A Brief History of the End of Time
— 4. A Brief History of Oil —
The world is addicted to petroleum
"The world is addicted to petroleum," said Doctor Alistair Barkley in Chain Reaction, and he was right. From rubber, polyprops and detergents, insecticides and fertilizers to lubricants, dopes and fuel, even the very blacktop on which we drive is derived from the thick black mixture of hydrogen-carbon compounds the Romans once called 'petrae-oleum,' or oil from rocks (as opposed to oils from olives or wood etcetera, which are also hydrocarbon based).
Petroleum gave us an over-abundance of light, speed and even wings and the ability to reach more people, more regions and more objectives in one lifetime. It allowed us to put a man on the moon, which was a small step practically but a giant leap symbolically since it marked the point at which mankind was able to flee the confinement of earth. The power and wealth of nations is determined from their petroleum production, and that even includes the right to be defended by others in case of an invasion. Petroleum has profoundly changed man's way of life, and a peculiar notion that is often overlooked is that with every mile we drive we cremate the remains of our deceased ancestors.
There are various theories concerning the details of hydrocarbons forming but the main idea is that over the last six-hundred million years or so organic material and inorganic sediment formed layers of porous rock that where sealed off from air and in which the carbon-based corpses could not be utterly decomposed and redeposit into the biosphere. The residue of this stalled digestion process has been waiting for eons to be brought back in contact with oxygen, so that it may finally fall apart and partake in the cycles that make our planet alive. When hydrocarbons react with oxygen, which is the case when it ignites, carbon dioxide and water are the result. Smoke is the result of either an incomplete combustion or contamination of the hydrocarbons.
Carbon atoms, either alone or in groups, connect to hydrogen to form various hydrocarbon molecules. The qualities of the compounds depend solely on the amount of atoms incorporated in the molecule. The lightest hydrocarbon consists of a single carbon atom connected to four hydrogen atoms and the longer the molecular chain becomes the higher the density of the material. Under nominal atmospheric pressure and temperature, CH4 or methane, C2H6 or ethane, C3H8 or propane and C4H10 or butane appear as gasses. C5H12 or pentane boils at 36 C and up to C18H32 the molecules generally form liquids (benzene for instance is C6H6). Molecules with more than nineteen carbon atoms form solids, which may vary from greases such as Vaseline to rock hard asphalt.
When mankind picked up the torch
At least as far back as the time of Noah mankind has been leaning heavily on these crude natural products more generally called petrobitumen and which could be found at earth's surface in pools and small wells. Natural pitch and asphalt were used to seal boats such as the ark, built structures such as the tower of Babel and even to lose nasty folk in such as the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah in the famous War of Four against Five Kings. Ancient Mesopotamia had its share of Eternal Flames, which were most likely maintained by gaseous hydrocarbons that seeped to the surface from the depths where they had been formed. The Egyptians bought asphalt from the peoples of the Dead Sea area to balm their deceased. Greece and Rome used petroleum for cosmetic purposes, warfare and illumination, and emperor Nero even embraced the morbid habit of having arrested Christians covered with pitch and igniting them to illuminate his wanton parties as human torches.
As seen in Braveheart, the Europeans used it lavishly to exterminate approaching bad guys and to set cities ablaze with ignited arrows steeped in crude. In early nineteenth century Europe entire buildings and streets where illuminated by petroleum and even some rudimentary distillates. Native Americans used it in rituals, for medicinal purposes and as base for paints, and when the pioneers came to the New World it soon was elevated to the status of cure-all miracle elixir. People drank it, rubbed it, prayed to it, baptized with it, and were blown to smithereens by it but it took a man with vision to appreciate its full potential. Five years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence and stirred by reports from mid-eighteenth century explorers, George Washington purchased a piece of land in Virginia for the sole reason that it contained natural oil and gas springs. And after the final war against the British, Virginia's prosperity increased rapidly on the merits of a full-fledged commercial oil industry.
In search of oil
Because petroleum could only be found in rather limited quantities from so-called seeps, it remained somewhat of an oddity in the larger part of the realm. From as early as the ninth century and until the nineteenth century the western world depended on whale oil for its illumination (and coronation, as keenly observed by Herman Melville). Under the threat of mass-extinction, associated governments have decimated the whaling trade in the twentieth century but a real sacrifice it was not because by then whale oil had been fully replaced by rock oil, and that required the development of artificial methods to forcibly distract it from earth's subterranean reservoirs.
People have been digging and drilling holes in the earth as long as they have been searching for water, gems, metals and minerals. And it were the salt mines that were plagued by traces of evil reeking goo that was commonly scooped off the yield and either disposed of and bled back into the soil, or bottled and hawked by hoards of peripatetic quacks. The undisputed king of quacks was a Pennsylvanian salt-baron named Samuel M. Kier, who by the eighteen fifties had built a virtual empire on the idle hopes of the ailing. Besides the ministration of profuse bloodletting, bottles of "Kier's Petroleum, or Rock-Oil" were among the arsenals of physicians and apothecaries all over the US and Europe. Kier's bottles where adorned with labels that summoned the users to take no less than three teaspoonfuls three times a day, making it an unmitigated miracle that anybody survived the era.
By this time the release of underground petroleum was still a mere byproduct of the conventional industry of salt mining but a journalist and teacher named George H. Bissell would change all that. In search for a change of pace Bissell had ventured into the oil business and leased a piece of land which contained some natural seeps. Soon Bissell learned that rock oil was not only good for all ailments, it was also quite volatile and he sent a bottle to a professor at Yale for analysis. The professor informed Bissell that rock oil could be easily disseminated into pure and specialized solids, fluids and gasses that would burn, lubricate or serve as base for materials that yearned for their invention. Bissell could hear the bells of outrageous fortune toll over the hump of his biggest obstacle. He needed to find a way to get his hands on large quantities of oil and the security of its continuation, but oil was sparse and it came only by natural seeps that were pretty much all already spoken for. And while walking and pondering and entirely in the tradition of Archimedes soaking in the tub and Newton reclining underneath his mother's apple tree, the troubled Bissell one day chose to repose beneath the awning of a drug store where his eye fell on a bottle of Kier's wonder-oil, which label proclaimed the healing powers of its contents 'retrieved from four hundred feet below the surface,' or something like that.
Excited but rather lily-livered Bissell suggested to his stockholders the possible existence of large quantities of oil where others drilled for salt. One of the stockholders was Colonel Edwin Laurentine Drake who not only had as much right to claim a military rank as Napoleon's horse, but also the courage Bissell lacked. Colonel Drake scrounged around for months to gather enough material to complete an artesian drilling installation and went to Kier to hire an experienced driller. By the time the drilling could commence in August of 1859 the whole enterprise had been christened Drake's Folly by the many mocking onlookers who were soon to be silenced as once the mockers of Noah. (Eight years later the purchase of Alaska from the Russians by the US Secretary of State William Henry Seward became known as Seward's Folly. Less than a century after the disputed purchase, oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay. One decade later the Alaska Permanent Fund was created, which is now the largest pool of public money in the United States and frequently lends money back to the US government).
Drake's well at what later would be called Titusville was a big success and the beginning of the modern world. Because drilling equipment and experienced operators were around and handy, Drake's example was soon followed and Drake himself perished in the stampede and by lack of business sense, and he would have died an impoverished man if the grateful State of Pennsylvania hadn't granted him a modest annuity. The world was ready to rock.