William M. Burton was born in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, on November 17, 1865. He received his Bachelor’s degree from Western Reserve University, Cleveland, in 1886 and his PhD in chemistry from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, in 1889. He started to work as a researcher for Standard Oil in Cleveland shortly afterwards and was transferred to a new facility in Indiana in 1890. He became director of the company in 1911, later vice-president, and president from 1918 until his retirement in 1927.
Working with Robert E. Humphreys and F. M. Rogers, he developed the first commercially successful thermal cracking method, doubling gasoline production from a given amount of crude oil. His method mimicked nature’s approach by subjecting the oil to high temperatures as well as high pressures.
This process was deemed too dangerous at first, and only after the court-ordered breakup of Standard Oil in 1911 did the then independent Standard Oil of Indiana approve the construction of Burton’s stills. This allowed the petrochemical industry to keep up with the rising demand of fuel for internal combustion engines.
Burton died on December 29, 1954, in Miami, Florida.
William M. Burton is the answer to Guess the Chemist (36).
- The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography,
James T. White and Company, 1956, 41, 41.
- Historical Dictionary of the Petroleum Industry,
M. S. Vassiliou,
Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland, and Plymouth, 2009.
- Feeding the Fire: The Lost History and Uncertain Future of Mankind’s Energy Addiction,