Harper's New Monthly Magazine,  11 (1885–86), 235–57.

A Lampful of Oil

George R Gibson



Relevant illustrations:

eng. [15]


Light, Electricity, Class, Hunting, Extinction, Chemistry, Analytical Chemistry, Ancient Authorities, Pharmaceuticals, Economic Geology, Telegraphy, Political Economy, Theory, Military Technology, Patents, Engineering, Industrial Chemistry, Medical Treatment, Accidents, Steamships, Gas Chemistry, Pollution

People mentioned:

Benjamin Silliman , Samuel M Kier , Francis B Brewer , George H Bissell , Charles F Chandler , John D Rockefeller , Boverton Redwood , Andrew Carnegie , Benjamin F Isherwood

Institutions mentioned:

Standard Oil Trust, New York

    Traces the evolution of petroleum from being merely 'the poor man's light' to 'one of our great staple domestic products, and the fourth article in the value of our exports'. When towards the middle of the century the 'pursuit of the whale had driven it to Northern latitudes, increasing the cost and scarcity of its products', the 'aid of chemistry was invoked to discover a substitute' for 'Whale and kindred oils', which was found in the 'distillate of bituminous coals and shales'. At precisely the same time, however, drilling in Pennsylvania 'revealed vast quantities of a superior natural fluid' which, when refined, cast all other forms of oil 'into the shade'. (235) Although petroleum, a 'liquid bitumen (hydro-carbon)', is a 'universal product' described by ancient writers like Herodotus, its 'practical utilization' has been 'reserved to Americans of our day and generation' (235–36). The origins of the American petroleum industry can be traced to 1854–55 when Brewer, Watson and Company employed 'Professor B. Silliman, Jr., the Yale chemist [...] to exhaustively test and report upon the petroleum', and he was 'singularly correct in his estimate of its utility, and in his forecast of the proper method of refining it' (236). The 'red-letter day in the annals of Oildom' and the 'first deliberate step in the petroleum industry', however, took place in 1859 when Edwin L Drake 'struck oil' with the 'first oil well ever drilled'. Drake's successful innovation created a widespread 'conviction that an oil well was the open sesame to wealth' and led thousands to rush into the Pennsylvanian 'wilderness' in an attempt to 'dive into nature's great grab-bag'. (237) The sudden emergence of oil-wells also provoked fierce 'competition' among 'telegraph companies "at the front"', one of which beat its rivals in the rapid extension of its lines by improvising a 'perambulating office in an omnibus' (240). Observes that oil prospectors often select a 'promising spot to test new territory' by using the '"belt theory", first advanced by a man named Angell', which proposes that 'oil lies in belts or pools having a northeast and southwest trend' (242). Once the oil has been located, a well is usually established by the use of a 'torpedo [...] containing fluid nitro-glycerine' which was 'patented by Colonel E. A. L. Roberts' in 1865. The torpedo's subterranean 'explosion shatters the walls, giving a greater exposure of surface to draw oil from'. (244). After discussing the processes of oil refinement, points out the 'medicinal value of petroleum [...] especially for rheumatism and sores', and suggests that its 'most important use is in Vaseline, which is conceded to be almost without a rival as a base for ointments', although 'Further experiments are necessary to define its full value as a remedial agent' (249). The only 'dangerous competition' that threatens American dominance of the petroleum industry 'in the near future' comes from the Russian oil-fields around Baku, which have of late been 'completely revolutionized' by the reforms of 'Robert Nobel, a Swede, whose brother Albert [sic] invented dynamite' (252). Concludes by considering how, when petroleum has been used 'as a fuel for locomotives and steamers in the Caspian region', 'it can hardly be said to have passed the experimental stage in this country', where 'with a few exceptions, the only practical utilization of petroleum as a fuel is in kerosene stoves' (254–55). Indeed, the Bureau of Steam Engineering concluded in 1867 that the 'use of petroleum as a fuel for steamers is hopeless' (255), and, in any case, 'its enlarged use would doubtless increase its cost to an extent that would destroy the economy' (256).

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