Saturday, December 19, 2009

Vaseline - An Unintentional Discovery


Robert Chesebrough was an enterprising young kerosene salesman who fell on hard times when his supply of sperm whale dried up. So in 1859, he went to seek his fortune in the oilfields of Pennsylvania. His quest turned out to be successful, but not in a way anyone could have imagined.

Soon after his arrival, Chesebrough noticed the oil works complaining about something they called ‘rod wax’. This was a very waxy substance that formed on their drilling equipment and gummed it up. It’s only redeeming feature as far as they were concerned was its ability to speed up the healing of small cuts and bruises.

Intrigued, Chesebrough took a sample of ‘rod wax’ back to his Laboratory in Brooklyn. Eventually, he worked out how to isolate the substance from the ordinary petroleum. Then he started to experiment with it, subjecting himself to all manner of cuts and burns before applying the petroleum jelly. Everything healed magnificently.

To popularise his invention, Chesebrough have it the name ‘Vaseline’ (from Wasser, the German for water and Elaion, Greek for oil). Then he embarked on a singularly masochistic road show, demonstrating his faith in his product by wounding himself in public before applying it.

Soon he was selling a jar a minute. His customers used Vaseline for every conceivable purpose from cleaning nasal congestion to cleaning furniture. By the end of the nineteen-century, Chesebrough was extremely rich and his petroleum jelly was breaking into Europe.

Cheseborough persisted with his ‘practise what you preach’ attitude toward Vaseline throughout his life. Shortly before he died at the impressive age of 96, he revealed that he had been eating a spoonful of the stuff every day for many years.

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