Pulitzer Prize Winner -- and Now an Epic PBS Series
The Prize recounts the panoramic history of oil -- and the struggle for wealth power that has always surrounded oil. This struggle has shaken the world economy, dictated the outcome of wars, and transformed the destiny of men and nations.Read more...
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
- Date: May 1991
From the book
Oil on the Brain: The Beginning
There was the matter of the missing $526.08.
A professor's salary in the 1850s was hardly generous, and in the quest for extra income, Benjamin Silliman, Jr., the son of a great American chemist and himself a distinguished professor of chemistry at Yale University, had taken on an outside research project for a fee totaling $526.08. He had been retained in 1854 by a group of promoters and businessmen, but, though he had completed the project, the promised fee was not forthcoming. Silliman, his ire rising, wanted to know where the money was. His anger was aimed at the leaders of the investor group, in particular, at George Bissell, a New York lawyer, and James Townsend, president of a bank in New Haven. Townsend, for his part, had sought to keep a low profile, as he feared it would look most inappropriate to his depositors if they learned he was involved in so speculative a venture.
For what Bissell, Townsend, and the other members of the group had in mind was nothing less than hubris, a grandiose vision for the future of a substance that was known as "rock oil" -- so called to distinguish it from vegetable oils and animal fats. Rock oil, they knew, bubbled up in springs or seeped into salt wells in the area around Oil Creek, in the isolated wooded hills of northwestern Pennsylvania. There, in the back of beyond, a few barrels of this dark, smelly substance were gathered by primitive means -- either by skimming it off the surface of springs and creeks or by wringing out rags or blankets that had been soaked in the oily waters. The bulk of this tiny supply was used to make medicine.
The group thought that the rock oil could be exploited in far larger quantities and processed into a fluid that could be burned as an illuminant in lamps. This new illuminant, they were sure, would be highly competitive with the "coal-oils" that were winning markets in the 1850S. In short, they believed that, if they could obtain it in sufficient quantities, they could bring to market the inexpensive, high-quality illuminant that mid-nineteenth-century man so desperately needed. They were convinced that they could light up the towns and farms of Noah America and Europe. Almost as important, they could use rock oil to lubricate the moving parts of the dawning mechanical age. And, like all entrepreneurs who became persuaded by their own dreams, they were further convinced that by doing all of this they would grow very rich indeed. Many scoffed at them. Yet, persevering, they would succeed in laying the basis for an entirely new era in the history of mankind -- the age of oil.
To "Assuage Our Woes"
The venture had its origins in a series of accidental glimpses -- and in the determination of one man, George Bissell, who, more than anybody else, was responsible for the creation of the oil industry. With his long, towering face and broad forehead, Bissell conveyed an impression of intellectual force. But he was also shrewd and open to business opportunity, as experience had forced him to be. Self-supporting from the age of twelve, Bissell had worked his way through Dartmouth College by teaching and writing articles....