First U.S. Petroleum Refinery Is Built Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the eighteenth century, kerosene and paraffin were the most widely used petroleum products, and by-products such as gasoline and compressible gases were simply burned off as waste material. After Samuel Kier built the first commercial petroleum refinery in the United States, markets for petroleum products began expanding greatly, particularly with the development of internal combustion engines.

Summary of Event

During the mid-1840’s, Samuel Kier searched for uses for the yellow, slimy substance that was invading the family salt wells near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This material, called “rock oil,” would later be named “petroleum,” after petra for rock and oleum for oil. Kier noticed the similarity between the oil prescribed to his sick wife and the oil in the brine wells, and so bottled the oil, also called seep oil, as a cure-all. Kier could buy seep oil inexpensively by the gallon from the brine wells of local salt-well drilling operations because the crude was considered simply a nuisance and a by-product. He skimmed the top off of oil seeps to get the crude. Petroleum;refining Pennsylvania;petroleum industry Kier, Samuel M. Kerosene [kw]First U.S. Petroleum Refinery Is Built (1850) [kw]U.S. Petroleum Refinery Is Built, First (1850) [kw]Petroleum Refinery Is Built, First U.S. (1850) [kw]Refinery Is Built, First U.S. Petroleum (1850) [kw]Built, First U.S. Petroleum Refinery Is (1850) Petroleum;refining Pennsylvania;petroleum industry Kier, Samuel M. Kerosene [g]United States;1850: First U.S. Petroleum Refinery Is Built[2710] [c]Inventions;1850: First U.S. Petroleum Refinery Is Built[2710] [c]Science and technology;1850: First U.S. Petroleum Refinery Is Built[2710] [c]Chemistry;1850: First U.S. Petroleum Refinery Is Built[2710] [c]Geology;1850: First U.S. Petroleum Refinery Is Built[2710] [c]Business and labor;1850: First U.S. Petroleum Refinery Is Built[2710] Drake, Edwin Silliman, Benjamin, Jr. Bissell, George

After treating the oil, Kier then repackaged it into half-pint bottles and sold them for fifty cents each. He developed a fleet of painted wagons, each emblazoned with its own flamboyant “medicine man,” and then posted circulars that boasted of “Kier’s Petroleum or Rock Oil, Nature’s Remedy Celebrated for its Wonderful Curative Powers, taken from a Well Four Hundred Feet below the Earth’s Surface.”

The market for the use of crude oil in medicine was not great, so by 1848, Kier decided to bring crude oil into the illumination market. Whale oil Whale oil , the major energy supply for oil lamps, was getting harder to find and too expensive. Raw crude oil was very sooty when it burned, making it unusable for most lighting. Lighting;oil At the same time, however, it was known that crude oil was a mixture of different materials. If some of the lighter compounds of the oil, such as kerosene, could be extracted, one could produce a cleaner-burning lamp.

The refining of crude oil into more useful products is accomplished by a process called distillation. Distilling allows a mixture of multiple compounds to be separated by utilizing their different boiling (or condensation) temperatures. Crude oil, a mixture of many different hydrocarbon compounds, will boil off each compound at a slightly different temperature when slowly heated. As crude oil is heated the first material to vaporize is gasoline, followed in turn by naphtha and then kerosene. The residue from the heating process is treated with sulfuric acid and steam and sent to a second still for extraction of gases. These gases make lubricants and fuel oils. The final residue is used to make asphalt.

In 1849, James Young Young, James of Scotland became the first person to distill illuminating oils (kerosene) from seep oil. He patented his process in 1850. Kier found out about Young’s process and soon tried distilling kerosene from the rock oil of western Pennsylvania. Out of his efforts came the first petroleum still for refining crude oil in the United States, a refinery that he built in 1850 in Pittsburgh. Although Kier set up a simple one-barrel still, he had to invent several new processes to make the distillation process worthwhile. He also invented a new lamp to burn his product but never patented his invention. Instead, Abraham Gesner Gesner, Abraham , a geologist who emigrated from Canada, eventually patented the distilling of kerosene from petroleum in 1854.

By 1851, Kier was selling his kerosene as “carbon oil” to local miners at a price of $1.50 per gallon at a time when the market for kerosene was growing rapidly. Kerosene rapidly replaced whale oil in the lighting Lighting;oil industry, and within two years Kier built a larger more elaborate five-barrel still to better refine petroleum. His neighbors complained to authorities about possible explosions Explosives;and petroleum[Petroleum] and fires Fires;oil refineries at his still, so he was forced to move his refining business outside the city.

In 1854, with the kerosene market growing, New York lawyer George Bissell Bissell, George founded the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, the first oil company in the United States. To make better use of the products generated by distilling crude, Bissell hired chemist Benjamin Silliman, Silliman, Benjamin, Jr. Jr., to analyze the seep oil from the company’s holdings at Titusville, Pennsylvania. Silliman’s report, released in 1855, cited beneficial properties for the many hydrocarbon fractions that he separated from the seep oil. He was especially excited about the illuminating properties of pure kerosene. His report became a key document for the promotion of the new oil company.

Bissell, who wanted to find a more reliable method for the production of crude oil, suggested that increased production might be possible using the drilling and pumping techniques found in the saltwater industry. Oil drilling began after the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company was reorganized into the Seneca Oil Company of New Haven, Connecticut. The founders met in New Haven, where they chanced upon and hired Edwin Drake, Edwin Drake, who was out of work and staying in the same hotel as the founders. Drake searched the Titusville area for a good site for a well. He soon became a salaried general agent and shareholder in the Seneca Oil Company after drilling on a small island along the banks of Oil Creek in 1859.

Drake encountered numerous obstacles. Technological problems came with a caving drill hole, which he solved by inventing a drive casing. Financial problems were solved by using his own money and by borrowing funds to keep workers and supplies coming to the drilling site. His perseverance paid off when, on August 27, 1859, the well driller noticed oil floating in the drill hole the morning after they had decided to cease all drilling operations. The drill reached an oil horizon after boring to a depth of 69.5 feet. What came to be the first commercial oil well produced about twenty-five barrels of oil per day, about double the volume recovered from the local seeps.

Within one year there was a virtual oil rush in the area, not unlike the gold rush of California one decade earlier. Within two years, hundreds of pumping wells dotted the banks of Oil Creek. The oil boom, which brought new towns, new inventions, and a mass migration to the region, led to a 300 percent increase in U.S. oil production—from 500,000 barrels in 1860 to 2.1 million barrels in 1861.


The modern petroleum industry started with Samuel Kier’s distilling of crude oil into kerosene and with the construction of Edwin Drake’s Drake, Edwin oil well, which showed that vast quantities of underground oil could be obtained by using salt-well drilling techniques.

The site where Drake drilled the first commercial oil well is now a national historical landmark. A bronze plaque placed there by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers reads, “The drilling of this oil well by Edwin L. Drake in 1859, is the event recognized as marking the modern phase of the petroleum industry. A series of revolutionary technological changes, unforeseen even by the most prophetic, followed. An emerging course of concentrated energy and abundant chemical compounds, petroleum supported sweeping changes in our mode of illumination, power development, transportation, and industrial chemistry.” As the plaque continues, “Few events in history have so transformed the face of civilization.”

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Black, Brian. Petrolia: The Landscape of America’s First Oil Boom. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. Part of the Creating the North American Landscape series, this work gives a modern environmentalist’s account of early oil drilling in western Pennsylvania.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Henry, J. T. Early and Later History of Petroleum, with Authentic Facts in Regard to Its Development in Western Pennsylvania. New York: A. M. Kelley, 1970. A reprinted economic classic from 1873, with many pictures of the first oilmen. Considered the best standard contemporary history of oil production in western Pennsylvania.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leffler, William. Petroleum Refining in Nontechnical Language. Tulsa, Okla.: PennWell, 2000. The first several chapters are devoted to the distillation of crude oil, explaining in detail how the distillates are extracted.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Speight, James G., and Baki Ozum. Petroleum Refining Processes. New York: Marcel Dekker, 2001. Although weak on historical background, this book still provides great scientific detail on every aspect of the refining process.

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Categories: History