Acetylene Explosions! (Prest-O-Lite)


Carl Fisher was an immensely interesting and compelling figure. His risk tolerance was, at least to me, as a pretty risk-adverse guy, nothing short of amazing. Carl's willingness to role the dice financially is well documented in the three biographical books written about him (the best by Jerry Fisher), the PBS documentary (Mr. Miami Beach) and a host of other newspaper and magazine articles, including my own piece about all the founders in the 2009 Indianapolis 500 program.


His risk tolerance probably clouded his judgment about the level of risk others were willing to assume. His rush to open the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909 probably created an unsafe situation for the riders of the August 14, 1909 motorcycle races and for drivers and spectators alike in the auto races a week later. Perhaps most amazing of all was the Prest-O-Lite business he founded with James Allison.


Prest-O-Lite, founded by Fisher and Allison in 1904, hit the market with perfect timing as a viable solution to effective headlights for automobiles. These were not electric headlights, but emitted a bright light as a result of burning compressed acetylene gas. If you go to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum, check out some of the oldest cars such as the white Stoddard-Dayton (Fisher owned one of these machines for his personal use) and you will see a shiny brass cannister on the running board. This contained the highly volatile acetylene. A mechanical friction ignition switch produced a spark and "presto" you had a pretty darn effective light beamed outward (using reflecting mirrors) to drive by.


Prest-O-Lite became a very large company with locations - mostly charging facilities - stationed around the country for customers to mail empty cannisters to for re-charging. When the gas was contained in the asbestos-lined cannisters it had an excellent safety record - as in no known explosions. The charging process in the factories was another matter. Numerous charging centers exploded across the United States, many times inflicting serious injuries. Fisher spent a good portion of his time in court dealing with lawsuits. Nonetheless, Prest-O-Lite made Fisher and Allison very wealthy men.


To illustrate just how powerful an acetylene explosion can be, I found this video on YouTube. Now imagine vast volumes of this stuff escaping at exactly the same time an accidental spark is emitted...