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The Rock Oil Report Gentlemen: I herewith offer you the results of my somewhat extended researches upon the Rock Oil, or Petroleum, from Venango County, Pennsylvania, which you have requested me to examine with reference to its value for economical purposes. —Benjamin Silliman Jr., Report on the Rock Oil, or Petroleum, from Venango Co., Pennsylvania (1855) If this modest introduction to a routine consulting report hinted at anything unusual,it was Silliman’s mention of “somewhat extended researches.” The impact of those researches would prove to be anything but typical or timid. Within a decade, commentators were pointing to Silliman’s report as the catalyst to developments in American petroleum.1 By the turn of the twentieth century , historians were identifying Silliman with the start of the modern oil industry .2 The Report on the Rock Oil is now the most famous consulting report ever written. For that reason alone, Silliman’s report merits a close look. Oddly enough, it has not received much attention. It is usually treated as a promotional tract, and Silliman’s role is reduced to mere endorsement. This perspective misses the specific reasons why the report was commissioned in the first place and, equally important, how it was written. Silliman, the consulting chemist, played the key role in deciding what to make of petroleum. On the one hand, that meant outlining the possible products to be manufactured. On the other, it meant evaluating and extending petroleum analyses. Silliman’s report thus conformed to the commercial culture of midcentury America and, at the same time, widened the stream of ongoing research on the chemistry of coal and oil. Silliman’s report has another somewhat famous feature, a rich correspondence surrounding it. Many letters among the “gentlemen,” and between them and Silliman, have survived; thus, historians have the rare opportunity to study an engagement from the perspective of both the capitalists and the consultant.3 189 CHAPTER 7 In that light, the business partners displayed all the anxieties and aspirations of adventurers staking their energy, cash, and reputations on the professional opinion of a distinguished man of science. Silliman, for his part, can be seen to be using an otherwise ordinary engagement to further his consulting practice and his own scientific research, right down to the purchase of new chemical equipment. That Silliman’s report was published allows the public and private elements of a consulting engagement to be compared and contrasted. It also makes clear the historical significance of this genre of scientific-commercial literature. For Silliman’s Report on the Rock Oil helped to make petroleum a science-based industry. The Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company In 18524 the physician Francis Beattie Brewer moved from Barnet, Vermont, to Titusville, a small town in northwestern Pennsylvania, to join the firm of Brewer,Watson and Company,“an extensive lumbering business on Oil Creek,” of which his father, Ebenezer Brewer, was a partner.5 Several oil springs were known to exist on the company’s property, and one had been worked for several years to provide a lubricant for sawmill machinery and possibly an illuminant for torches used in open parts of the lumber mill. Brewer had been introduced to petroleum by his father, who had sent him several gallons to examine while he was still practicing medicine in Vermont. Upon arriving in Titusville, Brewer learned that it was common for families in the area to have a little bottle of it “to administer externally in Rheumatism, continuous eruptions of all kinds, burns, scalds, cuts, bruises, and superficial inflammation; and internally for[numerous]diseases.”6 Petroleum’s“greatefficacyinseveraldiseases”spurred Brewer to explore the possibility of marketing it more widely as a “domestic remedy.”7 In the fall of 1853, on a return visit to New England, Brewer took a bottle of “Creek Oil” to show his friends and relatives.8 He gave a sample to his uncle, Dixi Crosby (1800–1873), professor of surgery and obstetrics at Dartmouth Medical School, where Brewer had studied medicine, and to Oliver P. Hubbard (1809–1900), professor of chemistry at Dartmouth College. Both pronounced the petroleum useful. Some weeks later, another former student, George H. Bissell (1821–1884), a lawyer from New York City, visited Dartmouth.9 Professor Crosby showed him the petroleum and “expatiated with great enthusiasm” upon its “wonderful properties.”10 Bissell, however, was not immediately impressed . He waited until the summer of 1854 before commissioning Albert H. Crosby, Dixi’s son, to...


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