics is being used in complex ways that we really take for granted, especially when it comes to cars. A popular science YouTuber and author has come up with a really engaging way to teach a little about the fluid dynamics of a gas pump. Turns out the whole invention is a bit genius.

It’s a topic we’ve covered before, but this video in particular did a great job of explaining things visually. Steve Mold may look like the tiredest man in Britain, but he has a fantastic way of describing the complex interplay of physics. He uses neat cutaway models and a split fuel pump to illustrate how it all works. I’m a staunch liberal arts degree holder, and even my cream cheese-soft brain could join in.

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The entire behavior of the fuel pump is based on simple fluid dynamics and the pressure exchange that causes the gas to flow and stop when the gasoline reaches the top of the tank. I could try to analyze it for you here, but it’s probably safer just to look at the video and Mold’s engaging visual examples of the concepts involved.

What I can tell you is that the gasoline pump is credited to the incredibly named Sylvanus Freelove Bowser, who sold his first to an Indiana grocery store in 1885. Originally intended for pumping kerosene, Bowser soon realized that the pump was suitable for gasoline, the latest invention; the automobile. Here’s what the Zimmerman Automobile Driving Museum has to say about the first pumps that didn’t use physics to stop the flow of fuel, but the skill of the workers:

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“Although his pump was not originally designed for automobiles, in the 1890s Bowser noticed that his invention of the kerosene pump was suitable for horseless carriages. He added a hose and finally a nozzle to his pump. Clerks counted the number of cranks (pumps) they made with the handle to determine how many gallons were delivered to a customer’s tank (one crank equaled one gallon).

“In general, the clerk also eavesdropped on the car’s tank to listen for the sound of filling with petrol (petrol). Some employees looked into the hole to see the height of the gas level and to determine when the customer’s tank was full. These methods proved inefficient and dangerous.”

“By 1910, a dial (to measure the amount of gasoline being pumped) was added to newly manufactured pumps. The retailers, reluctant to invest in a new pump, outfitted their primitive, older pumps with accessory dials. The demand for an even more accurate way to measure the goods purchased led to the construction of a visible fuel pump.”

By the 1920s, the delivery valve style shown in the video became commonplace along with electric gasoline pumps, although many pumps retained “sight glasses” that allowed drivers to see the quality of the gasoline and the amount being pumped. These gradually diminished as consumer confidence in service stations increased.

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