Tag Archives: Prof. Iain Stewart

Planet Oil

I recently watched part one of the BBC Scotland documentary Planet Oil, presented by geologist Professor Iain Stewart. The programme considers the story of how oil completely changed our world. It created riches on a previously unimaginable scale. It led to technology that revolutionised our lives. It changed the outcome of wars, and sent the balance of global power into a tailspin. The programme covered so many great stories that I thought I’d share a few.

Up until the mid-19th century the world’s lamps were lit by whale oil. But collapsing whale populations meant the industry, and the whales, were under serious threat. A new source of oil was urgently needed. In 1853 an industrialist named George Bissell took a trip to Pennsylvania. He’d heard stories of the region’s strange oily puddles and wondered if they might provide a solution.

The oily puddles bubbled up from deep underground. Bissell realised he needed to drill down to reach the source. This wasn’t something anyone had attempted before, so new technology was required. He partnered up with a former railway conductor, Colonel Edward Drake, who possessed the necessary engineering skills. By 1859 they were ready, and on 27th August Drake struck oil. Being the first to person to do so, he was taken by surprise when the oil erupted with such ferocity that it sprayed high into the air. Not wanting to waste the precious material he frantically grabbed some old whiskey barrels he had lying around and began filling them with the oil. This chance action is the reason we still trade oil in barrels today.

Bissell and Drake refined the oil into kerosene, which could be used to light lamps. This new type of oil was rapidly adopted, making the men extremely wealthy. Their wealth soon attracted the keen interest of others. Within twelve months over seventy-five drilling rigs were operating in the area. Within another year the area was generating around one million barrels a year. The shocking speed with which this new industry grew couldn’t be better illustrated than by the story of the town Pithole.

The discovery of oil in one particular location resulted in people flocking there to drill it. Within six months a prosperous town had grown from nothing. The town, named Pithole, was replete with ten hotels and numerous saloons, but the oil quickly dried up and the town disappeared. The rise and subsequent demise of Pithole occurred so quickly that it never appeared on the US census. A census is taken every ten years. At the time of the 1860 census the town didn’t exist. Oil was discovered in 1865. But by the time of the next census, 1870, the oil had dried up and the town was deserted.

These rapid changes were owed to the huge wealth this new mineral could bring. And there’s no finer example of this than the story of John T Rockefeller. He’s known as an infamous philanthropist, but he was also a ruthless businessman. He nickname was the anaconda.

Rockefeller originally worked as a greengrocer, but he soon saw the attraction of oil. It was hard not to. Every dollar invested in oil drilling returned a thousand. In 1865 he invested all his savings in an oil refinery. He used the profits to build a second. With so many people drilling for oil there was a risk of oversupply, so Rockefeller decided to distinguish his product by going for quality. To underline this commitment he opted to name his oil Standard.

Rockefeller’s business grew quickly. He soon became the country’s biggest supplier, but he still wasn’t satisfied. To further tighten his grip on the industry he focused upon the supply chain. Oil was transported via the railways. The size of his company afforded him great power, which he used to entice railway operators into extremely biased deals. The deals meant the more oil a supplier shipped, the cheaper the shipping became. As he was the largest shipper, the deal favoured his company. He then went a step further and arranged a deal that actively penalised smaller distributors. This killed off competition allowing him to monopolise the industry. The result? Never before in the course of history had one man become so rich so quickly from a single resource. He became the richest man that had ever lived, amassing a fortune equivalent to ten times that of Bill Gates.

In the 1870s a British military industrialist named Robert Nobel arrived in Baku on the Caspian Sea. He was seeking wood to make rifles. But instead he found a black, barren landscape. Gas would belch from underground vents. Volcanoes of mud spluttered into the air while rivers of oil oozed along the sun-baked sand. In this strange alien landscape he saw rocks on fire. He also saw an opportunity.

With his brother he formed the Nobel Petroleum company. They knew there was a ready waiting market, eastwards. The problem was getting their oil there.

The journey over land was long and arduous. The sea option was quicker, but required access to the newly opened Suez Canal (which connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea). But there was a problem, the clipper ships used to transport oil were deemed unsafe by the canal owners. They viewed wooden ships with thousands of oil barrels rolling around a dangerous prospect. The Nobel brothers needed a new design of ship.

The solution was found by the son of an English shell merchant, Marcus Samuel. His design is still in use today. It’s become one of the world’s most recognisable ships: the super tanker. Samuel then created his own oil company, Shell. Its name and logo was inspired by the shells his dad would sell. It soon became one of the world’s most recognisable brands.

Samuel’s new design of ship could carry twice as much oil and move it safely through the Suez Canal. This allowed the Nobel brothers to dominate the Asian market, much to Rockefeller’s frustration.

Drawn by the astonishing levels of potential riches many wells opened up across the world. But in their clamour to enrich themselves the new oil barons failed to notice the massive threat looming on the horizon: electricity.

In 1882 Edison flipped a switch. The switch sent electricity through wires which lit a series of streetlights across a London bridge. The world would never be the same again.

Towns and cities across the globe soon embraced this new technology. It wasn’t long before it was busy banishing darkness from inside people’s homes as well. Oil was made redundant almost overnight.

At that time oil only really had one use, and once that use had been supplanted the industry was obsolete. The oil barons needed a new use for their product. Conveniently, a German engineer was working on exactly that. Much like electric lights, his invention also completely revolutionised the world.

Oil reaches the surface in the form of crude oil. This is a mixture of numerous hydrocarbons (compounds of hydrogen and carbon). Only one molecule, kerosene, was used for lamps. By heating the raw oil the various types of hydrocarbons can be separated. This process, called distillation, causes the lighter molecules (such as propane) to evaporate first. As the temperature is increased the heavier molecules (such as kerosene) are separated out. This process generates many different products. One particular molecule was originally thrown away as a waste product. This made it the only fuel the German engineer, Carl Benz, could afford. So he designed his new internal combustion engine to run on it. The product was gasoline. Despite being initially considered worthless, a mere thimble full could perform the work of twenty horses. It wasn’t long before the world embraced Benz’s invention. And it wasn’t long before gasoline became oil’s most prized product.

Often the military is the first to embrace new technology. As was the case for gasoline. In 1911 Winston Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty. One of his immediate concerns was the German navy. Their ships ran on oil, whereas the British fleet ran on coal. Coal ships travelled at ten knots; oil ships travelled at twenty-five knots – clearly a massive advantage in a battle situation. Churchill soon set about converting Britain’s ships to oil. Fortunately his work was well underway when war broke out in 1914.

A month after war broke out an event took place that’s largely unknown outside of France. Paris was on the verge of being taken by the Kaiser. His forces were amassed only thirty miles from the city. Many considered the city’s fall inevitable. Most people, including the entire government, had already fled. But the city’s military general, Joseph Gallieni, was determined to save the city. Frontline troops were heavily outnumbered. Reinforcements were available, but stranded in Paris. The story goes that Gallieni was standing on a Parisian street when he saw a taxi go by, then another, then another. A thought occurred to him. What if he used these new, fast, gasoline-powered vehicles to take his troops to the frontline?

The call went out to all Parisian cab drivers to abandon their passengers and come to the army’s aid. What resulted is now referred to as the Taxi Armada. Six hundred taxis answered the call. Within twenty-four hours six thousand troops had been delivered to the frontline. Never in world history had so many people been transported so far so quickly. The Germans were pushed back; the city was saved. The age of motorised warfare had arrived, and the world was in no doubt as to where the future of transportation lay. Although, as an amusing side note, it’s claimed the taxis’ meters were still running during the mass exodus. Well, we’ve all got to earn a living…