Just about everyone in the United States is moaning about the skyrocketing cost of gasoline. Prices in some areas have hit and passed a record four dollars per gallon, or almost a dollar per liter.

And we're pretty mad about it. Many Americans suspect that big oil companies, some of which have reported quarterly profits in the billions of dollars, are gouging us. The refiners point to supply shortages caused by exploding fuel demand in places like China and India. Commodity speculators are said to have driven up prices as well.

We're even suspicious of our local service-station owners, as we watch their posted prices ticking steadily upward.

But about seventeen thousand of those dealers ? mostly in small towns or out in the country ? have a problem of their own. They have held onto old-fashioned, slow-dispensing gas pumps that date to the days when gasoline was plentiful and sold for less than one dollar per gallon.

No one dreamed prices would mushroom as they have, so the selling price in these pumps was calibrated to rise no farther than $3.99 a gallon. Now some station owners are stuck as prices shoot into four-dollar-a-gallon territory.

A new gas pump would cost them ten thousand dollars or more ? far more than most of them can afford. Retrofitting old pumps with modern meters costs a fortune, too. Besides, new price mechanisms in old gas pumps can cause the gasoline to flow so fast that gears break.

Big, modern stations have none of these worries. They sell gas in such volume, and make enough profit, that their pumps can click up and up to almost ten dollars per gallon, if need be.

Of course, a price that high for gasoline could never happen, right?