Oil and gas are perhaps the most important resources found in the world, keeping the lights on, allowing business to flourish, and letting billions traverse huge distances at every single moment. It’s this dynamism and sheer significance that inspire many students to embark on a career in the oil and gas industry, although the high salaries, transferrable training and ability to travel the world are all similarly important reasons to join the field.
Oil and gas’ current ascendency is only a recent development, though, and despite the fact that our relationship with the resources runs back millennia, across time the character of the connection has varied wildly.
The very earliest evidence of humans’ use of oil dates back to 40,000 years ago. In the 1990s, at sites in Syria archaeologists discovered flint tools coated in bitumen – a semi-solid form of petroleum – and postulated that the ancient human species was using it as a means to secure tools to their wooden handles.
Tens of thousands of years later, in around 3,000BC, easily-obtainable natural bitumen deposits were used by the people of Mehrgarh (modern-day Pakistan) to coat baskets used to carry crops, thereby making them waterproof. In around 2,000BC, the same material’s excellent binding properties were used to construct the towers and roads of the city of Babylon – this bitumen was taken from the same source from which Iraq now draws its oil: the Jurassic Iraqi petroleum system.
Bitumen’s use continued for millennia after that, as the material was easily collected from surface sources. It was used to coat mummies in ancient Egypt – the word “mummy” comes from the Arabic work for bitumen, “mūmiyyah” – and the ignition of seepages of natural gas in Azerbaijan heavily inspired the ancient Zoroastrian religion.
These fiery locations were worshipped as holy sites by Zoroastrians, and the word Azerbaijan is, in fact, based upon the ancient Persian word for “garden of fire” – “Aberbadagan”.
It was around 347AD when the Chinese built the first oil wells, attaching rudimentary drill bits to bamboo poles in order to reach underground deposits. The oil was then used to evaporate water from brine so that salt – a semi-precious resource at this time – could be harvested, an industry that led to miles of bamboo pipelines being built across China.
In the 9th and 10th centuries, Persian scientists discovered that crude oil could be refined, creating kerosene for use as a lamp oil. The raw material was extracted from Baku in Azerbaijan, and historians estimate some 15,000 people were involved in the extraction – by hand – of the resource. By the 12th century, Baku was one of the wealthiest cities in the region, a precursor to modern petro-states such as the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
Throughout the following centuries, oil was used as a weapon, adhesive, heat source, and lamp fuel, though it had yet been harnessed on a wide scale.
The industrial revolution
While it’s easy to think that oil was a key driver of the industrial revolution, it was coal and whale oil that drove factories across the western world during the opening centuries of the period.
While gas had been captured by industrialists since the early 1800s, Crude oil only began to be used as a fuel on a massive scale after 1849, when the Canadian inventor Abraham Gessner “discovered” a means to refine kerosene industrially from coal, bitumen and oil shale.
In 1850, Gessner formed the Kerosene Gaslight Company and promptly began building a network of kerosene-fuelled lamps across the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia – the world’s first – yet this was only the start of a period of rapid innovation and growth.
In 1851, Scotsman James Young set up a plant that could produce paraffin from coal and oil shale, and two years later, Polish pharmacist Ignacy Lukasiewicz was able to produce kerosene from liquid petroleum.
Within years, oil wells were being dug across Europe and the United states, making the extractors fabulously wealthy in the process. Standard Oil, run by, among others, John D Rockefeller, ensured the industrialist was worth the equivalent of $318 billion when it was broken up in 1911.
It was around this time that Gulf Oil (founded in 1890), Texaco (1901), Royal Dutch Shell (1907), the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (1909) and the Turish Petroleum Company (1910) were founded, some of which remain dominant to this day
Over the twentieth century, oil and gas quickly became ascendant – the most efficient, easily-extracted forms of energy on Earth. Are you interested in this epically important industry? If you are, the oil and gas industry could hold the career you’ve been looking for.