The greasy slime that changed the world

There are just a handful of inventions in human history that can claim to have transformed the world. The printing press, movable type, mass production. Among them must be the marriage of petroleum and the combustion engine.

In the mid 1800s the northwest of Pennsylvania was a rugged and inhospitable place. Hardy souls worked lumber down the Allegheny River and others found a living in saw mills and poor farms. Even the water didn’t come easy – it was always covered in a greasy film. When you cleaned it you could burn the scum in a lamp but that hardly seemed like much comfort.

In typical American fashion, entrepreneurial sorts bottled this ‘rock-oil’ and sold it along with snake-oil as a patent medicine. But the revolution was triggered when the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company sent a sample to Yale University for analysis.

Professer Silliman’s historic report of 1855 showed that rock oil could be easily refined into useful products. Lubricating oil, gas and especially paraffin for lamps could be made cheaply and with little waste given a good supply of this greasy Pennsylvanian slime.

The man credited in popular history with ‘discovering’ oil is Edwin Drake. In 1859 he drilled the first artesian well in Pennsylvania and discovered an abundance of the stuff four hundred feet down. There followed an insane scramble for oil leases. The poor farms in the new oil fields made a million dollars – a staggering amount in the 1860’s.

The industrialising world had an insatiable thirst for oil products and oil fields sprang up across the globe. In the furious competition one man and one company emerged supreme. John D Rockefeller established ‘Standard Oil’ in 1870, initially employing door-to-door salesmen. The market had been chaotic, with quality and price differing from place to place. Rockefeller and his peddlers brought harmonisation. Rockefeller’s lamp oil is credited with banishing darkness from America.

Prone to extremes of business ruthlessness on one hand and Christian philanthropy on the other, Rockefeller wound up being despised and revered in equal measure. There was no doubting his success though. He was the world’s first billionaire and was rich enough in his day to make Bill Gates look poor by comparison. At his height he held 90 per cent of the world’s refineries, 90 per cent of the world’s oil products and a third of the world’s oil wells.

This was just too much. Standard Oil was broken up in 1911 by US anti-trust laws. Its component parts have become household names – Texaco, Exxon, Esso, Mobil and others.

By the 1890s the automobile was beginning to be produced in significant numbers. However the automobile revolution is probably best dated from 1903, when the Ford Motor Company was founded and the first ‘Model A’ produced.

The Model T came along in 1908. Costing a mere $400, the ‘Tin Lizzy’ brought car ownership (just ) into the range of the common man. The average wage at the time was a little over $10 a week. With Tin Lizzies running on Standard Oil the automobile went on to change the world.

Jerrycans of petroleum bought at the chemists could not keep up with the new levels of demand. The shape of things to come first appeared, appropriately enough, in the Pennsylvanian capital of Pittsburgh where in 1913 the first service station was opened.

The Gulf Refining Company installed a pagoda-style shelter with pumps and storage tanks. They opened their doors on 1st December and sold the princely amount of 30 gallons at 27 cents each. It was clear they were on to a winner, though. Sales rose tenfold within days as word spread. Services like free tyre installation, air and water brought custom from far and wide.

In 2013 there are now more than a billion motor vehicles in the world. The technology that so transformed the last century is now a permanent part of our daily lives. The challenges of managing the use of that technology and of finding a cleaner replacement for the greasy slime are the ones that face us now.


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