Scientists and Swindlers: Consulting on Coal and Oil in America, 1820–1890 (review)
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Scientists and Swindlers: Consulting on Coal and Oil in America, 1820–1890. By Paul Lucier. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. Pp. xiii+426. $65.

A geophysicist with a Ph.D. in history, Paul Lucier has written an insightful study of scientific consulting practices that integrates business, geology, and environmental issues with the larger context of the early history of the American "fossil fuel" industry. Lucier begins his book thus: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a scientist in possession of experience and expertise must be in search of funding" (p. 1), and this theme permeates his narrative. He explains that it was the North American geological and natural-history surveys conducted during the first three decades of the nineteenth century that established a model for state support of geologists, chemists, botanists, zoologists, and mineralogists. Some of these scientists by necessity exercised entrepreneurial skills and worked as "consultants," that is, for a fee. While Lucier acknowledges that the physical scientists of that era (astronomers, physicists, mathematicians) were not commonly engaged [End Page 743] in consulting work, he points out that most scholars of early American science have given more attention to the development of the physical sciences and therefore have ignored the significant role that consulting played generally in scientific work. Lucier examines the coal, kerosene, and oil businesses in the United States, focusing on the consulting which developed into a significant business activity in itself. Any mixture of science and commerce, Lucier also states, portends the possibility of corrupt practices and swindlers.

Lucier divides his book into three sections, one each for coal, kerosene, and petroleum. He first examines the twenty-five-year story of the "Albert mineral," so named after its location of discovery in Albert County, New Brunswick. In this episode, scientists, lawyers, and commercial interests sought to legally define this substance as either being coal-like or petroleum-like. An array of geologists were involved, including Charles Jackson, Abraham Gesner, and Charles Lyell. While the legal issues remained as conflicted as the scientific ones, the case highlighted the new role of the scientific expert in lawsuits, and it also contributed to the new scientific inquiry into the nature of coal, its formations and its locations.

It was from the early geology-based mining work of Amos Eaton and Benjamin Silliman Sr. that American consulting began. Lucier describes how "on most occasions, geologists and capitalists were not in conflict. After all, the latter were paying for the expertise" (p. 120). The work product of the interaction between geologist and capitalist was the consulting report, which was typically conveyed orally. When these reports were published, often they followed positive guidelines mutually agreed upon beforehand.

As with coal, the development of kerosene became embroiled in legal controversy. As a founder of the North American Gas-Light Company, which produced "coal oil" as a replacement for whale oil—theretofore commonly used for lighting—Abraham Gesner took the lead in patenting "Kerosene" and marketing it, beginning in 1854. Later, the word kerosene became generic and described the flammable liquid in most any mineral-based oil lamp.

While the early history of kerosene was that of oil distilled from coal, the next stage was part of the much larger history of the new petroleum era: "rock oil," or petroleum. Benjamin Silliman Jr.'s 1855 Report on the Rock Oil is perhaps, as Lucier writes, "the most famous consulting report ever written" (p. 189). By essentially affirming the potential uses of petroleum, this report provided the scientific basis for the soon-to-be oil boom that began with Edwin Drake's oil strike in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859.

The professionalization, or "Americanization," of science and engineering occurred as universities established academic programs to teach aspiring practitioners, and new professional societies such as the American [End Page 744] Society of Civil Engineers and the American Institute of Mining Engineers began the process of bringing standardization and formalization to education and practice. Lucier concludes by analyzing the sometimes conflicting goals of "applied science" and "pure science." Proponents of the former tended to be more optimistic about the benefits of the interactive nature of applied scientific work and industry...


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