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Making Gasoline from Water

John Andrews and the Invention of a Legend

WE HAVE ALL HEARD THE STORY. The inventor of a cheap gasoline-from-water process mysteriously disappears, after having been (pick one) bought off, intimidated, or murdered, by agents of giant oil corporations. The inventor, when he has a name, is usually identified as John Andrews of McKeesport, Pennsylvania. The story of John Andrews is the triumph of myth over fact. Everyone knows the myth. Few know, or care about, the facts. But it’s a wonderful story, mostly a modern fairy tale, but it has an element of truth.

The Legend

A year or two before the United States entered World War I—reporter Walter Merriwether misremembered the date as 1917—amateur inventor John Andrews offered to demonstrate his water-to-motorfuel invention to the U.S. Navy. At the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Captain Earl Jessop was experimenting with improved ship design and construction techniques, so Andrews drove to the Brooklyn Navy Yard with an empty one-gallon can and a black satchel containing his chemicals.

The U.S. Navy was a major consumer of petroleum fuel, and was concerned about a reliable supply. The government had set aside some public lands as naval petroleum reserves, but the Navy was always alert for other sources.

Oil-powered ships needed to return frequently to port to refuel, which made them vulnerable to enemy attack. Making fuel from water would eliminate the need for frequent refueling stops—an advantage achieved many years later by nuclear powered ships.

Navy investigators gave Andrews a bucket of tap water, which he took into his car. He emerged a few minutes later and gave his gallon can to the investigators, who poured the contents into a Navy motorboat engine up on blocks. The engine started without problem, and —according to Walter Merriwether’s memory 20 years later—ran normally until all the fuel had been consumed. Andrews promised that the next day he would repeat the test using seawater instead of fresh water.1 The Navy sent a boat out to sea to fetch a pail of seawater, and when Andrews showed up, they put him in a bare concrete room with no drain, with just his black satchel, empty can, and the bucket of seawater. Again, Andrews soon emerged with the bucket empty and his can filled. The Navy poured the contents into the engine, which ran as well on the converted fuel as it had the previous day. Andrews then drove home to McKeesport.

Captain Jessop told New York World reporter Walter Merriweather about the astounding invention.

Meriwether went to McKeesport and found Andrews with some difficulty, but the inventor was evasive and claimed that his life was threatened by unnamed vested interests who had poisoned his dog. Andrews perked up when Meriwether promised to personally solicit Navy higher-ups in Washington to investigate Andrews’ fuel.

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About Skeptic

BEHE’S LAST STAND COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Is Low-Dose Radiation Good for You? The Questionable Claims for Hormesis, by Harriet Hall, M.D. • The Gadfly: Define Your Terms (or, Here we Go Again), by Carol Tavris ARTICLES Making Gasoline from Water: John Andrews and the Invention of a Legend • Online Gaming: A Virtual Experiment in the Dark Side of Human Nature • Duped by Data Mining • How Science Will Explain and Fix Fake News • The Cult of Falun Gong: A Dance Troupe and Victimhood Raises Big Money • The Opioid Epidemic Misunderstood • Why the Human-Centered View Has Not Served us Well • Behe’s Last Stand: The Lion of Intelligent Design Roars Again • Straw Man on a Slippery Slope: The Case Against the Case Against Postmodernism • A Disproof of God’s Existence REVIEWS Reviews of: The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure; The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake; Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits; Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post- Facts, and Fake News; Hoax: A History of Deception: 5000 Years of Fakes, Forgeries, and Fallacies; Truth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the War Over Anthropology JUNIOR SKEPTIC Quest for the Truth about Dungeons and Dragons