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The Early Petroleum Industry in the United States

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Essay title: The Early Petroleum Industry in the United States

The Early Petroleum Industry in the United States

Ancient Egyptians used bitumen for embalming, the Assyrians used it in building, the Chinese for heating and lighting, and for centuries fishermen have used it to make their boats watertight.

Naturally, man being what he is, was not content to let well alone, and soon petra- oleum (rock oil) and its associated products were being used in many delightful ways to cripple and annihilate his fellow men.

The famous "Green Fire" was used in various forms for many centuries once it became known that when a mixture of petroleum and ground quicklime is exposed to moisture spontaneous combustion takes place. The flaming mixture thus produced was thrown by a pump mounted on the prow of a warship and the consequent havoc wrought on the enemy's ships can easily be imagined.

Then oddly enough, the ancients knowledge of the properties of petroleum seemed to fall into abeyance and during the Middle Ages, and up to the beginning of the 19th century, petroleum was only remembered for its medicinal uses. It was to capitalize on this use that an American, Samuel Kier, decided to bottle the oil that seeped into his father's brine wells. He put it up in half pint bottles and advertised it as containing wonderful medical virtues.

Another American George H. Bissell, saw his advertisement but was interested in oil for other reasons so, together with a friend, he leased 105 acres of farmland, near Titusville, Pennsylvania, paying $5,000 dollars for a 99 year lease. So in 1854 the first oil lease was granted.

Having obtained the land, which he was fairly certain covered oil deposits, Bissell commissioned Edwin & Drake to drill a well for him. Drake did so and struck oil on August 27th, 1859. The first oil well had been sunk and a great industry had been born. Within a few months of the completion of the Drakwell, oil wells were being sunk all over the United States and within two years the country was exporting great quantities of oil.

Simple distillation of seep and salt well oil was being carried out in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, by Samuel Kier who built a one-barrel still. He was buying crude by the gallon. Later Kier made a still of five-barrel capacity. These two stills for treating crude oil constituted the first commercial refinery in America. The five-barrel apparatus of Kier has survived and is in the Drake Well Museum. Although immeasurably important to the American oil industry, Kier's refining enterprise at Pittsburgh was not the first petroleum refining venture. James Young patented a process in England in 1850 that carried out fractional distillation of petroleum from a seep at a coal mine and later from oil shale. Young can be considered the principal founder of the world's oil refinery industry (Dickey, 1958).

More than for any other purpose, crude oil at first was refined to improve its use as an illuminant. Lighting, in itself, created the great demand for oil that led to the frantic drilling of the pioneer oil wells along Oil Creek in Titusville, Pennsylvania. The crude petroleum, as it comes from the wells, is a rather greasy yellow, or dark brown, liquid which occurs in vast deposits all over the world. It is a very complex substance and it is quite impossible in an article of this nature to delve its chemistry, but, as we shall see later, it is broken down into various constituents when it reaches the refinery.

The science of well drilling is not new, in fact it was practiced in 201 BC in China, where brine wells, some over 3,000 feet deep, were drilled. Today there are two principal methods of drilling, the percussion, in which a bit is suspended from a cable and alternatively lifted and dropped to crush the rock, and the rotary, in which the bit is fastened to the bottom of a pipe shaft and revolved to drill its way into the earth. The percussion method is now only used for drilling shallow wells.

In the rotary method the drill and the machinery that drives it are housed in a tall steel latticework tower called a derrick. This is erected in a cement lined excavation which may be from ten to twenty feet deep. In the centre of the derrick and immediately over the well head is set a revolving steel turntable in the centre of which is a square or hexagon hole through which the pipe carrying the bit is fed. As soon as the engines are started the turntable revolves and the bit begins to drill into the earth. As it drills deeper more sections of pipe are added until eventually the bit strikes oil. The pip carrying the bit serves a dual purpose. It is obvious that as the bit bores deeper into the earth debris will be formed which must be removed to allow the bit free passage. In addition, of course, the bit must be kept cool. This is accomplished in a simple yet ingenious manner. A special "drilling mud" consisting

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