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Social Implications and History

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In the 19th century, the materials needs of a rapidly industrialising western world were met from wholesome, natural products. Hats, for instance, were made from beavers, and billiard balls from elephants. Whales provided both oil for lighting and whalebone for corsetry.

Chemists in the close of the 19th century were under pressure to find substitutes for these products as the costs involved in their exploitation rose higher and higher. The solution lay in a worthless black goo - mentioned by Marco Polo in his travels through the Empire of Kublai Khan, and soon to make the fortunes of John D Rockefeller, George Getty and the Nobel brothers...

For thousands of years, travellers had noted and commented on a liquid seeping from the ground that could be burned just like vegetable oils. Marco Polo reported a thriving trade in this substance near what is now Chechnya as he journeyed from Venice to Cathay. In most times and places, this crude oil was too malodorous and thick to be a useful commodity.

In the 19th century, the discovery that a simple process could produce a clean-burning oil for lighting from crude oil kicked off the first oil rushes. Interestingly, this tremendous social and economic development had its beginning in the hallowed halls of academia.

In 1855, Benjamin Sillian, chemistry professor at Yale, discovered that a mineral liquid (used so far by the Indians and the first settlers to make a bad, smoky and smelly light, and before that as a medicine), could, after a simple distillation, make lubricants and a wonderful, clean source of light, far cheaper that whale oil or natural gas. Following the spirit of the time, the professor started a company and began to dig for oil. In 1859 his well was producing more than 1000 gallons a day. The news of this stupendous discovery burst like a grenade and led immediately to a rush of scale never seen since the crazy times of the gold rushes. In one year, more than 2000 new wells were dug, each spitting more than 1000 barrels a day. A new industry was born. (Source:

"From the rock-oil might be made as good an illuminant as any the world knew. It also yielded gas, paraffin, lubricating oil. In short, your company have in their possession a raw material from which, by simple and inexpensive processes, they may manufacture very valuable products. It is worthy of note that my experiments prove that nearly the whole of the raw product may be manufactured without waste, and this solely by a well-directed process which is in practice in one of the most simple of all chemical processes." (distillation)
Prof. Benjamin Sillian

Names such as John D Rockefeller, whose wealth began on the oil fields of Pennsylvania, are associated with wealth beyond the dreams of avarice and the systematic crushing of all competition. While industrialist Alfred Nobel made his fortune with dynamite, his two brothers Ludvig and Robert were making even more money by exploiting the oil fields near Baku, then part of the Russian Empire.

Here are a few links to more information on some interesting aspects of the early petroleum industry:

Nobel brothers in Russia

Pennsylvania Oil Rush

John D Rockefeller and Standard Oil

Kerosene derived from petroleum replaced whale oil as a fuel for lighting and heating, whalebone corsets gave way to nylon (a synthetic polymer ultimately derived from petroleum) and other synthetic polymers (made from petroleum) replaced bone and ivory.

True, Akubras are still made out of rabbit fur, but most headgear is made from one sort of synthetic fibre or other (made from petroleum).