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A Lamp Lights the Way

Like most inventions, the oil industry grew out of a need. With the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, people were looking for a better way to light up the night. Candles were old-fashioned and whale oil had become steadily more expensive as whale populations were decimated by whalers. What was needed was a reliable, inexpensive light source.

People were also looking for good lubricant for the machinery the Industrial Revolution was spawning. Entrepeneurs were scrambling for ways to meet these demands and make a lot of money for themselves.

Scientists supplied the technology for extracting lighting and lubricating oils from coal and petroleum hydrocarbons. The lighting oil was called kerosene and was used in a cheap lamp, invented by a pharmacist in Europe -- with the help of a plumber.

Primitive Beginnings

This kerosene lamp started a limited and very primitive oil "industry" in Eastern Europe that produced only an estimated thirty-six thousand barrels of crude oil for kerosene production, its growth hampered by a drilling technology consisting of peasants digging shafts to crude oil deposits.

When the kerosene manufacturing technology and it's lamp immigrated to the United States, the pieces were in place for the birth of the Oil Industry.

The Right Man & Three Coincidences

George Bissell seemed an unlikely candidate for an industry revolution. On his own from the age of twelve, he worked his way through Dartmouth College by teaching and writing articles. He was a professor of Latin and Greek, then worked in Washington, D.C. as a journalist, and in New Orleans as a high school principal and superintendent of public schools.

In his spare time he studied to become a lawyer and taught himself a bunch more languages. Finally ill health forced him to head North in 1853, putting him in place for his first coincidence.

Passing through Pennsylvania, he saw the primitive oil-gathering industry. He knew a bit about rock oil and its properties, so when he noticed a bottle of Pennsylvania rock oil while visiting Dartmouth, this second coincidence got him wondering if it could be used for lighting instead of healing. He got some investors interested, then commissioned a prominent scientist at Dartmouth to test the rock oil for them.

When Bissells' hopes were confirmed by science, the group formed the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company. Their goal was to discover a new source for the raw material used to develop kerosene in sufficient abundance to capture the illuminating oils market and make boat loads of money.

To accomplish this, they had to find a better way to collect the rock oil. Digging wouldn't do it. Coincidence number three gave Bissell the last piece of his puzzle.

Taking refuge from the sun, under the awning of a druggist shop, he saw an ad for rock oil medicine that was illustrated with salt bore drilling derricks. The rock oil for the medicine had been obtained as a by-product of drilling for salt. Could salt drilling technology be adapted to drill for oil, he wondered?

The First Oil WellBissell wasn't the only person to ask this question, but his was the only group ready to move on it. He hired "Colonel" Edwin L. Drake, a man without obvious qualifications and a bogus military rank to drill their well. There were numerous setbacks and the enterprise was out of money when, on August 28, 1859, Drake hit oil and started a "blackgold" rush. Bissell made his fortune and started a whole new industry.

The Oil Industry Today

Drilling for oil in a complex, often risky, and expensive under taking, so oil companies want to drill wells where there is enough crude oil to make it worth their while. They hire scientists, called geologists, to study the topography (the part of the earth that can be seen, such as hills and valleys) for rock formations where crude oil is likely to be found.

Companies have even started drilling offshore from platforms standing on the ocean floor in order to keep up with the demand for petroleum. Sometimes the wells have to be drilled very deep to reach the crude oil.

Drilling DiagramUsually the crude oil in a new well comes to the surface under its own pressure. Later it has to be pumped or forced up with injected water, gas, or air. Pipelines or tankers transport it to refineries, where it is refined into the various petroleum products, such as natural gas, gasoline, naphtha, kerosene, diesel fuel, heating oils, and tars.

The leading producers of petroleum are Russia, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, China, Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Nigeria, Kuwait, and Norway. The largest petroleum reserves are in the Middle East.



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