Fuel's Errand: Louis Enricht and the Great Gasoline Hoax of 1916

"Power my horseless carriage with water? The hell you say!"
"Power my horseless carriage with water? The hell you say!" / National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Louis Enricht had a secret. And if anyone wanted to shake it loose from him, he made it clear things could take a bad turn.

“The secret is mine,” he said in 1916, “and until somebody gives me a fair reward and promises to make [it] a public benefit, I’ll guard my rights to it even if I have to use this.”

At that, Enricht gestured to a pistol on his hip.

Perhaps Enricht had good reason to be paranoid. What he was promising was no less than a revolution in transportation—a mysterious green fluid that could transform plain water into a “water gas” fuel alternative for the automobiles that were increasingly populating the streets.

If Enricht was somehow right, he would be one of the most celebrated figures of the 20th century. If not, he would be persecuted as one of its greatest con artists. Either way, carrying a gun didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Gassed Up

If Louis Enricht was right, gas stations would be a thing of the past.
If Louis Enricht was right, gas stations would be a thing of the past. / CaseyHillPhoto/iStock via Getty Images

At the turn of the century, spurious claims were hardly unusual. Pharmacology trumpeted the benefits of cocaine for everything from cranky babies to back pain; corn flakes were thought to be beneficial to curb masturbation. Regulatory oversight to investigate such assertions was not yet established. A man could come out with a proclamation that he could turn water into gasoline and someone would listen.

Like an infomercial pitchman, Enricht decided that a demonstration was in order. In front of gathered press, the man—who was born in Germany and hailed from Farmingdale, Long Island—first had them take a sip of plain water. Then, he dropped in a pill containing a green liquid. That mixture, typically an ounce of his mystery solution to a gallon of water, was added to the empty fuel tank of an automobile.

Enricht turned the engine over. It started.

One intrepid newsman, Chicago Herald publisher William Haskell, even sipped the fuel mixture after it had been poured inside the tank and into the carburetor. Aside from tasting and smelling like bitter almonds, there was nothing suspicious about it. Enricht drove the car around, journalists in tow. He promised the liquid would result in fuel that cost just 1 cent per gallon.

Enricht repeated the demonstration for the British Army, which was also successful, and proceeded to lure in a number of investors who poured millions into his idea. He scoffed at those who were skeptical of his motives; scamming people didn’t make sense for someone “situated as comfortably” as he was, he said, “yet I want to get what is by all justice my reward.”

Enricht’s reward was quick in coming: Automobile giant Henry Ford reportedly entered into discussions with Enricht about acquiring the formula, with Enricht promising that Ford would share it with the world.

“If Mr. Ford carries out his intentions, as he has said he will, everything will be all right,” Enricht said. “I will tell you this much: Mr. Ford’s motives in this whole matter are entirely un-mercenary. If he were to buy my formula tomorrow it would be given out … to all the people, and I’m with him on that.”

Whatever Ford saw or heard, it wasn't enough to persuade him to continue the conversation [PDF], so Enricht sought out other backers.

But what was Enricht really up to? According to Miller Reese Hutchison, an engineer who worked with Thomas Edison and who witnessed one of Enricht’s demonstrations, the entrepreneur hadn’t discovered anything revolutionary. In his own lab, Hutchison mixed up a solution of water, acetylene, and acetone and then poured it into the same vehicle Enricht had used for one of his demonstrations. It started and kept running. The water had been a delivery system to burn the acetone.

“It was as if a man took the ashes from his furnace and saturated them with oil,” Hutchison said. “They would burn, but then the ashes would be left as before, and unless you put in some more oil you could not get another fire out of them.”

The problem of course, is that water, acetylene, acetone, or any mixture thereof quickly corrodes an engine—hardly a practical fuel alternative. It was nothing more than an illusion.

Fueling Controversy

Enricht kept his secret close to his vest.
Enricht kept his secret close to his vest. / ElementalImaging/iStock via Getty Images

Had anyone looked into Enricht, they would have found a trail of nebulous behavior. While living in Chicago at the turn of the century, Enricht had been implicated in a land swindle in which he handed over worthless deeds for $500. He netted as much as $50,000 before authorities closed in. If a gas alternative was to be found, you probably wouldn't want to hear about it from a man like Enricht.

Around the time of the Hutchison experiment, the Maxim Munitions Corporation was said to have paid Enricht $1 million for the formula and even asserted they had conducted experiments to ascertain its effectiveness. But following Hutchison’s revelation, Dr. Hudson Maxim, president of the company, explained he had never witnessed it personally and found reports of it dubious.

The controversy continued for some time, with reputable engineers swearing Enricht could power an engine and Enricht dodging attempts to reveal his recipe before being duly compensated. In 1917, he was actually legally barred from disclosing the solution by a New York court after it was rumored he would share it with his native Germany. Enricht denied the claim and said President Woodrow Wilson could have his secret tomorrow if he wanted it.

Enricht’s problems really began in earnest when an investor, banker Benjamin Yoakum, insisted on seeing the formula Enricht was using in order to make his alternative fuel. Enricht waffled, saying the recipe had been stolen. When Yoakum persisted, he said he had run out of the ingredients.

This was finally enough cause for suspicion, but Enricht would not be deterred. In 1920, he had a new idea, this time to turn peat into gas. He lured in more gullible investors—this time for thousands, not millions—but was less savvy about his showmanship. Someone discovered an invisible fuel line running to the tank in the vehicle he was demonstrating.

It was a little too much hubris. In 1922, the 76-year-old Enricht was convicted of larceny for misleading an investor about his peat gas [PDF] and sentenced to three to seven years in prison. He was paroled in 1924.

Not surprisingly, incarceration brought with it another discovery. This time, Enricht claimed he had been allowed access to the prison’s laboratory and had developed a special serum that he insisted could cure drug addiction. There's no word on whether it could also power a combustion engine.