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The Story of Oil 1822–1922

The Story of Oil 1822–1922 thumbnail

IN 1822 the oil industry was in full swing. Around the world, the smelly process of heating up whale blubber to extract the precious liquid went on as fast as the boats could bring it in. This was the oil which lubricated the engines and machines of the industrial revolution.

As well as blubber, a sperm whale has a huge organ in its head which helps to focus sound, enabling it to dive to locate and catch prey at huge depths. This organ is filled with up to 3 t of a mixture of fats and oils, which whalers originally mistook for the creature’s sperm. This could be partially separated to give a liquid which burned cleanly and brightly in oil lamps, and a solid which made candles far superior to tallow. The spermaceti candle became a lighting standard, from which the modern lumen is ultimately derived. These materials were also used in perfumes and cosmetics. This is in addition to the blubber which these huge animals provided. Clean lamp oil and candles enabled factories and offices to work longer.

Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons
A watercolour by British artist Sir Oswald Brierly c1876, depicting South Sea whalers boiling blubber/boats preparing to get a whale alongside

As the US became industrialised, so households had more luxuries and whale oil lamps were greatly desired. Public buildings were lit by them. The whaling fleet and imports doubled and trebled. But there was a problem. For some reason there did not seem to be as many whales as there had been, and prices rose accordingly. 1846 was peak sperm oil year, then supply dropped as demand rose.

Abandoned seal and penguin digesters on Macquarie Island, Sub Antarctic, administered by Tasmania. The island became a wildlife sanctuary in 1933.

Alternative sources of oil were seals, and sealions. In 1891 Joseph Hatch, New Zealand MP, having largely eliminated the seals where he had a licence, had the idea of getting oil from penguins instead. Rather than being hunted they were just herded into pens, clubbed, and loaded into huge steam heated digesters, 500–900 at a time, giving half a litre each. Eventually they digested 3,500 a day, with a further 500 being the fuel. From 1891 to 1919 he disposed of three million penguins until public outcry forced the Tasmanian government to suspend the practice.

The desperate situation caused some American entrepreneurs to consider that annoying black liquid that sometimes came out of the ground

The desperate situation caused some American entrepreneurs to consider that annoying black liquid that sometimes came out of the ground when you are drilling for water. Or just came out anyway, like it did at (what was naturally called) Oil Creek, Pennsylvania. Rock oil (petra oleum) had been used by the Chinese as fuel to evaporate brine, by the Greeks in warfare, and had been distilled by the Persians to make lamp oil. It had just not been worth bothering with when wood, coal and whale oil were so cheap.

They were helped by geologist Albert Gesner, who had experimented with extraction of substances from bitumen from Trinidad’s Pitch Lake. Eventually he discovered that he could distil a clean liquid in good amounts from oil shale, and set up the North American Kerosene Company, by 1859 producing 5,000 gallons/day of lamp oil, and numerous competitors followed.

Gesner’s 1854 patent was challenged by Scottish chemist James Young, known as “Paraffin Young”, who had the first commercial oil refinery in Glasgow in 1851 (producing lubricating oil, solvent naphtha and lamp oil) also from oil shale. He had taken the precaution of patenting in the US in 1852, so won, and received royalties thereafter.

Young’s “paraffine oil” was chemically similar to German paraffin wax – that comes from Latin. Gesner called it “kerocene” from the Greek word for wax – the same idea. The British had paraffin lamps, the Americans kerosene ones.
Victorian paraffin lamp

However, the discovery of oil by itself (if you drilled in the right area) changed the industry and the world. The shale oil industry lasted barely ten years, before the petroleum industry took over, making not just lamp oil, but also lubricating oil in large amounts. Famously the first commercial source was the Drake well (sited near Oil Creek), which reached oil in 1859, producing 2 m3/d but was overtaken by others and abandoned in 1861.

Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons
Edwin L Drake (right) and the Drake Well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, where the first commercial well was drilled in 1859 to find oil

The oldest “oil mine” in the world is in Poland at Bóbrka, and opened in 1854. Ignacy Łukasiewicz, an entrepreneurial Polish chemist who was responsible for its operations, said: “This liquid is the future wealth of the country, it’s the wellbeing and prosperity of its inhabitants, it’s a new source of income for the poor, and a new branch of industry which shall bear plentiful fruit.”

It is home to the Ignacy Łukasiewicz Museum of Oil and Gas Industry, but is also still producing. Łukasiewicz actually set up a kerosene street lamp and opened an oil distillery in 1856. Though it produced kerosene, there was little demand, so it mainly sold lubricating oil and tar.

(Top to bottom) Bóbrka mine, now the Museum of Oil and Gas Industry, and founder Ignacy Łukasiewicz

Similar things were happening in other countries, but the US is notable for the speed and the extent of exploitation by hundreds of entrepreneurs inventing the technology and the market as they went along. In 1871 Standard Oil was founded by sharp businessman John D Rockefeller and became an unprecedentedly huge and profitable business. Known as “S.O”, it became Esso and later Exxon.

Coal had been dry distilled for 20 years before oil to get the tar and liquid components in horizontal tubes typically 4 m in diameter and 12 m long. This gives a greater surface area for vaporisation (and also for heating) than pots of equal dimensions. The materials coming off in turn were identified by density. The same equipment was used for petroleum distillation in batch mode.

Eventually in the US the horizontal tube was replaced by the vertical one and the distillation column or tower appeared, now considered emblematic of the oil industry in particular, and chemical engineering in general, though they were generally batch until about 1920.

This was the column with reflux and a set of trays inside, an adaptation of a patent by Aeneas Coffey, which brought together several innovations for the alcoholic spirits industry. The development of good theory of distillation as well as the practical technology for scaleup were major US contributions to modern chemical engineering. They also took George Davis’ ideas and formalised them into unit operations.

HighKing/ Wikimedia/ Creative Commons
Coffey Still from Kilbeggan Distillery in County Westmeath in Ireland

In the early 19th century, Ireland was the world’s leading producer of whiskey, largely based on a copper version of the old alchemist’s alembic. Aeneas Coffey was a Customs and Excise Officer so inspected many. He retired in 1824 to run a distillery. Being interested in and aware of distillation technology including the Stein column still, he came up with improvements at his works, patenting it in 1830, getting it approved by Customs and Excise in 1832, and attempted to sell it to industry.

The Irish whiskey industry saw no need to change from its traditional ways, so he offered it to the Scots, then very much number 2 in the business. His design was steam heated, removing the danger of scorching and reducing downtime. It was more fuel efficient and gave a high alcohol concentration at a good rate per day. The canny Scots saw the economic advantages and adopted it, so that Scotch whisky overtook Irish whiskey. The English later used it for gin.
Coffey stills for whisky in the US were a model for early chemical engineers.

Careless operators of the old tube stills had sometimes overheated the late part of the run, causing molecules to break and lighter fractions to be produced. This was the basis for cracking by which oil producers were later able to adjust the portions produced to some extent.

Good theory of distillation as well as the practical technology for scaleup were major US contributions to modern chemical engineering

Kerosene was the premium product, lubricating oil the basic. Heavier oil could be used for fuel, and tar for roads, but the lighter fractions were largely waste. Gasoline was too volatile to be used in lamps so had little demand and was flared off.

This was the opportunity Henry Ford used with his Model T Ford. It was not just the relative cheapness of the car, but the fact that it ran on gasoline, a dirt-cheap fuel. (It had kerosene lamps.) Soon the motor industry and the oil industry were in synergy, and both eventually dominated the world.

Gasoline was too volatile to be used in lamps so had little demand and was flared off. Henry Ford used this to his benefit and the Model T Ford ran on gasoline

In 1912 Winston Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty of the UK) made the controversial decision that future British warships would be powered by oil, despite the fact that the UK had plenty of coal, and oil supplies were far away in the US or the Middle East. However, oil gave twice the energy of coal and much less smoke. It also required fewer stokers. The first was HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first of five dreadnought battleships, often used as a flagship, which served in both world wars.

Public domain/ Ernest Hopkins/ IWM/ Wikimedia Commons
Churchill made the decision that Battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth of The Royal Navy would be powered by oil (Pictured here in the First World War)

Oil gave twice the energy of coal and much less smoke…the ships were faster, better armed and could be refuelled at sea, leading to naval success

As a result, the ships were faster, better armed and could be refuelled at sea, leading to naval success. Because of this decision, in 1913 the UK Government took a 51% stake in Anglo-Persian Oil (which in 1954 became BP, now one of the largest energy companies in the world), and after the war was the controlling power in Iran until its independence in 1932.

The Shell Trading Company (1909 logo pictured left) was set up in 1833 to serve the Victorian hobby of collecting shells and making objects decorated with them. The Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) was an important source, where Royal Dutch Petroleum was later developing an oilfield. Eventually they were asked to include kerosene in a shipment to Europe. This expanded until they became transporters of oil products and the two companies merged in 1907, adopting the shell symbol.

The defeat of the Ottoman Empire (which was allied with Germany) in 1918 meant that its possessions were effectively divided up by the winning side, and the new countries of Iraq and Palestine were created to suit Britain and France in particular. Oil supplies were a significant consideration. HMS Queen Elizabeth was thus a major turning point in world history.

Initially the UK imported oil products, but in 1921 an oil refinery was set up at Fawley to deal with crude oil, just in time for this important aspect of chemical engineering to be of great interest to the new Institution of Chemical Engineers!

Sadly, the petroleum industry did not end whaling. In the 20th Century, better technology for finding, killing and processing these intelligent mammals in factory ships (whaling ship harpoon pictured above) reduced the costs of the products. One estimate was that the world whale population fell from 2.6 to 0.9m in this time, though it may be recovering.

Whale oil is not edible, but in 1907 it was hydrogenated for the first time in Germany to make a butter substitute, margarine, which became a staple through much of the century, especially in wartime.

Whale oil used in industry was called “train oil”. “Products from sea mammals” appeared on the ingredient labels of pet food in the UK until 1985, and on many cosmetics and some shampoos. In 2022 Japan, the notable reduction in demand for whale meat as human food means that stocks are being converted into pet food.

The Chemical Engineer

14 Comments on "The Story of Oil 1822–1922"

  1. Dredd on Sun, 17th Jul 2022 2:20 pm 

    This was posted in July 2022, the following was posted in April 2013 (Oil-Qaeda: The Deadliest Parasite Of Civilization).

  2. FamousDrScanlon on Mon, 18th Jul 2022 2:25 pm 

    Stupid fucking Americans did not have the first commercial oil well in N America.

    No surprise since Americans are well know as the worlds biggest liars. Their entire history is myth.

    MAGA-tards and others are ready for civil war 2.0 in a bid to bring back a past that never existed.

    Funny though because the real history of America is more interesting and colorful than the retard simple cartoon myth version.

    Story of Oil

    Oil Well at the Petrolia Discovery The discovery of oil at Lot 16, Concession 2 by James Miller Williams in 1858 changed the future of Enniskillen Township. The oil fields at Oil Springs proved to be the largest ever found in Ontario and was the site of the first commercial oil well in North America. Many American speculators bought up land in Enniskillen in hopes of striking “black gold” as that was the term oil was commonly called.

    As a result of the oil boom, in 1865, Oil Springs with a population of 2,000 separated from Enniskillen and became an incorporated village.

    In 1862, a private investor built a road of timber planks from Oil Springs to Wyoming. It is claimed that at one time no less than 27 refineries were operating in Oil Springs and 500 loads of oil were teamed daily by horses to Wyoming, the nearest rail port. The route was along what is now known as Oil Heritage Road (County Road 21), which were heavy of clay muck, forests and swamp lands, made travel very difficult. Only two barrels of oil on a stone boat float was all that a team could haul. The “Plank Road” maintained by tolls between Sarnia and Oil Springs was also completed in 1865 by the Sarnia & Florence Plank Road Company.”

    Not only was the first commercial oil well in Canada, but it was a Canadian who invented kerosene.


    “Long before the first oil find at Oil Springs in 1858, some reports mention the presence of bituminous sands at confluence of Athabasca and Clearwater Rivers. Around 1846, Dr. Gesner of Nova Scotia developed a refining process that transmuted coal, natural tar, and eventually oil into an illuminating fuel which he called kerosene; an alternative to the expensive whale oil.
    Charles Nelson Tripp was the first Canadian to recover the substance for commercial use. The year was 1851; the place, Enniskillen Township, near Sarnia, in present-day Ontario. It was there that Tripp started dabbling in the mysterious gum beds near Black Creek. This led to incorporation of the first oil company in Canada.
    Parliament chartered the International Mining and Manufacturing Company, with C.N. Tripp as president, on December 18, 1854. The charter empowered the company to explore for asphalt beds and oil and salt springs, and to manufacture oils, naphtha paints, burning fluids.
    Several factors contributed to the downfall of the operation. Lack of roads in the area made the movement of machinery and equipment to the site extremely difficult. And after every heavy rain the area turned into a swamp and the gum beds made drainage extremely slow. This added to the difficulty of distributing finished products.
    A Hamilton asphalt producer, James Miller Williams, an ex. carriage builder, purchased the Tripp properties. He formed J.M. Williams & Company in 1857.
    Williams dug a well a few yards down an incline from his plant. In 1858 at a depth of 51 ft the well struck oil. It became the first commercial oil well in North America, remembered as the Williams No. 1 well at Oil Springs, Ontario. It was a year before Colonel Drake’s historical oil find in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

    What do you call a people who have consistently lied for 250 years about being #1 in anything and everything? Insecure writ large. Sure they have many #1’s but just as many lies. This insecurity is why the US is leading western collapse by a significant margin. Paper men and paper nations crumble at the first sign of real adversity.

  3. Biden’s hairplug on Mon, 18th Jul 2022 4:43 pm 

    “The earliest known oil wells were drilled in China in AD 347 or earlier. They had depths of up to about 800 feet (240 m) and were drilled using bits attached to bamboo poles. The oil was burned to evaporate brine and produce salt.“

    North-America, ha!

  4. FamousDrScanlon on Tue, 19th Jul 2022 1:05 am 

    clog I never said in the world. I specifically said in N America – “Stupid fucking Americans did not have the first commercial oil well in N America.”

    I guess the years are finally catching up eh old timer. You can’t even get through 1 comment without forgetting what was written.

    There was a commercial in Poland before the one in Canada, but only those well read in oil matters would know that fact. Copy-N-Paste wikipedia instant scholars need not apply.

  5. FamousDrScanlon on Tue, 19th Jul 2022 1:12 am 

    Wire coat hangers coated in white lithium grease give the best abortions.

    Over $200k raised for doctor who performed abortion on 10-year-old rape victim

    “The doctor who performed an abortion on a 10-year-old rape victim has seen more than $260,000 in donations on a fundraiser.

    On Friday, abortion doctors from around the country spearheaded a GoFundMe campaign for Dr Caitlin Bernard, who has been attacked by the right for helping a child from Ohio receive an abortion last month. That 10-year-old was a victim of rape”

    The far right is pro child rape. It figures since 3/4 are incels who can”t get laid the civilized way.

    I’ve heard that tumbling down a long set of stairs can end a pregnancy right quick too.

  6. Cloggie on Tue, 19th Jul 2022 4:01 am 

    You are probably not going to believe this, but this Canadian guy claims that Swiss trains are even better than Dutch trains!

  7. Hello on Tue, 19th Jul 2022 5:29 am 

    >>> Swiss trains are even better than Dutch trains!

    I know, I know. That’s what I don’t like about switzerland. Way too efficient and way too perfect. Efficiency kills joy and “gemütlichkeit”. And it attracts people and business making switzerland a shithole of imported sludge.

    But then again, it’s switzerland, the perfection country. There’s a reason the sloppy dutch need swiss precision parts to get their asml machines going. The swiss make the functionality and the dutch bend the enclosure out of sheet metal, that’s about how much precision you can trust them with.

    It doesn’t stop there either. The dutch pretty much gave up on train building and are buying Stadler trains now. Of course made in Switzerland.

  8. Cloggie on Tue, 19th Jul 2022 5:48 am 

    “swiss parts in asml lithography machines”

    Google gives zero results. What part would that be?

    “There’s a reason the sloppy dutch need swiss precision parts to get their asml machines going.”

    I have worked for ASML for years, but can’t remember EVER to have come across of a Swiss part. ASML is largely grassroots Dutch and the most valuable high-tech company in Europe. You better stick to chocolate and army knives.

    “That’s what I don’t like about switzerland. Way too efficient and way too perfect.”

    I worked for the Red Cross in Geneva and ZKB in Zuerich. From that experience, I know that the Swiss are falling over from boredom.

    Nevertheless, I love the country and have been there at least 20 times, preferably Lauterbrunnen, Stechelberg, Mueren. Will definitely go there again.

    Yep, we have given up on trainbuilding, we can’t be good at everything.

    Wir haben Vollbeschaeftigung und haben die Nase vorn in Europe mit Einkommen und Export.

    Our next cash cow: Northsea and it endless potential for energy and hydrogen generation.

  9. Hello on Tue, 19th Jul 2022 6:17 am 

    >>> Wir haben Vollbeschaeftigung und haben die Nase vorn in Europe mit Einkommen und Export.

    Good for you. I wish switzerland be the opposite and everybody wanted to leave. I would then have the country for myself.

    Anyways, I was just in Hannover recently. I think I should have stopped by at your place for chat. 🙂 You ain’t far, right?

  10. Cloggie on Tue, 19th Jul 2022 7:52 am 

    “You ain’t far, right?”

    Some here would call me far right, that’s for

    “I wish switzerland be the opposite and everybody wanted to leave. I would then have the country for myself.”

    Taking geopolitical responsibility is not for you, right? Somebody needs to stop the Chinese and prevent them from taking over entire North-America. Gonna be us, Europeans, together with Russia.

    The Dutch are far more globalist thinkers than the Swiss, call us blond Jews. The English are isolationists because of the sea, the Swiss because of the mountains. We Dutch are flatlanders, bordering the sea and can see and travel far.

    – We discovered the far end of the planet New Holland (Australia), colonized Taiwan/Dutch Formosa (and brought the chinks there as Gastarbeiter), Indonesia, New York, gave name to the southern tips of Africa and South-America (Kaap de Goede Hoop, Kaap Hoorn). Built Jakarta, Kaapstad, New Amsterdam, Gothenburg, St. Petersburg, Danzig.

    – We were the first in the world to get industrialism going, thanks to the first exploitation of an external energy source, windmills, in the Zaan area, north of Amsterdam:

    – Together with the English, we defined the character of the United States (for better and for worse).

    – We invaded England, turned it into a decent Protestant, capitalist country and added Scotland and Northern-Ireland to it. Probably going to be reverted, because with Brexit, the English choose against time, out of nostalgia.

    – We played a crucial role after WW2 in bringing together the French and Germans in order to set up the European project, the next superpower and the world’s #1, “with two fingers in the nose”.

    – We still have the largest harbor in both the EU and US, a very globalist influence.

    I can live with 12% POCs. We are still whiter than the US ever has been, throughout its entire history. Not more, though.

    I’m hopeful that the EU will decide to locate the coming European microprocessor fab next to ASML (for that we need to decapitate these loud Dutch farmers and make some room in the meadows) and make more trillions. Eindhoven really has the potential to crush Silicon Valley.

    We will probably compete with China about the recolonization of Africa, but more interestingly the moon and planets.

    I like Swiss order for 2 weeks, but then I prefer a little disorder, a bit of creative shit:

    “Man muss noch Chaos in sich haben, um einen tanzenden Stern gebären zu können. (You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.)”

    ― Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra

    Too much order can be terminal, freezes things.

  11. Hello on Tue, 19th Jul 2022 1:50 pm 

    I raise you one, Clog. It’s the Swiss family of Habsburg that owned europe (and much of the world), including the netherlands.

    “erlangte es zeitweilig die Herrschaft über einen ausgedehnten Länderkomplex, der von Ungarn über Böhmen und die Niederlande bis nach Spanien und Portugal reichte und auch die Kolonialreiche der letzteren in Amerika, Afrika und Asien umfasste”

  12. Cloggie on Tue, 19th Jul 2022 3:11 pm 

    Damn, I didn’t know that, good for you:

    Guntram de Rijke had een zoon Lanzelin of Kanzelin, die graaf over Altenburg was, het huidige Zwitserse kanton Aargau. Rond 1020 richtte Guntrams kleinzoon Radbot (985-1045) het benedictijnenklooster Muri op en zijn broer Rudolf het Klooster Ottmarsheim. Rond 1020 werd door Radbot of ene Werner I (1030-1096) het kasteel Habsburg in de gelijknamige plaats Habsburg gebouwd. Daarnaast werden overigens ook andere kastelen gebouwd door de Habsburgers. Otto graaf van Habsburg (gestorven in 1111) was de eerste die zich Von Habsburg noemde. In de 11e en 12e eeuw bouwden de Habsburgers hun heerschappij uit. Ze verwierven rechten en voogdijen. Zo werden ze landgraaf in de Elzas en kregen ze de voogdij over het klooster in Straatsburg. Ze maakten aanspraak op de erfenis van de Kyburgers, waarmee ze landerijen in Schwyz, Unterwalden, Aargau en Uri verkregen.

  13. Hello on Wed, 20th Jul 2022 6:17 am 

    Damn globalist Habsburgs. They must have been jews, right?

  14. Biden's hairplug on Wed, 20th Jul 2022 6:50 am 

    Damn globalist Habsburgs. They must have been jews, right?

    No, they were Catholics, the antisemitic religion and Keepers of the Catholic Faith

    They were rolled back by the Protestants, spearheaded in Europe by Holland, who were indeed supported by the jews (I’m sorry to have to admit), the latter who needed Protestantism to succeed, because they, the Protestants, advocated “Freedom of Religion”, something that suited the jews like a hand in a glove.

    Some British right-wingers and Churchill opponents even claimed that your Calvin (real name Cohen) was a closet jew:

    The Netherlands fought against the Habsburgers Charles V and Phillips II and prevailed and as a result between 1648-1740, the Netherlands were the premier power in the world, having defeated the then #1 Habsburg Spain, had overrun Britain in 1689 and managed to keep Lou14 in check.

    After that Britain took gradually over from the Netherlands, due to population size and more important James Watt and his steam engine and because a winning system (Protestantism and capitalism) had been implemented in a country much larger than the Netherlands.

    Without Protestantism, the jews would never have attained the upperhand over the white race, after 1945, in order to destroy it from within with mass immigration from the Third World, a process that is still ongoing, but the end of that is in sight.

    The jews have destroyed the fabric of American society, the only serious power base they had, before they could destroy Europe and Russia, so the latter two can not only escape from the US, but even return the favor and “liberate them back” (during the upcoming CW2) and incorporate a new and more modest Yankee republic into global Eurosphere as a junior partner of Paris-Berlin-Moscow (all the lands surrounding the North Pole –> Boreas)


    (I claim copyrights to that term, my modest contribution to the noble science of geopolitics)

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