Walter O. Snelling

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Walter O. Snelling
Dr. Walter O. Snelling Propane.PNG
Dr. Walter O. Snelling
Born Walter Otheman Snelling
December 13, 1880
Washington, D.C.
Died September 10, 1965 (aged 84)
Allentown, Pennsylvania
Residence United States
Citizenship United States
Fields Chemist
Institutions U.S. Bureau of Mines
American Gasol
Alma mater Harvard University
Yale University
George Washington University
Known for Discovery of propane
Notable awards Edward Longstreth Medal (1962); Honorary Doctor of Science, Lehigh University

Walter Otheman Snelling (December 13, 1880 – September 10, 1965) was a chemist who contributed to the development of explosives and liquefied petroleum gas.

Early career[edit]

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

Development of propane as a significant fuel[edit]

Snelling identified propane as a volatile component in gasoline in 1910. Snelling separated "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."[2]

It was during this time that Snelling, in cooperation with Frank P. Peterson, Chester Kerr and Arthur Kerr, commercialized a method to produce liquefied petroleum gas (mostly propane), establishing American Gasol Co.[3] Analysis of sample of propane that can be traced back to Dr. Snelling has been shown to contain 0.062 mole% methane, 23.44 mole% ethane, 57.366 mole% propane, 7.127 mole% isobutane, 11.957 mole% butane and 0.044 mole% isopentane.[4] In 1913, Snelling sold his propane patent for $50,000 to Frank Phillips, the founder of Phillips Petroleum.[5]

His work was recognized by Franklin Institute through the Edward Longstreth Medal in 1962.[6] He received an honorary doctor of science from Lehigh University.

Personal life[edit]

The former home of scientist Walter O. Snelling
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.[7] 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.[8]

One of their sons, Richard Arkwright Snelling, was the Governor of Vermont. Another son, Charles Darwin Snelling, was 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 published a short memoir in New York Times columnist David Brooks's blog.[9]

In Popular Culture[edit]

On the animated television series King of the Hill, Hank Hill refers to Snelling as the "father of modern propane."


  1. ^ "The First Fifty Years of LP-Gas: An Industry Chronology" (PDF). LPGA Times. January 1962. , Page 17.
  2. ^ "GAS PLANT IN STEEL BOTTLE.; Dr. Snelling's Process Gives Month's Supply in Liquid Form.". The New York Times. April 1, 1912. p. 9. Retrieved 2008-09-24. 
  3. ^ National Propane Gas Association. "The History of Propane". Retrieved 2008-09-24. 
  4. ^ Lubinsky, Daryl (June 2012). "Analyzing 100-Year-Old Propane". Butane-Propane News: 27–28. 
  5. ^ Myers, Richard L. (2007-08). The 100 most important chemical compounds: a reference guide. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007. p. 232. ISBN 0-313-33758-6.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  6. ^ "Franklin Laureate Database - Edward Longstreth Medal 1962 Laureates". Franklin Institute. Retrieved November 17, 2011. 
  7. ^ Whelan, Frank (December 21, 2005). "Laborers, scientist once resided in Allentown homes ** History of houses at 15th and Linden streets dates to 1890s.". The Morning Call. pp. B.06. 
  8. ^ Propane.Pro. "The Father of Propane Slept Here". HeatUSA. Retrieved 1 March 2011. 
  9. ^ Brooks, David (12/7/2011). "The Life Report: Charles Darwin Snelling". Retrieved 2012-06-22.  Check date values in: |date= (help)