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The Elusive Nature of Oil and Its Markets The economic importance which petroleum has lately assumed gives a new interest to the chemical and geological history of this and various related substances. It is proposed in the following pages to bring together some facts and theoretical considerations bearing upon the nature, origin, and distribution of bitumens. —T. Sterry Hunt,“Contributions to the Chemical and Geological History of Bitumens,” American Journal of Science (1863) There was something old and something new about petroleum. Many regions where it occurred naturally in pools or springs had been mapped by geologists , and samples from around the world had been analyzed by chemists for their mineralogical compendia. Still, no one expected relatively large amounts to exist in the shallow subsurface until Edwin L. Drake bored his famous well. As the geologist T. Sterry Hunt observed, Drake’s discovery spurred men of science to reconsider their theories concerning bitumens, the substances they had been wrestling with for decades. Petroleum had become a hot research topic. That would not be the way most historians or modern scientists would describe geologists’ response to rock oil. On the contrary, geologists have been depicted as indifferent or oblivious to petroleum developments.1 Consider, for example, the astonishing opinion of Marius R. Campbell, president of the Geological Society of America in 1911. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to determine what were the opinions of scientific men of more than fifty years ago regarding the geologic relations of bitumens. . . . Even after the drilling of the first well and the resultant wave of commercial excitement, little was written on the subject for twenty or twenty- five years.2 208 CHAPTER 8 Campbell’s soupçon of science is belied by the volumes that nineteenthcentury geologists wrote about petroleum. Still, his restricted retrospect is not unusual.Oil historians often talk about twitching sticks and divining rods as the major (if not the only) methods for finding oil.3 For storytellers with a sensationalist streak, petroleum prospecting is often dramatized as a wild and woozy hunt, a drunkard’s chase with drillers lurching from one spectacular strike to another and thirsting for gushers as unpredictable as the muddy streets of the many boomtowns. Petroleum, unlike chemical and electrical manufacturing, the other new industries of the second half of the nineteenth century, seems to be a throwback to less enlightened times, an irrational and irresponsible industry , not a science-based one. Without denying that oil strikes were astonishing and frequently dangerous, it is nonetheless an exaggeration to characterize petroleum explorations as clueless stumbling in the dark. Boring for oil required money and equipment, hard labor and much time, and for those very material reasons,Americans wanted as much information as they could get before plunking down a derrick. Men of science might not have been consulted to the degree they were in the coal or kerosene industries (for reasons to be explained), but they published many useful studies of the geology and chemistry of petroleum, and within a year of Drake’s discovery, theories of petroleum’s origin and occurrence were being adopted and adapted in explorations for oil. Science was not so incompatible or incomprehensible as to be impractical. Often theories were developed with the cooperation of oil operators and well borers.“Science is busy giving us rules for gathering the oil,”one observer remarked,“and labor and capital are busy showing Science how she is partly right and partly wrong.”4 It was an ongoing dialogue , one that provided stimulus to science and to petroleum developments— and to technology. Drake’s discovery raised the inevitable question of what to do with the stuff. Petroleum was known in commercial circles as a possible substitute raw material for lamp oils and lubricants, but in August 1859 these markets were dominated by Kerosene and other coal oils. Marketing petroleum-based products would mean direct competition with this large industrial infrastructure. It would not be a simple case of substitution—petroleum for coal—despite the optimistic predictions of its promoters. Petroleum manufacturing would require its own techniques and tools. To stake such claims for the importance of geology and technological science is thus to take aim at prevailing historical interpretations. But the claims must not be overstated. Tens of refineries, hundreds of companies, and thousands of wells were started in the first five years (roughly 1859 through 1864); it is impossible to say what role science played in each. Nonetheless, the patterns...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781421402857
Related ISBN
9780801890031
MARC Record
OCLC
612809998
Pages
448
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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