Inside the Collection

These petrol pumps are history, but what’s the future?


Photograph of Hammond Visible hand-powered petrol pump, 1924
Powerhouse Museum Collection object B1465. Gift of the Shell Company, 1961.

Young Sydney engineer Frank Hammond invented the ‘visible volumetric’ petrol pump around 1920 and licensed his patent rights to manufacturers in Australia and the UK. Garages purchased visible pumps to ensure that they were supplying an accurately measured volume of petrol, or ‘motor spirit’, to each customer. They wanted to convince customers that they were getting a fair deal, they didn’t want to lose money by supplying more petrol than customers paid for, and they wanted an innovative edge over competing garages.

In the UK, Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba introduced Hammond to inventor Archibald Low, who was in her good books after making an ‘audiometric’ recording of her voice on movie film and comparing it favourably to the voices of other opera singers. Low helped Hammond find a UK manufacturer, Liquid Measurements Ltd. In 1927 the brand gained valuable publicity when the royal family installed Hammond pumps in its own garages.

In Australia, Latimer’s Visible Petrol Ltd made Hammond pumps, which competed strongly against other brands. The best known of these was Bowser, named after the US inventor of the first service-station petrol pump, Sylvanus Freelove Bowser.

Photograph of Bowser petrol pump, c.1912
Powerhouse Museum Collection object B2200, S F Bowser & Co. Gift of the Petroleum Information Bureau, 1975.

When municipal councils in Australia tried to ban all but Australian-made pumps from their footpaths in the 1920s, the S F Bowser company fought them in court. It argued that the Australian content of its machines was high at 60%, with the remaining 40% of parts being made in another British Empire country, Canada. By contrast, Latimer’s Hammond pump was 100% Australian made.

In 1923 Bowser started selling its own visible pump in Australia. While 1927 saw only 65 petrol pumps imported from all overseas manufacturers, in 1928 the Atlantic Oil company ordered 500 for the string of service stations it planned to open here. In 1929, a few months after the Wall Street crash, the Australian Government increased the tariff payable on imported pumps to help local manufacturers compete. In 1931, Bowser auctioned off the contents of its Australian factory and office, blaming this ‘prohibitive tariff’.

While Bowser might now be recognised more often as the name of a video game character, to generations of Australians it was the generic term for petrol pumps. Today, the term is going the way of ‘motor spirit’, and ‘garage’ has largely given way to ‘servo’, but at least we haven’t taken to calling our bowsers ‘gas pumps’.

In the future we might roll up to a servo for a rapid recharge of our vehicle’s battery, to replace spent battery fluid or to fill up with hydrogen gas, compressed air or biofuel. Each of these alternatives is in development or already in use somewhere in the world, and it is vital that the world moves soon from fossil fuels to renewables. While there is much awareness of our need to reduce dependence on coal, it is equally important that citizens take an interest in ways of weaning us off our huge dependence on oil.


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