The Wonder of the Nineteenth Century: Rock Oil in Pennsylvania and Elsewhere

 

Less than 10 months after former railroad conductor Edwin L. Drake completed the first commercial U.S. oil well in August 1859 along Oil Creek in Titusville, Pennsylvania, Thomas A. Gale wrote a detailed study about the new rock oil – petroleum. 

 

The Wonder of the Nineteenth Century: Rock Oil in Pennsylvania and Elsewhere described a radical fuel source for the popular lamp fuel kerosene, which had been made from coal for more than a decade.

“Those who have not seen it burn, may rest assured its light is no moonshine; but something nearer the clear, strong, brilliant light of day,” Gale declared in his 1860 pamphlet, published by Sloan & Griffith and sold for 25 cents. “In other words, rock oil emits a dainty light; the brightest and yet the cheapest in the world; a light fit for Kings and Royalists, and not unsuitable for Republicans and Democrats.”

rock oil history book

Thomas A. Gale played a role in early U.S. energy education.

Gale’s descriptions of the value of petroleum helped launch investments in new exploration companies. He noted the commercial qualities of Pennsylvania oil for refining into kerosene (today also used as a rocket fuel).

Rarest of Oil Books

Many historians have regarded Gale’s 80-page pamphlet as the first book about America’s new petroleum industry.

In 1952, the Ethyl Corporation of New York republished Gale’s historic The Wonder of the Nineteenth Century: Rock Oil in Pennsylvania and Elsewhere.

“Not by the widest stretch of the imagination could Thomas Gale have realized, when he put down his pen on June 1, 1860, that he had written a book destined to become one of the rarest of all oil books,” noted the Ethyl historian in 1952 when the company republished Gale’s work. Only three copies were known to exist in 1952.

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Ethyl Corporation noted the scarcity of copies of the book had prevented “all but a few historians” from giving the book the attention it deserved. “Gale wrote his book to satisfy a public desire for more information about petroleum. Newspapers had carried belated accounts of Drake’s discovery well, and the mad scramble for oil that followed, but actually the world new little about petroleum.”

The book’s 11 chapters explained practical aspects of the new petroleum industry. Chapters one and two, “What is Rock Oil?”and “Where is the Rock Oil found?” were followed by “Geological structure of the oil region.” Chapters four though six explained the early technologies (and costs) for pumping the oil, while the next two chapters examine “Uses of Rock Oil.” The final three chapters offered “Sketches of several oil wells,” “History of the Rock Oil enterprise,” and “Present condition and prospects of Rock Oil interests in difference localities.”

Originally published by Sloan & Griffith of Erie, Pennsylvania, the 1860 cover noted the author as “a resident of Oil Creek” and included a biblical quote: “The Rock poured me out rivers of oil,” from Job, 29:6.

Was Thomas Gayle’s 1860 work the first oil book, as Ethyl Corporation historians believed when they reprinted it in 1952? Natural oil and gas seeps were recorded millennia ago (including the bible). In more recent centuries, writers around the world have noted coal, bitumen, and substances like petroleum – a word derived from the Latin roots of petra, meaning “rock” and oleum meaning “oil.” 

Several years prior to Drake’s historic 1859 oil well, businessman George Bissell had hired a prominent Yale chemist to study the potential of oil and its products to convince potential investors.

“Gentlemen, it appears to me that there is much ground for encouragement in the belief that your company have in their possession a raw material from which, by simple and not expensive processes, they may manufacture very valuable products,” reported Benjamin Silliman Jr. in his 1855 “Report on the Rock Oil, or Petroleum, from Venango Co., Pennsylvania, with Special Reference to its Use for Illumination and Other Purposes,” convinced the investors to drill at Titusville (also see George Bissell’s Oil Seeps).

According to historian Paul H. Giddens in the 1939 classic, The Birth of the Oil Industry, Silliman’s 1855 report, “proved to be a turning-point in the establishment of the petroleum business, for it dispelled many doubts about its value.”

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “First Oil Book of 1860.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/oil-almanac/first-oil-book-of-1860. Last Updated: June 3, 2020. Original Published Date: May 31, 2020.

 

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