Hydrocarbons Through the Ages

Oil and gas before the landmark Drake Well

Colonel Edwin L. Drake’s 1859 well in Pennsylvania initiated the rapid commercial growth of the petroleum industry. For the next three decades, industry activity and related literature were dominated by and centered upon Pennsylvania and adjacent states. Knowledge of oil and gas in other regions was already significant before 1859, but much of it had been retired to the back shelves of libraries by the time the oil industry expanded to a global scale in the 20th century.

As an out-of-control retirement hobby, I have worked at locating pre-Drake published references to hydrocarbons and collecting images of the relevant text. To date, I have captured more than 1,000 publications, with a comparable number of cited references I have yet to find, and in the process, I have uncovered many interesting topics.

Many of the pre-Drake citations were listed in three early petroleum bibliographies, produced by Gulishambarov in 1883, Peckham in 1884 and Redwood in 1913.

Ancient Times

Oil and gas was known and collected at seeps by native populations around the globe, utilized for fuel, medicine, construction and other purposes, depending on the properties of the hydrocarbons. Petroleum was described at multiple locations in eastern Europe and the Middle East by early Greek scholars such as Pliny the Elder and Herodotus, and it is mentioned several times in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. It was considered to be a major component of the “Greek fire” used in ancient naval warfare.

Outcropping solid hydrocarbons, such as asphalt, had been used since antiquity. Early archaeologists found that it had been used as a mortar in building construction for the ancient city of Babylon, apparently produced at the town of Hit on the Euphrates River. Asphalt appeared to have been used for embalming Egyptian mummies, with material probably sourced from what the Greeks knew as Lake Asphaltites, known today as the Dead Sea.

Since at least the 2nd century A.D., several thousand brine wells in China’s Sichuan region had been producing associated gas, which was distributed through bamboo pipes for street illumination and salt manufacture. At the time of the Drake Well, an 1812 well in China held the world depth record at 3,000 feet.

Image Caption

Mud volcanoes at Turbaco, Colombia (Humboldt 1810)

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Colonel Edwin L. Drake’s 1859 well in Pennsylvania initiated the rapid commercial growth of the petroleum industry. For the next three decades, industry activity and related literature were dominated by and centered upon Pennsylvania and adjacent states. Knowledge of oil and gas in other regions was already significant before 1859, but much of it had been retired to the back shelves of libraries by the time the oil industry expanded to a global scale in the 20th century.

As an out-of-control retirement hobby, I have worked at locating pre-Drake published references to hydrocarbons and collecting images of the relevant text. To date, I have captured more than 1,000 publications, with a comparable number of cited references I have yet to find, and in the process, I have uncovered many interesting topics.

Many of the pre-Drake citations were listed in three early petroleum bibliographies, produced by Gulishambarov in 1883, Peckham in 1884 and Redwood in 1913.

Ancient Times

Oil and gas was known and collected at seeps by native populations around the globe, utilized for fuel, medicine, construction and other purposes, depending on the properties of the hydrocarbons. Petroleum was described at multiple locations in eastern Europe and the Middle East by early Greek scholars such as Pliny the Elder and Herodotus, and it is mentioned several times in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. It was considered to be a major component of the “Greek fire” used in ancient naval warfare.

Outcropping solid hydrocarbons, such as asphalt, had been used since antiquity. Early archaeologists found that it had been used as a mortar in building construction for the ancient city of Babylon, apparently produced at the town of Hit on the Euphrates River. Asphalt appeared to have been used for embalming Egyptian mummies, with material probably sourced from what the Greeks knew as Lake Asphaltites, known today as the Dead Sea.

Since at least the 2nd century A.D., several thousand brine wells in China’s Sichuan region had been producing associated gas, which was distributed through bamboo pipes for street illumination and salt manufacture. At the time of the Drake Well, an 1812 well in China held the world depth record at 3,000 feet.

In Burma (Myanmar), near the Irrawaddy River, an estimated 520 wells produced more than 500,000 barrels of oil per year for illumination, wood preservation and medicine. Multiple travelers described this oil field development in the early 19th century, often in English because of the region’s British Empire status.

The most widely known ancient oil fields were near Baku, on the Absheron Peninsula on the west coast of the Caspian Sea. Previously within Persia, they were controlled by Russia after 1804 and are now part of Azerbaijan. By the end of the 19th century, this region would become the world’s leading oil producer, as the very shallow original wells proved to overlie multiple giant oil fields. Much of the attention given by travelers, dating back to Marco Polo in the 13th century, was due to the visual effect of the enormous mud volcanoes driven by massive oil and gas seeps, and the fire worship temples with turrets fed by this gas.

The 16th to 18th Centuries

Petroleum literature expanded significantly in the 16th century, with extensive coverage of the topic in books written by Agricola, Biringuccio and Palissy. Another book, published in 1558 by Nicolò Zeno, contained a description by his ancestors, the Zeno brothers, of the first discovery of petroleum in the western hemisphere, in Nova Scotia, on their purported North Atlantic expedition in the 1390s, a century prior to Columbus.

The origin and nature of coal, petroleum and natural gas were significant factors in the Neptunism versus Plutonism debates of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which focused on the influence of heat in the process of rock formation. Extensive discussion regarding hydrocarbons can be found in the works of Neptunist Richard Kirwan and Plutonists James Hutton and John Playfair.

Prior to the discovery of nuclear decay, subsurface burning of oil and gas was considered a likely source of heat for volcanic activity. This concept was supported by seeps initiated by volcanic and earthquake activity in well-known locations such as Mount Vesuvius and Mount Etna, and the similar visual appearance of mud volcanoes associated with hydrocarbons. Surface fires at oil and gas seeps became the focus of religious attention, such as in Zoroastrianism and the fire temples at Baku, and were used in fictional accounts (such as “Paradise Lost” and “Frankenstein”) as evidence for the pathways whereby Satan’s followers reached the surface of the Earth.

Local use and commercial marketing of petroleum types for human and veterinary medicine was widespread. External applications were used for a variety of skin problems, such as burns, scrapes, cuts, infections and leprosy, but also for rheumatism and a variety of internal limb discomforts. In a few cases, oil was described as an effective and rapid cure for broken bones. Oral consumption was variously recommended as a treatment for cholera, digestive disorders, dysentery, menstrual problems, headaches, tapeworms and venereal infections. It was also desirable to consume as a cordial in some cultures. Medicinal spas were developed near some oil and gas seeps, although the associated mineral water was also considered to be important.

Barbados Tar, known since the 17th century, had a distinctive green color and was collected near the shoreline of Barbados and nearby islands. By the 19th century, it was recognized as a standard medicinal product and was the most commonly referenced type of petroleum in the medical literature. By that time it had, to some extent, become a generic product, because similar material from other regions and manufactured coal tar were both sometimes marketed while using the “Barbados Tar” name, even though a few authors insisted that the original from the West Indies was more effective.

The presence of Barbados Tar was included in reports that followed the giant (estimated 8.4 magnitude) 1755 earthquake offshore from Lisbon, Portugal, which killed an estimated 30-50,000 people. Twenty-foot waves from the resulting trans-Atlantic tsunami hit the Barbados shoreline, and the water was observed to be black due to the large quantity of tar eroded from the adjacent seabed.

The 1800s

The growth of the geological profession in the early to mid-1800s resulted in major improvements in the scientific understanding of hydrocarbons and the rocks with which they were associated. Governmental exploration with naturalists on staff became common for frontier areas, and a number of previously unknown seeps were reported. Governmental geological surveys were conducted for almost every state and Canadian province in eastern North America, with identification of oil and gas a priority because they were considered to be potential indicators for commercial coal deposits. By the 1850s, geological maps were available in varying degrees of detail for every continent except ice-covered Antarctica.

Laboratory methods were evolving to assess the composition and applications for numerous hydrocarbon types. Some of the research was designed to find alternative resources for the manufacture of products derived from whale oil, because the North Atlantic whaling industry was in a state of collapse due to excessive overharvesting.

Coal gas manufacturing for municipal lighting was a mature industry, dating back to the late 1700s in England, with active programs in most of the major American cities by the mid-1800s. Research was being conducted to find additional uses for the gas and markets for the liquid byproducts. Extensively reviewed source material for New England came from the Albert Mine in New Brunswick. A major legal battle, accompanied by multiple scientific publications, was waged over whether albertite was coal or a solidified hydrocarbon, because the mineral ownership depended on the result. The court erroneously concluded that albertite was coal.

Coal gas (methane) was becoming the gas of choice for balloon flights, beginning in 1821. These inspired “bird’s-eye” views of major topographic features, such as Niagara Falls, as early as 1831 in geological publications. A world-record, non-stop 1,150-mile flight from St. Louis to upstate New York was accomplished in early 1859, and an advanced model intended for the first trans-Atlantic flight (later cancelled) was under construction in New York City while the Drake Well was being drilled.

The use of asphaltic material for paving and construction in Europe was expanding rapidly in the 19th century, with Paris as a major location for this application. The source material came from surface deposits at Seyssel (Pyrimont) and Lobsann (Alsace) in eastern France and Val de Travers (Neufchatel) in Switzerland. Plans for similar activity were developing in New England, with a location in the West Indies as the most likely source for the asphalt. The Trinidad Pitch Lake, first described as a site for ship trimming by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1596, had developed a reputation as the largest petroleum accumulation in the western hemisphere, was well documented in the scientific literature and was accessible for marine transportation to coastal markets. The enormous resources of Athabasca in western Canada had also been reported by multiple exploring expeditions, but commercial activity was hindered by its remote location.

In North America, pre-Drake published locations of oil and gas occurrences were available within what would become 31 states in the United States and five Canadian provinces. Oil or gas had been encountered in pre-Drake wells, drilled or dug for fresh water, brines for salt manufacture or mineral exploration, in at least 35 locations in 11 states and two Canadian provinces. Gas flows had been encountered in the deepest North American well (2,199 feet) in St. Louis. Field development, originally with hand-dug wells, was under way at Enniskillen in western Ontario, Canada, in the late 1850s.

The number of known oil occurrences was at least as high in Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia. Some of the better-known European wells were at Wigan and Broseley, in England, and at Amiano, Italy. My compilation of oil shows in the eastern hemisphere has been more complicated and somewhat delayed, because of the number of different languages in use, the shifting geographic boundaries and location names, and a limited ability to access many of the cited publications.

The largest estimated North American pre-Drake flow rate was approximately 2,500 barrels of oil per day from an 1829 well drilled for salt water near Burkesville, Ky. The well was abandoned due to lack of a market, after causing the adjacent Cumberland River to catch fire, but was later reopened as the source for “American Oil,” which was marketed for medicinal purposes. That commercial success inspired Samuel Kier, who operated salt wells near Tarentum, Pa., to also bottle and sell associated oil for the medicinal market. The depiction of wellbores as the oil’s source in Kier’s advertising influenced the owners of medicinal oil property along Oil Creek at Titusville, Pa., to hire Drake to drill a well rather than continue to rely on surface oil seeps.

As the 1850s came to a close, a paper was published that reviewed the global distribution of naphtha, with a combined listing of almost 100 separate locations, but no mention of the state of Pennsylvania. Then along came the Drake Well, conventional wisdom was immediately altered, and the whale oil and coal oil industries fell by the wayside (to the delight of the surviving whale population).

After Drake

Following the Drake Well discovery, early exploratory success was very limited at most of the previously described locations, with Pennsylvania and Baku as major exceptions. The majority of early observations involved hydrocarbons found at or near outcrops, but they were more effective at defining the margins of potentially productive basins or the identity of high-quality source rocks than the best location for a prospective exploratory well. If someone were to envision the possibility of a shale play 200 years ago, the Marcellus would have been near the top of the list.

If all goes according to plan, my entire hard copy collection (more than 15 feet of shelf space) of pre-Drake petroleum references, as well as access to digital files, will be on display and available for inspection in September at the annual meeting of the Petroleum History Institute in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Comments (1)

Oil and gas before the landmark Drake Well
Oil and gas before the landmark Drake Well, well done, well written and succinct. Thanks for sharing.
4/13/2021 9:17:44 AM

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