In 1861 a cartoon depicting whales rejoicing at a party appeared in Vanity Fair. What were the whales celebrating?

The discovery of oil in Pennsylvania. At the time whales were mercilessly hunted for their oil which was the ideal fuel for lamps. But much to their relief, in 1859 Colonel Edwin Drake drilled his famous well near Titusville and the hunt for oil shifted from the waters of the oceans to the soil of Pennsylvania. Oil had long been known in the area, but was usually disdained for contaminating salt wells. In the 1800s extracting salt from underground deposits was a profitable industry in Pennsylvania. A well would be drilled and water piped down to dissolve the salt. Then the salty water would be pumped to the surface and allowed to evaporate, leaving crystalline salt behind. But sometimes, much to the annoyance of the salt miners, the salty water coming out of a well would be contaminated by oil. They didn’t know what to do with the cruddy material, but Samule Kier had an idea. Sell it as medicine! “Kier’s Rock Oil” was claimed to cure burns, ulcers, cholera, asthma, indigestion, rheumatism and even blindness. Business must not have been too great, possibly because of the blindness claim. That claim is not usually made by the producers of quack products, because, let’s face it, a blind person can readily determine if the product works or not. In any case, Kier, looking for other uses for oil, sent a sample off to a chemist in Philadelphia who suggested distilling it to collect a fraction that could be sold as “carbon oil” to be used in lamps. Kerosene, as we now call the distillate, became popular and stimulated Kier to build the first-ever petroleum distilling still. Others quickly got into the game, and the hastily formed Seneca Oil Company hired Colonel Edwin Drake to explore the possibility of drilling for oil. Drake was not a colonel of any kind but the Company thought that a military title would be more attractive to investors. Drake in turn hired William Smith, an experienced salt well digger. Things did not go well and the investors were losing patience. But on August 28, 1859, Smith noticed oil floating in a hole they had been drilling and the Pennsylvania oil boom was under way. The very same day, Drake received a letter from the investors asking him to forget the whole business and close up shop. Of course, the opposite happened and almost overnight Titusville grew from 250 residents to over 10,000. Jonathan Watson, the gentleman who owned the land where Drake had drilled his well became the world’s first oil millionaire. Until the Texas oil boom some fifty years later, Pennsylvania produced half the world’s oil. Unfortunately it also was the site of the first major oil accidents. On Black Friday, as it came to be known, in 1880, a lightning strike ignited 300,000 barrels of oil causing a fire that burned for three days. Another lightning strike fourteen years later caused an explosion that killed sixty people. Drake’s discovery changed the world, in more ways than one. Oil would eventually heat our homes, fuel our cars and source the myriad chemicals that define modern life. But it would also set the stage for climate change.

 

Joe Schwarcz

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