19. Petroleum in 1861 (1861)

Petroleum in 1861

By 1861, petroleum, popularly called rock oil, was well known, although its origin was not. It could be found in many countries, and James Miller Williams had discovered and been producing oil in southwestern Ontario since 1857. But in those horse and buggy days, its use was limited to such things as waterproofing ships, lubricating machinery, and fuelling lamps.

In 1861, Thomas Sterry Hunt, a chemist and mineralogist with the Geological Survey of Canada, published a paper on the origins of petroleum. He correctly surmised that liquid petroleum is of organic origin within rock masses, and, on exposure, could change from liquid to solid. He further suggested that petroleum might have been formed from marine plants or animals in “deep water deposits from which atmospheric oxygen was excluded.” And finally, he suggested that the processes forming lignite and coal, which are derived from woody, land-based plant materials, were very different from the marine-based origins of petroleum.

Hunt also determined that bituminous shales – what we know today as hydrocarbon source rocks – when heated in a “tank wagon”, would yield substances quite like petroleum. All in all, this was a perceptive assessment of the origins of a substance that was to become vital to the world economy.

Category: Science Advances

Decade: 1860s


Hunt, T.S., 1861. Notes on the History of Petroleum or Rock Oil; Canadian Naturalist, v. VI, no. 4, July 1861, p. 1-15. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/aeu.ark:/13960/t9x078r2f 

Hunt, Thomas Sterry. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hunt_thomas_sterry_12E.html 

Powell, T.G., Macqueen, R.W., Barker, J.F., and Bree, D.G., 1984. Geochemical Character and Origin of Ontario Oils; Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists, v. 32, no. 3, p. 289–312.

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