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  • Finding Oil: The Nature of Petroleum Geology, 1859–1920
  • Kay Goldman
Finding Oil: The Nature of Petroleum Geology, 1859–1920, By Brian Frehner. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011. Pp. 248. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN 9780803234864, $50.00 cloth.)

In Finding Oil: The Nature of Petroleum Geology, 1859–1920, Brian Frehner states that “oil prospectors struggled for cultural, intellectual and professional authority—over nature and their peers”(2). This statement became his topic. Frehner equates academic knowledge gained by understanding petroleum geology with power and wealth earned in the oil industry. Although the title leads one to believe that the book is a history of oil discoveries based on geology, it is more than a story about the role geology played in locating and producing oil. It is a philosophical discussion about creating and developing the academic field of petroleum geology. Furthermore, Frehner situates Finding Oil at the confluence [End Page 214] of scientific fields with history and social sciences and considers the book an environmental history.

The story begins in Pennsylvania but quickly moves to the oil discoveries in Oklahoma. Frehner splits his narrative into three divisions. The first section explains how early “folk” prospectors used black boxes, witching sticks, or divining rods in attempts to locate oil. At times, these prospectors were successful, but he argues that this success was luck or instinct based on previous successes. These early practitioners became “practical men” who observed that often oil could be found around specific surface formations. Frehner equates these oilmen to wildcatters who did not know why they found oil on hills or along streams, but were frequently accurate when spotting wells. He emphasizes that unlike many resources, oil was hidden deep underground. This circumstance made locating oil more difficult than locating other natural resources, and this fact increased the importance of professional geologists. In the final section, Frehner details the proliferation of academically trained geologists who refined their theories after surveying geological formations, creating statewide geological surveys and collecting data to make observations more reliable and the study of geology more scientific.

Frehner’s work focuses on Oklahoma; he mentions Texas and California only tangentially. Frehner describes the evolution of the geology program at the University of Oklahoma, and provides a history of the state geological surveys. He develops his story by recounting the contributions made to geology by men such as Tom Slick, Charles Gould, and Henry L. Doherty, and he documents their influence on the University of Oklahoma, the United States Geological Survey, and Cities Service.

Although Frehner tends to tell his story in circles and often repeats himself, his selection of photographs and diagrams is informative. He even points out that at the turn of the century, between ten and twenty women enrolled in geology classes each year and many participated in summer field studies. These women, however, did not become petroleum geologists but were often hired by large oil companies to do comparative geology.

Although Frehner’s title indicates that the study ends in 1920, he extends the conclusion into the late 1930s and argues that by that time the success of petroleum geologists created a glut of oil on the market. Gloomily, he asserts that the glut destabilized the oil industry itself. Yet if he was going to look into the future, perhaps he should have looked a few years further to see that the abundance created by geologists contributed to the Allied victory in World War II. In sum, Frehner’s contribution is to explain how locating oil changed from a quack profession to a professionalized academic field.

Kay Goldman
Texas A&M University


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pp. 214-215
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