Origins of the Oil Industry
Canadian geologist Abraham Gesner patented the process for obtaining kerosene by distilling bituminous coal in 1854. Gesner was a rather flamboyant character who played a major role in the emergence of energy in the early to mid-19th century.
While the drilling of oil – which marks the start of the modern petroleum industry – dates only to the middle of the 19th century, the knowledge of oil is very old. Oil was used more than five thousand years ago in Mesopotamia; bitumen was mined by the Sumerians, Assyrians, and Babylonians, who used it in architecture, building roads, caulking ships, and medicines. Later, knowledge of oil and its uses declined; the Romans, for example, regarded petroleum as a curiosity only.
But the knowledge never fully disappeared since in many parts of the world oil seeps to the surface. This is true in northwestern Pennsylvania, where the Seneca tribe, part of the Iroquois nation, collected seep oil for hundreds of years, using it as a salve, insect repellent, and tonic. Europeans called the dark, gooey substance Seneca Oil and found it effective for treating sprains and rheumatism. It also burned, but was unappealing as a lamp oil due to its unpleasant odor and smoke.
Candles and whale oil provided most of the artificial light in the decades before the Civil War. Whale oil was also used for lubrication. But demand intensified – and prices skyrocketed – with the development of mechanized transportation and industrialization. This demand fueled the search for new sources of light.
In the 1840s, scientists in Britain began producing an illuminant from the distillation of coal. Dr. Abraham Gesner, a Canadian geologist, made the first successful coal oil in North America, using a bituminous mineral found in New Brunswick. Gesner called it “keroselain” from the Greek word for ”wax” and “oil,” which soon became kerosene.
Visit National Historic Chemical Landmarks to read more about the origins of the oil industry.
Excerpted with permission, National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program