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The discovery of petroleum (1859)


The oil discovery dates back to Antiquity. TheEgyptiansalso used theoilfor mummification,Mesopotamiansas a cosmetic and lighting fuel. The petroleum industry was officially born on a day in the summer of 1859 when the engineer Edwin drake, a former railroad worker who claimed to be a colonel, saw oil spurt from his drilling rig in Titus Town, Pennsylvania.

The history of oil: mummies from antiquity ...

The Bible is the first to mention this fossil rock, which is said to have been used to cover Noah's ark. More than 3,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, the oil which rose to the surface in the form of bitumen seepage, was used as mortar in the construction of the ramparts, for the caulking of the hulls of the ships and to ensure the tightness of the tanks and water pipes, as a source of energy and even as a medicine. In Egypt, it was an essential ingredient in the long and complex process of mummification.

In the Middle Ages, oil became a formidable weapon: the “Greek fire” of the Byzantines. They were terracotta grenades filled with petroleum and saltpeter that were thrown from a ship and exploded, letting the petroleum escape. Ignited, it spread over the water and spread the fire to other ships.

In 1264, when he visited Baku (Azerbaijan), Marco polo described the exploitation of surface oil, "collected in quantities that could fill hundreds of ships." From 1594, wells 35 meters deep were dug in this region. In 1830, there were 116 boreholes, which produced 720 barrels per day. Drake is not the first to drill either by adapting the technique used in salt mines (a drill bit suspended at the end of a cable which transmits to it, from the surface, an alternating movement created by a pendulum): the engineer Russian Semyonov used this technique in 1854, always Baku.

... to the great majors of the industrial era

The industrial revolution led to the search for new fuels; the social upheavals it caused created the need for inexpensive and good quality petroleum for lamps. However, whale oil was only accessible to the wealthy, tallow candles smelled unpleasantly, and gas lamps were only found in modern homes and apartments in urban areas. The search for a better lamp fuel led to a great demand for "rock oil" - that is, crude oil - and by the mid-19th century many scientists developed methods that allowed to make commercial use of it.

Thus began the search for more important sources of crude oil supply. It was known that wells dug for water and salt sometimes show oil infiltration. The idea of ​​oil drilling therefore naturally gained ground. The first wells were drilled in Germany in 1857. The initiative which met with the greatest impact, however, was that of Edwin L. Drake on August 27, 1859, in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Drake drilled to find the "mother slick," the source of the oil outcrops.

If Drake is celebrated as a founder, it is therefore only because the nascent oil industry will be structured, in the United States, around large companies, including the Standard Oil of John rockefeller. It is these majors that will mobilize the capital necessary for prospecting and installing heavy infrastructures in regions that are not easily accessible. A strategy that will give them exorbitant political influence, in the countries where they will operate ... just like in Washington.

Nowadays, oil companies extract millions of barrels every day to fuel global production, and to meet ever-growing demand despite environmental threats, oil searches are turning to the contested exploitation of shale oil.

To go further on the discovery of oil

- Black gold: the great history of petroleum, by Mathieu Auzanneau. Editions La Découverte, 2015.


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