September 2020

Our (almost) forgotten aerosol industry entrepreneurs

According to legend, the U.S. aerosol industry got started on Feb. 17, 1947, during a snowstorm, when the Continental Filling Corp. began the production of Rex Research Co.’s “Fly Tox” insect killer in three-piece lightweight cans. The can was developed by Harry E. Peterson, a Group Leader in the Research Dept. of the Continental Can Co. in Chicago, IL.

Harry Peterson

Peterson and his assistant, Bill Palmer, modified the 12oz. “Con-Can” beer can, making it about 30% heavier so that it could tolerate higher pressures. Both ends would be concave, with a valve soldered into the top end. The valve was actually designed by Harry Soljin, also of Continental, with help from Peterson. It was later sold to Nels Seaquist for $1.00.

Less publicized was the innovative work of Earl Graham, a Group Leader of the Crown Can Co. He modified the 12oz. drawn steel “CrownTainer” beer can by strengthening it and soldering a valve into the stepped conical top. Both this and the Continental can were designed to be inverted during cold filling.

Fly Tox Aerosol Insect Bomb

The Crown can, called the “SpraTainer,” had immediate production problems. It could not be balanced on the valve actuator without using a puck or other support. Also, the bottom could not be double-seamed without actuating the valve. Only a small number of insecticide cans were possibly made in Neodesha, KS about mid-1947. During the next year the “SpraTainer” was again modified by incorporating a “one-inch” hole and curled periphery. It could now be filled with the can upright. The innovation was an immediate success, although fledgling valve producers had to surround their valves with “one-inch” mounting cups.

Earliest years: Three events that changed history
The “father” of aerosol products is often said to be Erik Rotheim of Oslo, Norway. He developed a good valve, combined it with a 12oz. size “bomb” and pressurized various products with iso-butane, dimethyl ether and carbon dioxide. He worked on development during 1927 and 1928 in his basement laboratory, which also contained a coal-fired furnace. Years later, about 1958, the President of the Norwegian Aerosol Association commented that, “Erik was the luckiest man alive, that he didn’t blow himself up!” If  Rotheim had good luck, it ran dry when he and a business partner tried to sell insecticides, ski-waxes and possibly other pressurized canisters in Oslo, Bergen and Arendal. The costly dispensers were rarely returned for refills. He died very poor in 1948.

A Crown SpraTainer advertisement from 1953

The second major event contributing to the aerosol industry began in 1930 when T. J. Midgley, A.L. Henne, R.R. McNary, et al. began working to develop a line of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) for DuPont. This work was the subject of U.S. Patent 1,926,396 (1933). The “Freon” brand of non-flammable refrigerants were being used to make safe automobile air-conditioning and liquid fire extinguishers possible. Aerosols were unknown at this time.

Erik Rotheim died poor, but was not forgotten—in 1998, Norway Post celebrated Rotheim’s invention of the aerosol by issuing a commemorative stamp.











When the patent expired in 1950, however, the new aerosol business was flourishing. The Allied Chemical’s General Chemical Division (“Genetrons”), Pennwalt (“Isotrons”) and other producers quickly introduced competitive products, mostly to be used as propellants. CFCs remained very popular until 1978 when the stratospheric ozone depletion issue made them obsolete in the U.S.

The third major event that helped to create the aerosol industry began around 1942, during World War II, in such unlikely places as Guadalcanal, Tinian and other islands of the South Pacific. U.S. Marines were fighting the Japanese, but fighting hordes of mosquitoes, as well. They pleaded for some way to kill the biting insects.

Captain William N. Sullivan (left); Dr. Lyle D. Goodhue in 1943.

As a result, two Generals visited Dr. Lyle D. Goodhue (chemist) and Willian J. Sullivan (engineer) at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s (USDA) entomological research station in Beltsville, MD. Fortunately, Goodhue was aware of the important work done by Erik Rotheim and the DuPont team. Within 2–3 months, they produced a Rotheim-type aerosol insecticide, but pressurized it with 88% “Freon-12” (dichlorodifluoromethane) propellant. A shipment was quickly dispatched to the South Pacific war zone.


Some was used to kill mosquitoes of course, but enterprising G.I.s quickly found that spraying the product on cans of warm beer chilled it, making it more delightful to drink. More insecticide cans were quickly requested. It was later estimated that over a million cans were used to chill beer. The remarkable number of heavy-duty “bombs” being sent to the armed forces came to the attention of U.S. can companies. Both Continental Can and Crown Can determined that insect sprays were popular, and would be even more popular if they could be safely packaged in low-cost, lightweight cans. Enter the previously- mentioned Harry Peterson and Earl Graham.

The original “Bug Bomb”
aerosol in 1943.

Aerosol industry founders
Between 1945–1950, a small number of entrepreneurs fashioned the aerosol industry out of the earlier pioneering work of Rotheim, Midgley et al. (DuPont), Goodhue and Sullivan (USDA). The unknown marines who first chilled beer cans also played a role. Without all of their imagination, unique personalities and years of hard work, our industry might not have materialized until decades later.

Harry Peterson, born in 1921 in Schaumberg, IL, was an excellent high school football player until he fractured his left knee. After surgery, he had a slight limp for years and the injury limited his involvement in World War II. However, this allowed him to rise to the status of Manager in the Non-Foods Research Dept. of the Continental Can Corp.

After meeting Continental Can Corp. CEO General Lucius Clay at a seminar, the General remarked, “My God! He’s just a kid.” Peterson responded by changing his hair style, changing his signature to H.E. Peterson and smoking a pipe. By 1951, he had amassed over 200 pipes, some—like Meerschaums—were quite rare. They decorated the office wall behind his desk. A large brass Arabian water pipe or hookah sat on the floor, alongside his desk. Many of the rare pipes were gifts from admiring customers. Aside from creating the first commercial lightweight aerosol can, Peterson developed many customers and worked with Clarence F. Carter and Abbie J. Miller to establish the Continental Filling Corp. (CFC) in Danville, IL. They met many times with the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to get aerosols approved for transportation and persuaded a major trade association (NAIDM) to establish an Aerosol Division. Finally, about 1950, the association did so, while also changing its name to the Chemical Specialties Manufacturers Association (CSMA—now the Household & Commercial Products Association or HCPA). Later, Peterson became Chairman of the Aerosol Division, then Chairman of the entire organization, and finally its only Honorary Member.


Harry Peterson in 1980















Earl Graham was born in North Philadelphia, PA about 1916. With a B.S. in Chemistry, he joined the Crown Can Division and soon became a Group Leader. President John Connolly appointed him to develop a suitable lightweight aerosol can. A preliminary container was developed in 1947 and revised to the “Spratainer” of 1948, which was cold-filled through a “one-inch” hole at the top. This was a huge advance. The new and developing valve industry quickly responded by designing “one-inch” mounting cups based on Graham’s designs. This method of sealing aerosol cans remains almost universal, even 72 years later.


Graham was a laid-back, slim, distinguished-looking man with a preference for gray business suits. Alvin Glessner and “Snuffy” Smith, his close associates, were more flamboyant. To indicate the lack of sophistication in these early days, when this team was confronted with the first aerosol can to be perforated by corrosion, they initially tried to protect the steel plate by filling the can with candlewax and pouring out the excess. Better can linings soon followed. Many years later, in a few cases, up to three different layers of resins were applied.

Lyle Goodhue and Captain Sullivan made a bit of history when they demonstrated their first aerosol insecticide can to U.S. Army officers around 1943. The officers were fascinated by a spray they had never seen before and actuated the dispenser lavishly in what was called “the bug-house” of the USDA entomological research station. After they departed, Goodhue discovered that the spray had killed many thousands of his insects used for research, including two 6″ long beetles he had used to pull a toy wagon.

About 1950, Sullivan gave a speech to the National Society of Entomologists in Washington, DC. In it, he coined the word “aerosol.” Although technically incorrect, the name became popular almost overnight. It was far better than terms such as “pressurized system” used by a few authors.

About 1972, the European Aerosol Federation (FEA) decided to launch its “Gold Star” award program, honoring outstanding aerosol contributors. Goodhue and Sullivan were selected as the first recipients. At the Oslo meeting, each was presented with a large, 10 karat gold medal and manuscript. Sullivan was sick and could not attend. Goodhue decided to carry the two medals back to the U.S. in his shoes for safekeeping. Once back in Neodesha, KS, he discovered large blisters on both feet and decided that carrying gold medals in footwear was not a good idea.

The right valve
Valve design and manufacture were challenges that tested the capabilities of a number of firms. Suitable constructions were patented by Gebauer, Inc. as early as 1902. Rotheim used similar geometries, as did Harry Soljin and John Henchert of Continental Can in 1943. The early valves were made with brass bodies and stems (Bridgeport Brass, Inc.) or even stainless steel (Hobart Division of Continental Filling Corp.). The valve from Valve Corp. of America (VCA) had a nickel-plated brass stem. All of these valves were machined and costly.

Robert “Bob” Abplanalp

In 1947, Harry Peterson and Clarence Carter persuaded Robert “Bob” Abplanalp to make aerosol valves. Abplanalp’s father had a machine shop in Yonkers, NY that had been doing poorly since World War II ended, taking with it government contracts. Therefore, Abplanalp was receptive. He joined with Fred Lodes and John Baesler to form the Precision Valve Corp. (PVC), and was soon able to produce very inexpensive plastic valves that spelled the end of metal valves. Abplanalp bought out his two partners and quickly did very well; eventually valves were being produced by over a dozen PVC plants around the world.

Although most are not still in business, there were many valve manufacturers in the early days of the aerosol industry, including:

• Aerosol Research Co.
• American Can Co.
• Bridgeport Brass, Inc.
• Continental Can Corp.
• Danvern Vale Co.
• Dill Manufacturing Co.
• Engstrum Valve Co.
• Hobart Division (Continental Filling Corp.)
• Gebauer, Inc.
• Knapp-Monarch, Inc.
• Oil Equipment Laboratories, Inc.
• Newman-Green, Inc.
• Precision Valve Corp.
• Schrader Division (Scoville Manufacturing Co.)
• Seaquist Manufacturing Co.
• Regal Chemical Co.
• The Risdon Manufacturing Co., Inc.
• VCA Inc. (Valve Corp. of America)
• Virginia Smelting Co.
• Westinghouse El. & Manufacturing Co.
• Woodlets, Inc.

Nels W. Seaquist owned a profitable machine shop business in Cary, IL. When the Continental Can Co. decided not to be in the aerosol valvemaking business, they offered their Soljin valve to Seaquist in 1947. It was produced there for the next 10 years. In 1952, Seaquist sold his former company and created the Seaquist Manufacturing Co. He hired Edward J. McKernan (Continental Filling Corp.’s first Quality Control Manager) to run the valve-making plant. Once there, McKernan discovered that he was a born salesman. He negotiated an arrangement with Seaquist to be paid at a fraction of the value of every valve sold. This seemed reasonable at first, but when the firm began to sell very large numbers of valves, Seaquist discovered that McKernan’s income actually dwarfed his own.  McKernan rejected a compromise offer, left the company and started a firm of his own, which continues today.

One evening, Seaquist and I were returning from supper when we took a shortcut through a local golf course. Our car left small ruts in the fairway. Anticipating my concern, he said, “No worry for you. I own this golf course.”

Dr. Wayne Speer was the recipient of the Southern Aerosol Technical Association’s (SATA) Founders Award in 2009. Speer started in the aerosol industry while using his advanced degree in medicinal chemistry at Morton Pharmaceuticals, Inc. in Memphis, TN. He developed a line of shoe care products and in 1965 launched Shirlo, Inc., which later expanded to include household cleaning products and contract packaging. Anticipating the CFC ban, he equipped his plant to run hydrocarbons with modified formulations. When VOCs entered the industry vocabulary in the early 1990s, Speer was selected to present issues to the California Air Resources Board (CARB). He passed away in 2010.




















A character-driven industry
The early captains of the aerosol filling industry were often very colorful. Herman “Shep” Shepherd, founder of Aerosol Techniques in Bridgeport, CT, always wore thick, white gym socks.

Herman “Shep” Shepherd

Wayne Speer of Morton Pharmaceuticals and Shirlo attended CSMA meetings with his left arm decorated with up to 15 or 20 bracelets. “Cy” Goldberg visited larger aerosol plants on an annual basis, seated in a chauffeur-driven Cadillac and wearing a tuxedo. Philip Sagarin of VCA, Inc. made “state visits” bearing fresh bagels said to have come from a bakery in Grand Central Station, New York City.

Robert W. “Bob” Svendsen Sr. was the son of Carl Svendsen, founder of Chase Products Co., currently of Broadview, IL. Among many significant contributions to the aerosol industry, Bob Svendsen invented the Cap for Aerosol Bomb, patented in 1951. Svendsen had a huge recreation area in his Chicago home, as well as a house on a golf course near Acapulco, Mexico.

An executive in the early paint aerosol industry had beach chairs in his office and invited friends to send him little cardboard match folders for his collection. Finally, there was Rusty (last name forgotten) who invariably wore old-fashioned bowler hats when visiting plants and association meetings. Several billionaires also became involved with the burgeoning aerosol industry in pursuit of new product developments.

72 years & counting
DuPont developed the earliest aerosol statistics; for example, in 1948, the first full year of production, the industry produced 5 million insect sprays, 2 million room deodorants and 500,000 paints and coatings, for a total of 7.5 million units. In 1949, the total more than doubled. Expansions of this magnitude are almost unheard of and point to the dedication and energy of aerosol industry founders. They probably never visualized the diverse 4 billion units of today’s aerosol industry in the U.S. [and approximately 16+ billion units globally] that they pioneered, but we can appreciate their many formative accomplishments. SPRAY