Although oil is pervasive across our day-to-day lives and the structures of our society, it has only been about 160 years since drills struck rock oil for the first time in the U.S., and just over a century since oil became our dominant source of power.
Oil was far from a new discovery. Ancient civilizations had used bitumen – a thick, black form of petroleum – on various continents and in various ways, including to bind materials, repel water, construct buildings, hold mosaics in place, grease chariots, embalm mummies, and caulk canoes.1,2 In many places the bitumen (or other related substances) bubbled to the surface of the earth through petroleum seeps.
By 500 B.C., however, the Chinese had extracted oil and natural gas in eastern parts of the country through 100-foot wells connected to bamboo pipes.3 Later, around the turn of the tenth century, Muslim scholar Muhammad al-Razi described processes for distilling kerosene for heating and lighting (about a century before such lamps would arrive in the West),4 and within about 200 years, Chinese polymath Shen Kua anticipated the broad future applications of petroleum.5
But the first drill to hit oil in the U.S. – in Titusville, Pa., in 1859 – unleashed the power of petroleum in a new way. Over the next 50 years, commercial interests swarmed into places like Baku, Russia, Sumatra, Persia, and Texas. Thomas Edison’s demonstration of the incandescent light bulb was followed quickly by the invention of a gasoline-powered motor car and its introduction to the mass market. By 1900, the number of power stations across the U.S. had exploded,6 an early sign of the connected power grid that would follow, and in 1913, the first drive-in gas station opened at the corner of Baum Boulevard and St. Clair Street in Pittsburgh.7
Poised to take advantage of this breakneck expansion was John D. Rockefeller, the son of a traveling salesman who, recognizing the growing demand for kerosene, had invested in a Cleveland oil refinery in 1863. As the market for oil expanded, he built Standard Oil, a corporate empire that controlled the industry, drew the scrutiny of muckraking journalists,8 and led to a famous 1911 Supreme Court decision that dissolved his company9 and helped strengthen the federal regulatory regime. (The decision didn’t really hurt him; he became America’s first billionaire five years later.)
By World War I, it was clear how dependent the world had become on oil; on both the battlefront and the homefront, it was viewed as a key military and civilian asset – a realization that presaged crises and conflicts over the next several decades.10
This headlong rush to find and harness oil may be best described in Daniel Yergin’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, The Prize. In his prologue, he frames the story:
“In the twentieth century, oil, supplanted by natural gas, toppled King Coal from his throne as the power source for the industrial world. Oil also became the basis of the great postwar suburbanization movement that transformed both the contemporary landscape and our modern way of life. In the twenty-first century, we are so dependent on oil, and oil is so embedded in our daily doings, that we hardly stop to comprehend its pervasive significance. … For most of the twentieth century, growing reliance on petroleum was almost universally celebrated as a good, a symbol of human progress. But no longer in the twenty-first century.”11
5Clannel, Palmer Andrew.Introduction to Petroleum Exploration and Engineering. World Scientific, 2016. Accessed through Google Books.
11Yergin, Daniel. The Prize, The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power. Free Press, 2009.