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What Oil Can and Cannot Do

Updated on January 30, 2013

Yesterday while pumping gas and glaring at the price I was having to pay, somewhere in a dusty corner of my mind was an essay I'd read years ago. It was a cleverly crafted piece of literature where the author showed what our world would be like if we were back in the horse and buggy days. To capture the essence of the essay -- we were basically knee deep in horse manure thanks to over population and wastefulness of natural resources.

So today, when I reached for a resource book that I'd bought at a local book auction, a yellowed newspaper article from 1934 floated to my feet. The title, Oil and What It Can Do, has been laughing at me all morning. It's had me thinking about what oil can and cannot do.

Now, I find a lot of inspiration in what I find in old books. I'm somewhat a book-a-holic. Here in Central Florida, there is a large Salvation Army that holds back lot auctions several times a week. Competition is fierce when it comes to the by-the-pallet-load books that are auctioned off.

Books fall into that category of items that there are far too many of being donated to charity (along with out-dated computers, furniture, and items for toddlers), so there is a need to get rid of them by the non-profits. Books attract a lot of buyers who are resellers on Ebay, Amazon, and Craigslist. There is money to be made from books. However, it's these little surprises that I like the most about books by the pallet load. Today, they've given me a new perspective about oil.

Sometimes, inside a book you find treasures and I found one in a very short article about oil. Tucked inside the pages one can find cash, photographs, love letters, poems, obituary notices, and quite a few clipped articles like the one I'm staring at this morning. When it comes to oil -- It is, was, and always will be about money --and about what oil can and cannot do. Even with oil, we are all about to get sucked down into more horse manure than we ever dreamed existed.

Drawing of Queen oil can, glass interior with steel casing, patent 12 February 1878, from an advertisement by C. Riessner & Co., New York. Oil can was used to store household oil primarily for lamps.
Drawing of Queen oil can, glass interior with steel casing, patent 12 February 1878, from an advertisement by C. Riessner & Co., New York. Oil can was used to store household oil primarily for lamps. | Source

Well, to hear the nightly news tell the story of oil, it is one of the most valuable things known to us, and that little tidbit of knowledge is as remarkable, as it is important. Of course oil exists in many forms. It is composed mainly of hydrogen and carbon. The word for oil itself comes from the Latin name for olive oil -- oliva.

There are three sources of oil -- plants, animals, and in the earth. Of course here, however, we are not talking about the many vegetable and animals oils, but the strange oil which in the past oozed out of the ground and more importantly the enormous quantities of oil obtained by drilling deep holes in the earth. For those of you who don't know it, oil from the earth also has the roots of it's name, petroleum, on the same Roman foundation in the Latin words for rock (petra) and oil (oleum).

Since practically when time began, petroleum has revealed itself in many places around the globe by oozing from the surface. Ancient peoples both knew it and used it.

To me, it's almost laughable that in the Bible, in the book of Genesis, you'll find the Vale of Siddim described as full of "slime pits" which was of course oil. It occurs to me that the woes of oil, might have all of us abandoning the name oil and start calling it "slime" once again -- just on the principal of all the indirect misery it has caused mankind.   It's beginning to look like it's going to be our downfall.

Then, there is the ancient historian Herodotus referring to the oil pits near Babylon, and to the oil spring on the Island of Zante, which was still yielding oil two thousand years after Herodotus wrote about it. Pliny the Elder wrote about it. Even ancient Chinese and Japanese writers made many references to the subject.

Perhaps, the best mention of oil in history, however, was that of the great Venetian traveler, Marco Polo. He told us of the oil of Baku on the Caspian Sea. He wrote about, in his vivid fashion, of "a fountain from which oil springs in great abundance, inasmuch as a hundred ship loads might be taken from it at one time." He added that, "This oil is not good to use with food, but it is good to burn."

He was of course, referring to mineral oil, is found at a very different depth of the earth than petroleum. Mineral oil gave off an inflammable gas, and this led to the ancient worship of mysterious fires. There were still fire worshipers in Baku in Marco Polo's days, and temples were erected at which what was supplied to be "everlasting fire" was visited by pilgrims. Thereabouts, too, petroleum gas was not only worshiped, but was actually made use of to light dwellings and to cook food (despite the fact that it has a very unpleasant smell).

Point Firmin, California
Point Firmin, California | Source

America's Short First Romance With Oil

The early explorers of what is now the United States found petroleum oozing out of the ground or floating on the surface of the water in many places. They found that the Indians rubbed their bodies with it and that they often thought it made them active and quick.

So when our country became settled, we began to use it in a small way. Sometimes we laid blankets on the ground where the oil appeared and then wrung it out of them. Sometimes we skimmed it off the surface of the water. The quantity gained in these manners were small.

It was then sold by peddlers at a high price, as Seneca Oil, Indian Oil, or some other such name. It was rubbed on the body as a cure for rheumatism, or taken as a medicine. Few families would use more than a pint a year. That would all change with the appearance of a new word "kerosene" and the genius of a man named Dr. Abraham Gesner (of Nova Scotia).



The First Appearance of the Word Kerosene

In 1840 Dr. Abraham Gesner, obtained an oil from coal which he afterward called "kerosene" from the Greek word meaning "wax." He quickly organized a company to manufacture it. The company was successful and other oil works were established.

The demand grew and a Dr. Silliman of Yale, was employed to find out whether there was any likeness between coal-oil and petroleum.

He conducted his experiments in Oil Creek Pennsylvania and reported that petroleum furnished excellent oil for burning.

Then, Samuel M. Kier sold some oil for burning in 1848 under the name of "carbon oil." It sold for a dollar and a half a gallon and had a horrible odor. It was a full two years later that an Englishman, named James Young, would discover how to get oil from shale and burn.

People began to want more of this oil and in 1856 it was determined to seek better sources of this by boring a well deep into the earth.

The company employed a man named Edwin L. Drake to supervise the work in Titusville, Pennsylvania. He had been a railroad conductor, who had resigned because of ill health.

Colonel Edwin L. Drake
Colonel Edwin L. Drake | Source

Colonel Drake's Oil Woes

I cannot help but wonder what the Colonel (the nickname of Edwin L. Drake) would think about the world's current oil woes. He certainly had his own unintended troubles when it came to petroleum.

Back in his day, money was scarce and at one time it was thought that the work must be given up, but Colonel Drake was determined to go on and borrowed the money necessary to keep the drillers at work.

On Saturday, August 18, 1859, the drill seemed to move easily just before the workmen stopped for the day. Sunday, one of them visited the well and found it nearly full of oil. A pump was then attached on Monday, and the well was found to yield twenty barrels a day. The whole region went wild.

Every foot of land along the creek was bought or leased by men who intended to drill for oil. Wells were sunk in every direction. The town grew in a few months from a population of a few hundred to fifteen thousand. Many men grew rich almost at once. The news spread, and men in other sections where oily springs had been found, also sunk wells.

Colonel Drake's well, however did not last many years. Gradually the yield grew less and less and finally gave out altogether. Colonel Drake had thought that it would last forever and did not try to buy or lease any other land.

Finally, he left the oil region with a mere $16,000 which he afterward lost, while other men gained millions in the oil business. His life ended up so impoverished, that when some of the big oil men who had gotten rich off his efforts, raised some money for him.  Even the legislature of Pennsylvania voted $1,500 a year pension for as long as he and his wife should live.

I suspect he learned a lot that we should all be aware of, like how an endless supply of oil:

  • Will not last forever


  • The greed of those who own and control oil

An oil gusher at Baku, on the Caspian Sea, spouting out oil at the rate of many tons every minute 24/7.  In the Baku oil fields much oil was wasted owing to crude methods of working during that time.
An oil gusher at Baku, on the Caspian Sea, spouting out oil at the rate of many tons every minute 24/7. In the Baku oil fields much oil was wasted owing to crude methods of working during that time. | Source


At some level, most of us know that the oil under the earth is under pressure, and if the oil rocks are drilled, the oil is forced up to the surface of the earth like a fountain. This is what oil men called a "gusher." In some wells there is water under the oil, which pushes it up. From less abundant fields the oil has to be pumped.

Back in the Colonel's days, no one knew how much petroleum there is in the world. Yet, even then, they pretty much knew that unfortunately, someday we will run out of oil world-wide. It would shock many here in the U.S. to know that in 1934 our country produced two-thirds of the world's oil.

Much of our oil in the early days came from Pennsylvania, Texas, California, Oklahoma, Kansas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Wyoming. Even in 1934, people were already aware of the prodigal waste of oil, particularly in this country.

Men in a hurry to get rich quick used hasty, heavily criticized ways, to tap oil fields that essentially threw away the product through bad storage methods and through fires. Much was wasted through competitive drilling. The end result of such practices in early oil days even made leading scientists to predict that America would use up it's entire supply of oil by 1940. That gloomy prediction didn't exactly happen on cue, but the truth is we don't have enough oil to take care of our own oil needs and far worse we've known it for a long time.

Where the subject gets exceptionally problematic is that our false god of gasoline, can only be extracted from a small proportion of given petroleum. So, that brings me back to that small 1934 yellowed newspaper article that someone decided was important enough to clip out and save, it said:

"What oil can do, it can only do until there is no more oil in the world, and then, what do we do?"

Strikes me odd that seventy-five years later, no one has agreed on the answer. This makes me think we're really all going to be standing knee deep in horse manure. The smell of those greedy powers who got us there, is going to be awfully bad.  It's not something we'll be able to easily forget or forgive -- perhaps that's who and what we will call "slime."

Peak Oil -- How Will You Ride The Slide?


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    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks Am I dead, yet? You are right it'll either get better or we will all die.

    • profile image

      Am I dead, yet? 

      9 years ago

      I cannot wait when there are no longer a need to use fossil fuels. I am so glad that I catch a bus, ride the trolley and walk. So far, so good. As always, great information! I love to listen to NPR (National Public Radio) on my way to class and the very topic of global warming and ways to control waste and emissions is still a controversial issue. I wish it were not the case. Eventually, it will come to nothing...meaning, life as we know it, will certainly come to a stand still. Something just has to get better, or we will all die.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks C.S. Alexis!  One of my goals is to take that which could be boring and shake it up.

    • C.S.Alexis profile image


      9 years ago from NW Indiana

      The quality of your hubs is unquestionably outstanding. You make a topic that would otherwise bore me to death interesting and enjoyable to read. Thanks so much for sharing your talent.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks Shalini Kagal! Indeed, what do we do?

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 

      9 years ago from India

      Very informative article - thanks Jerilee. As you said, the question still remains: After oil, what?

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks Paraglider! I thought some of the facts quite interesting.

      Thanks James A Watkins! I learned from doing it.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      9 years ago from Chicago

      Thank you for the fine history lesson about oil. It is a good read and I enjoyed it, and learned from it.

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 

      9 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      This is a very interesting and well researched article. Thanks.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks Brian S! I was hoping this article would fair well with anyone who has been in the business and would certainly agree the industry has come a long way in terms of technology. It's almost mind boggling to think of how they drill in the ocean, etc.

    • BrianS profile image

      Brian Stephens 

      9 years ago from Castelnaudary, France

      I used to work in the oil industry in a past life, in particular drilling services and we used to make the directional tools and surveying equipment that let you drill in different directions and from vertical to horizontal. Some of the technology is actually pretty impressive in terms of both what it can do and how it survives such a severe environment. Good article.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Ok. Of course, I meant to say, sadly man's greed will go on and on until we're all gone.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks Dynamics8 for all the compliments!

      Thanks Ginn Navarre! I'm sure I get that book-a-holic gene from you and gram. They have these auctions 3 times a week and thankfully it's an hours ride each way now. It's the reason I sell so many books periodically as I'm way over moving them and storing them.

      Sadly, man's green will go on and on until we're all gone.

    • Ginn Navarre profile image

      Ginn Navarre 

      9 years ago

      Jerilee, your informative research is as always very interesting and educational. I would never be able to walk past one of those pallets of books. The moral of this hub to me is that (Mans Greed) will continue.

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks Aya! We certainly need other options.

      I think it's great your daughter takes horseback riding lessons, that's something Kaela really enjoys. She even loves helping the owner out mucking the stalls, grooming the horses and comes home sweaty, dirty, and immensely happy. I think it's a real confidence builder.

    • DynamicS profile image

      Sandria Green-Stewart 

      9 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      Jerilee, this is a very well researched and written hub. I have been informed and educated about a topic that is of much relevance and importance to all of us. You have successfully introduced the topic, provide us with the background and history and make it relevant to the current day situation. That genius my friend!

      Kudos to you for a such a thorough and interesting hub.

      Now that's a hub that I can learn from! Thanks

    • Jerilee Wei profile imageAUTHOR

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Thanks Anthony James Barnett!

      Thanks R Burow!

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 

      9 years ago from The Ozarks

      Jerilee, thanks for a very informative article. The oil situation would not be so difficult, if we kept opne other options for transportation.

      We live in an area where some Amish people have settled, so there are signs posted to keep a look out for those who still use a horse and buggy. We try to share the road.

      I'm not sure it would be so bad to be hip deep in horse manure, which, after all, could be used for fertilizer.

      Ironically, when my daughter's horseback riding instructor picks her up for a lesson, she is always driving a truck or car. One time when the truck was down, the lesson was canceled. I suggested that she come on horseback, instead, but for some reason that was not something that she found practical, even though she owns several fine horses.


    • R Burow profile image

      R Burow 

      9 years ago from Florida, United States

      All very interesting.

    • profile image

      Anthony James Barnett - author 

      9 years ago

      Once again, a very interesting and informative hub, Jerilee. Well done.


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