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Energy Solutions

Our History of Petroleum Use

Our use of petroleum through history may surprise some readers

The Phillips well (on the right) and Woodford Well (on the left) in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Drilled in 1861 and 1862, respectively, these wells are in the same Oil Creek Valley as the nation's first oil well, drilled by Edwin Drake.
Image Credit: Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission

While most of us think of the petroleum age starting in the late 1850s, when North America’s first oil well began gushing oil, human use of petroleum actually goes back much further.

Asphalt, a heavy constituent of petroleum (see last week’s blog), was used four thousand years ago in constructing the walls of Babylon. During the Roman era, oil was collected and used in the province of Dacia (now Romania), where it was referred to as “picula.”

Fourth-century oil wells in China

The first oil wells are believed to have been drilled in China around 350 AD; these wells were drilled using bits attached to bamboo poles and extending as deep as 800 feet. That oil was burned to evaporate brine to produce salt. By the 10th Century the Chinese even built bamboo pipelines to transport oil from those wells to salt springs where the brine was collected.

In Japan, petroleum was used for lighting at least as far back as the 7th century. Baghdad’s first streets were paved with asphalt. Marco Polo described oil fields in what is now Azerbaijan, where naphtha was produced. And in the 9th century, petroleum was distilled by the Persian alchemist Muhammad ibn Zakariya Razi into kerosene that was used in lamps.

The first North American reference to petroleum was in 1595 when Sir Walter Raleigh wrote about Pitch Lake on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. With a surface area of about 100 acres and a depth as great as 250 feet, this is the world’s largest natural deposit of asphalt; it is a significant tourist attraction, and asphalt from this deposit has long been exported — some was used in early paving of some New York City streets.

Poland drilled for oil before the U.S.

The modern oil industry began in the 1850s. In 1853, the world’s first commercial oil well was drilled in Poland and the second was drilled in Romania in 1857. An oil well in Oil Springs, Ontario in 1858 was the first in North America, and that was followed in 1859 with the famous oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, when Edwin Drake drilled a 69-foot well that yielded 25 barrels per day.

Petroleum production in the U.S. increased steadily during the first 50 years of production: 2,000 barrels in 1859, 4.2 million barrels in 1868, 20 million barrels in 1879, 35 million barrels in 1889, 57 million barrels in 1899, and 126 million barrels in 1906.

Fossil fuels were first used for lighting, not vehicles

Through the 1800s, most oil was used for oil lamps and kerosene lamps — replacing whale oil, which was becoming scarce by then. By the early years of the 20th century, though, development of the internal combustion engine shifted demand of petroleum products to automobiles — the market that has driven demand ever since.

With the rise of the automobile in the early 1900s and its use of gasoline — a mix of hydrocarbon refined from crude oil — production of petroleum increased dramatically. World oil production today totals 31 billion barrels per year — almost exactly 1,000 barrels per second!

In the U.S., approximately 72% of our petroleum is used for transportation (gasoline, diesel fuel, and aviation fuel), with the rest used for heating oil, industrial processes, petrochemical feedstocks, lubricants, asphalt, electricity generation, and other uses.

Next week I’ll take a look at current reserves of petroleum as well as the outlook for this fossil fuel in the years and decades ahead.

In addition to this Energy Solutions blog, Alex contributes to the weekly blog BuildingGreen’s Product of the Week, which profiles an interesting new green building product each week. You can sign up to receive notices of these blogs by e-mail — enter your e-mail address in the upper right corner of any blog page.

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.


  1. wjrobinson | | #1

    Let the kids vote
    The near future is a coin toss. I say give the vote to those under 18 and take it away from the rest of us.

    The young and unborn are in for one hell of ride.

  2. wjrobinson | | #2

    good article for a brighter future

    We need to kick our economy into high sustainability gear.

    We could get to full employment easily if we went at sustainability like it was WW3... which it is.

  3. Margaret de | | #3

    Voters must be at least 21
    aj builder, I don't think so. I sure am not going to worry about the unborn, since we have no way of knowing who is currently unborn. You cannot improve the economy merely by only concentrating on sustainability which is a subjective term. We will need petroleum for a long time. And if the young and old can't adapt like they have done since the beginning of time of man, then so be it. Man should go the way of the dodo bird. We will never know if we are all dead.

  4. wjrobinson | | #4

    Economy is us all doing something instead of collecting unemploy
    Margaret, to me economy is about each of us productively participating and not such a large percentage of us collecting unemployment sitting idle. In the recent past we have not had in this country surplus employees that we could employ toward a huge push like switching the world off of fossil and to a lower CO2 level.

    I think now is a time for a war effort. We need governments to push thru legislation to change and move more quickly and ahead of future shortages of everything that the world is using up.

    A win win situation is staring us right in the face. Let's get going with change now.

    And I have faith in the young adapting.

    Are you the CEO of an oil company Margaret? Oil's time is up this century Margaret. Kids born this year will be wishing you and many had my attitude not yours.

  5. user-869687 | | #5

    Response to Margaret de
    "Sustainability" should not be a subjective term. It's a word with a literal meaning, and that is the best way to use the word. Of course people use it in a casual metaphorical sense, but that's a better role for "green". To understand sustainability, start with unsustainability. This term is hard to misuse and it gets right to the core principle. If some activity can continue indefinitely, it is sustainable. That means nothing finite is being used up, and no damage is accumulating. If it's a question of using some finite resource, subject to depletion, that's unsustainable.

  6. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #6

    Response to Thomas Jefferson
    I couldn't agree more. Here's my blog on the topic: What Does ‘Sustainable’ Mean?

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