Black gold: The triumph of oil



Yet within the single lifetime of some of its oldest inhabitants today, Europe has undergone an astonishing transformation, a transformation largely wrought by a different resource – oil. The vagaries of supply of that resource from inside and outside Europe have literally changed the history of the world.

As the new century began, the dominance of coal was to be challenged by oil, and at the same time the need for a nation to control its own resources within its frontiers became less important. The railway had allowed coal to be brought to landlocked cities, and electricity allowed power to be used away from its source. The increasing size of steamships, steam-powered cranes and mechanical systems for loading meant that raw materials could be brought from all over the globe to wherever industry might be sited, provide costs were competitive and that a country could pay for them.

19th century streets at night

19th century streets at night

The problems were not so much practical as political. To be sure of overseas supplies of strategic raw materials, merchant ships must be guaranteed a clear passage. As the Romans had seen the need to clear Mediterranean of pirates to ensure grain could flow to Rome, so Britain had to have mastery of the sea to guarantee an unimpeded exchange of trade with its empire. That was one reason why the Kaiser’s decision to built a huge fleet was seen in Britain as much a threat.

The lamplighter in 1808

The lamplighter in 1808

As Europe industrialised, the population had increased dramatically, from 140 million in 1750 to 423 million in 1900. With this expansion came a huge consumption of resources from overseas and one which was increasingly in demand was oil. Coal-gas was used for lightning in London from 1812, but until the 1860s, houses or factories remote from a supply of coal-gas had to rely on tallow candles and oil for light, which was made from vegetable or animal sources. New kinds of cheap oil lamps were readily affordable in Britain by the 1850s and a shortage of oil promoted a boom in whaling. Even the most distant corners of the Antarctic seas were hunted by five to six hundred whaling ships at a time. The price rose as demand outstripped supply, until turtles in Brazil and even penguins from the islands of the Southern Ocean were thrown into ‘digesters’ to be pressure-cooked into lamp oil.

18th century arctic whaling

18th century arctic whaling

the rising price also encouraged the use of another kind of oil found in the ground – petroleum. Natural seepages of oil and escapes of natural gas (which occurs in association with petroleum) had been known and used for thousands of years. In 1272, Marco Polo had described the sacred and eternal flame of gas burning in the Zoroastrian fire-temple at Baku in the Caucasus near the Caspian Sea, and some hillsides bore a crop of flames even in the 1900s. In the 17th century there was a ‘burning fountain’ near Grenoble, and even a burning spring of coal-gas at Wigan. Noah caulked his ark of gopher wood with pitch (made by burning crude oil), and the town of Hit provided pitch to caulk the canoes and coracles of the Marsh Arabs of the Mesopotamian estuary, a tradition which may go back 5000 years, when the same town had supplied the Babylonians with bitumen to consolidate their streets with a kind of asphalt.

Bitumen mortar used in Babylonian building

Bitumen mortar used in Babylonian building

Oil had been a natural pollutant of wells in Poland, and since medieval times peasants had used oil from seeps on the surface to grease the axles of their carts. In the 1840s, the story goes, Ignacy Łukasiewicza, who had graduated in pharmacy from Vienna University, was brought some of this oil by a peasant who had the bright idea of distilling it to make vodka. Łukasiewicza was looking for a replacement for expensive vegetable oil to use in lamps and, on 1 March 1853, the light of a kerosene (paraffin) lamp was publicly exhibited, illuminating his shop in Lvov. The next year he began what is claimed to be the world’s first commercial extraction of mineral oil, at Bobrka – from a hand-dug well – five years before the first well was drilled in America.

Advertising Saxoleine safety lamp oil, 1901

Advertising Saxoleine safety lamp oil, 1901

In 1859 Edwin Drake struck the first major oilfield with his first well drilled to a depth of 21 metres near Titusville in Pennsylvania. Two years later the brig Elizabeth Watts set sail from Philadelphia bound for London with cargo of kerosene, and the world’s richest export trade began. Łukasiewicza gave a deputation from Rockefeller the secret of how to distil kerosene, free of charge; and by 1865 Britain, France and Germany were importing American kerosene. Since the lubricant oils and paraffin wax previously supplied from whale oil were now mostly of mineral origin, the whaling industry collapsed, but not before it had done devastating damage to many species.

19th century oil well

19th century oil well

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