Some curious secrets about oil that you may not know about

Oil is, nowadays, the dominant fuel in society. Without room for doubt, the centre point of global energy politics. Naturally, we all wonder about what the future of oil is (well, except those with a magic ball or too much hubris to see past their nose — their loss).

But do we stop to ask about its past? History can tell us a lot about the future so here are a couple of rather interesting historical facts about oil that you probably did not know.

Oil is known to society for milennia

It is widely known that Greeks, Byzantines and Babylonians they threw flaming pieces of stuff at each other back then. It just so happens that the combustible used in these weapons was bitumen recovered from naturally occuring seepages of oil. But this is not the only type of use that oil received back in antiquity.

  • Natural seepages of oil were also used for worshipping throughout the Middle East back then.1
  • Oil was also used for lighting already in the Egyptian Ptolemaic (starts 305 BCE) and Roman (starts 30 BCE) periods.2
  • Lest we not forget that a book written by a polish Jesuit in 1721 evidences centuries-old knowledge of oil in Europe itself, where there were even naturally ocurring oil seepages.

The Chinese were digging wells hundreds of years before the West

The beginning of the modern history of oil dates back to 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania where a group of rather genius entrepreneurs dug a ~21 meter well that enabled mass scale production of oil. However, it turns out that they were not the first people in the world to have dug for oil. In fact, Chinese digging techniques back in the 16th century were such that wells are believed to have reached as much as 600 meters down the ground.3

Distillation has also been around since quite a while ago

Turns out that the process of distillation was not invented in the West. In fact, no one knows exactly when was distillation used for the first time. However, we do know that Muhammad ibn Zakariya Razi – aka Al-Razi – was the first person to write about it in the late 9th century of the common era.

  • There were some European attempts to distill oil during the Middle Ages. For example, in 1810 in the Galician region — specifically in the town of Drohobycz (modern Western Ukraine), a man named Joseph Hecker (cf. Frank & Forbes) found that he could distill 40% of the oil he found in a vet.

What does these curious facts tell us about the future of oil and global energy?

By themselves, not much. But I invite you to go and give a browse to my recent study about The Future of Oil, where I look into the issue in much more detail.

Image credits: Oil pump in Colorado.

CL.Baker (Unmodified). License: CC BY-ND 2.0.

  1. see Yergin, 2009, 7-8.
  2. see Thomas, 2015.
  3. see Robinson, 2006, 2.