Universal Oil Products Co. v. Globe Oil & Refining Co.
322 U.S. 471 (1944)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Universal Oil Products Co. v. Globe Oil & Refining Co., 322 U.S. 471 (1944)

Universal Oil Products Co. v. Globe Oil & Refining Co.

No. 392

Argued March 3, 1944

Decided May 29, 1944

322 U.S. 471




1. In resolving a conflict between Circuit Courts of Appeals which, as to the same patent and upon substantially the same facts, reached conflicting conclusions as to infringement, this Court will reexamine concurrent findings of the District Court and the Circuit Court of Appeals. P. 322 U. S. 473.

2. Patent No. 1,392,629, to Dubbs, for a process for producing gasoline and other lighter oils from heavy crude oils, held not infringed by a process which, in the step corresponding to the B tubes of Dubbs, relies upon substantial vaporization. P. 322 U. S. 484.

"Without substantial vaporization," as used in the Dubbs patent, means that the generation and release of vapors in the B tubes is to be avoided so that the charge will enter the C tubes for cracking as nearly as may be in the liquid phase. P. 322 U. S. 482.

3. Egloff Patent No. 1,537,593, for an improvement on the Dubbs process for producing lighter from heavier oils, held invalid for want of invention. P. 322 U. S. 486.

137 F.2d 3 affirmed.

Page 322 U. S. 472

Certiorari, 320 U.S. 730, to review a judgment which, on appeal from a judgment of the District Court, 40 F.Supp. 575, in a suit for infringement of patents, held the patents not infringed.

MR. JUSTICE REED delivered the opinion of the Court.

The petitioner sued the respondent for infringement of United States Patents No. 1,392,629, dated October 4, 1921, and No. 1,537,593, dated May 12, 1925. The former was issued to Carbon P. Dubbs; the latter, to Gustav Egloff. These patents cover the Dubbs process for converting heavy crude oils to lighter oils, especially gasoline. The claimed infringement arises from the respondent's use for the purpose of such conversion of the "Winkler Koch process" in apparatus designed and installed by the Winkler Koch Engineering Company. The district court dismissed the bill on findings of fact to the effect that Patent No. 1,392,629 was valid but not infringed, and that Patent No. 1,537,593 was invalid, without findings on the issue of infringement. [Footnote 1] The majority of the Circuit Court of Appeals found both patents not infringed, and did not pass on their validity; Judge Lindley was of opinion that the Dubbs patent was infringed, but that both patents were invalid. [Footnote 2] The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

Page 322 U. S. 473

found the same patents to be valid and infringed by the use of a process substantially similar to respondent's in Root Refining Co. v. Universal Products Co., 78 F.2d 991. To resolve the conflict thus presented, we granted certiorari, 320 U.S. 730.

Where the questions presented by the contested claims of infringement and validity are purely factual, this Court ordinarily accepts the concurrent conclusions of the district court and Circuit Court of Appeals in these cases. Goodyear Co. v. Ray-O-Vac Co.,321 U. S. 275. But, in resolving conflicting views of two Circuit Courts of Appeals as to a single patent, we are obliged to undertake an independent reexamination of the factual questions. Sanitary Refrigerator Co. v. Winters,280 U. S. 30, 280 U. S. 35-36.

The patents and the allegedly infringing process concern commercial methods for converting petroleum, as it is found in nature, into the gasoline in everyday use as motor fuel. The experts who testified in the district court have stated some of the theoretical background of the processes used, and a brief summary of this material may facilitate understanding of the process involved.

Layman and chemist alike are, of course, familiar with the conception of the atoms of "chemical elements" as the basic building blocks of ordinary chemical compounds. [Footnote 3] The atoms of the "elements" have the capacity to combine with the atoms of other elements to form the molecules of "chemical compounds," whose properties seem to depend directly upon the nature of the molecule. In the field of oil chemistry, the outstanding fact is the extraordinary ability of carbon and hydrogen to combine with each other into molecules containing widely varying numbers of carbon atoms with different proportions of hydrogen atoms in an almost unlimited number of different

Page 322 U. S. 474

structural arrangements. These combinations, generically termed hydrocarbons, are present in great variety in crude oil.

The hydrocarbons differ widely from one another in their physical properties, particularly in the property of volatility, which is of prime importance in motor fuels. As one might expect, the hydrocarbons composed of large molecules with many carbon atoms are heavy, sluggish liquids with relatively high boiling points; they are not suitable for use as gasoline. Those with smaller molecules are much more volatile -- indeed, the very smallest are gases at ordinary temperatures.

The initial step in the preparation of gasoline from crude oil involves no molecular change; it consists merely in separating the light hydrocarbons in the natural mixture from the heavy hydrocarbons. This step is accomplished by heating the oil until it vaporizes and then carrying the vapors through a device familiar to industrial chemistry under the name of a fractionating tower. Such a tower is in effect a series of condensers in which the vapor mixture is cooled and the liquid condensate drawn off in separate steps. First the high boiling point constituents, reaching a liquid phase after relatively little cooling, are condensed and withdrawn; this process is repeated on the remaining constituents in successive steps as the vapors cool, until there remain only those low boiling point hydrocarbons suitable for use as gasoline.

By fractional distillation alone, a typical sample of Mid-Continent crude oil might yield approximately 25% gasoline, 5-7% kerosene, 30% gas oil, and a balance of 38-40% fuel oil. The fraction remaining after the distillation of gasoline or gasoline and kerosene is termed "topped crude."

For many years, the commercial petroleum industry carried the production of gasoline from crude oil no farther than this initial step of separating it from the mixture.

Page 322 U. S. 475

But, with the introduction of the automobile, the demand for gasoline increased rapidly, and it became necessary to develop commercial apparatus for the conversion of heavy hydrocarbon molecules to light hydrocarbon molecules by the chemical process known as "cracking." [Footnote 4] Chemists had long known that, by heating the heavier hydrocarbons to temperatures of the order of 750-900

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