Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

P is for pump

Self-service gas started here

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Sixty years ago, cars lined up halfway down the block on Fleet Avenue, patiently waiting to fill up their tanks in an innovative, penny-saving kind of way.

Winnipeg is the birthplace of the very first self-service gas pumps, launched in 1949 at Henderson Thriftway Petroleum on the corner of Fleet Street and Pembina Highway.

The inventor, deceased Winnipegger Bill Henderson, was a renegade gas man whose determination to offer the cheapest prices at the pump incited citywide gas wars with major petroleum companies Imperial Oil and Shell in the 1950s and early '60s.

"He was definitely ahead of his time," said Al Chalkley, Henderson's son-in-law and former employee. "He was always fighting the oil companies, he kept them on their toes."

Henderson thought real savings could be made in the gasoline market by modifying the gas station delivery system. He figured cheap gas and the novelty of self-service would bring customers to the pump as fast as the gas could flow out of the nozzle.

Henderson's daughter Beverly Chakley said her father was constantly plotting, dreaming of new ways to stay one step ahead of his Goliath.

"He had a very inventive mind," she said. "He'd have ideas during the night and he'd get up and write things down."

"And once he put the idea down roughly, he'd start talking to people," added her husband Al.

Ross Henderson, Bill Henderson's nephew, said his uncle went to Jim Mills, general manager of MTS, with a simple question: "What do you know about electronics?"

With Mills's help, Henderson developed a system whereby information -- price, gallons of gas -- could be conveyed from the pump up to an employee sitting in a tower overlooking the lot. The customer paid for gas by placing money in a metal tube that ran up and over the canopy covering the pumps and into the tower. The money was sucked up by a vacuum and change was returned to the customer.

The experiment wasn't without an occasional accident. In the primitive stages, customers had to train their ears to listen for a click signifying that the tank was full.

"A lot of people got sprayed over the years," said Chakley, with a light chuckle. "But it didn't stop the people from coming in. It was probably more of a problem with the fire department."

Charging three cents per gallon less than the industry behemoths, business soared.

"It took off right away. He sold a lot of gas at that self-service station. It was so much cheaper than everyone else and it was a unique thing to fill your own tank."

It didn't take long for competitors to catch on. By the late 1950s, self-service stations were popping up in other parts of the city. Imperial Oil, for example, opened one near Polo Park.

Even though Henderson held patents for his inventions, he lacked the bankroll to fight his competitors in court.

"They could drag it on and on and on, they had millions," said Ross Henderson.

Anxious to sink his teeth into a new market, Henderson took the show to Vancouver, and launched a self-service station in 1955.

Again, cars flooded the lot for cheap gas, but competitors were just as quick to mimic the independent gas man's innovations.

Over the years, self service became the preferred way to fill a tank of gas and Henderson's stations quietly went out of business.

Now, self-service stations barely resemble the primitive pumps found at Henderson Thriftway back in the 1950s and '60s. The technology has blossomed under the aegis of large oil companies with the finances to develop the concept.

"Eventually, they perfected the idea, but he wrote the rough draft."

paul.gackle@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 22, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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