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The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Powerby Daniel Yergin
Oil on the Brain: The Beginning
There was the matter of the missing $526.08.
A professor's salary in the 1850s was hardly generous, and in the quest for extra income, Benjamin Silliman, Jr., the son of a great American chemist and himself a distinguished professor of chemistry at Yale University, had taken on an outside research project for a fee totaling $526.08. He had been retained in 1854 by a group of promoters and businessmen, but, though he had completed the project, the promised fee was not forthcoming. Silliman, his ire rising, wanted to know where the money was. His anger was aimed at the leaders of the investor group, in particular, at George Bissell, a New York lawyer, and James Townsend, president of a bank in New Haven. Townsend, for his part, had sought to keep a low profile, as he feared it would look most inappropriate to his depositors if they learned he was involved in so speculative a venture.
For what Bissell, Townsend, and the other members of the group had in mind was nothing less than hubris, a grandiose vision for the future of a substance that was known as "rock oil" — so called to distinguish it from vegetable oils and animal fats. Rock oil, they knew, bubbled up in springs or seeped into salt wells in the area around Oil Creek, in the isolated wooded hills of northwestern Pennsylvania. There, in the back of beyond, a few barrels of this dark, smelly substance were gathered by primitive means — either by skimming it off the surface of springs and creeks or by wringing out rags or blankets that had been soaked in the oily waters. The bulk of this tiny supply was used to make medicine.
The group thought that the rock oil could be exploited in far larger quantities and processed into a fluid that could be burned as an illuminant in lamps. This new illuminant, they were sure, would be highly competitive with the "coal-oils" that were winning markets in the 1850S. In short, they believed that, if they could obtain it in sufficient quantities, they could bring to market the inexpensive, high-quality illuminant that mid-nineteenth-century man so desperately needed. They were convinced that they could light up the towns and farms of Noah America and Europe. Almost as important, they could use rock oil to lubricate the moving parts of the dawning mechanical age. And, like all entrepreneurs who became persuaded by their own dreams, they were further convinced that by doing all of this they would grow very rich indeed. Many scoffed at them. Yet, persevering, they would succeed in laying the basis for an entirely new era in the history of mankind — the age of oil.
To "Assuage Our Woes"
The venture had its origins in a series of accidental glimpses — and in the determination of one man, George Bissell, who, more than anybody else, was responsible for the creation of the oil industry. With his long, towering face and broad forehead, Bissell conveyed an impression of intellectual force. But he was also shrewd and open to business opportunity, as experience had forced him to be. Self-supporting from the age of twelve, Bissell had worked his way through Dartmouth College by teaching and writing articles. For a time after graduation, he was a professor of Latin and Greek, then went to Washington, D.C., to work as a journalist. He finally ended up in New Orleans, where he became principal of a high school and then superintendent of public schools. In his spare time, he studied to become a lawyer and taught himself several more languages. Altogether, he became fluent in French, Spanish, and Portuguese and could read and write Hebrew, Sanskrit, ancient and modern Greek, Latin and German. Ill health forced him to head back north in 1853, and passing through western Pennsylvania on his way home, he saw something of the primitive oil-gathering industry with its skimmings and oil-soaked rags. Soon after, while visiting his mother in Hanover, New Hampshire, he dropped in on his alma mater, Dartmouth College, where in a professor's office he spied a bottle containing a sample of this same Pennsylvania rock oil. It had been brought there a few weeks earlier by another Dartmouth graduate, a physician practicing as a country doctor in western Pennsylvania.
Bissell knew that amounts of rock oil were being used as patent and folk medicines to relieve everything from headaches, toothaches, and deafness to stomach upsets, worms, rheumatism, and dropsy — and to heal wounds on the backs of horses and mules. It was called "Seneca Oil" after the local Indians and in honor of their chief, Red Jacket, who had supposedly imparted its healing secrets to the white man. One purveyor of Seneca Oil advertised its "wonderful curative powers" in a poem:
The Healthful balm, from Nature's secret spring,
Bissell knew that the viscous black liquid was flammable. Seeing the rock oil sample at Dartmouth, he conceived, in a flash, that it could be used not as a medicine but as an illuminant — and that it might well assuage the woes of his pocketbook. He could put the specter of poverty behind him and become rich from promoting it. That intuition would become his guiding principle and his faith, both of which would be sorely tested during the next six years, as disappointment consistently overwhelmed hope.
The Disappearing Professor
But could the rock oil really be used as an illuminant? Bissell aroused the interest of other investors, and in late 1854 the group engaged Yale's Professor Silliman to analyze the properties of the oil both as an illuminant and lubricant. Perhaps even more important, they wanted Silliman to put his distinguished imprimatur on the project so they could sell stock and raise the capital to carry on. They could not have chosen a better man for their purposes. Heavyset and vigorous, with a "good, jolly face," Silliman carried one of the greatest and most respected names in nineteenth-century science. The son of the founder of American chemistry, he himself was one of the most distinguished scientists of his time, as well as the author of the leading textbooks in physics and chemistry. Yale was the scientific capital of mid-nineteenth-century America, and the Sillimans, father and son, were at the center of it.
But Silliman was less interested in the abstract than in the decidedly practical, which drew him to the world of business. Moreover, while reputation and pure science were grand, Silliman was perennially in need of supplementary income. Academic salaries were low and he had a growing family; so he habitually took on outside consulting jobs, making geological and chemical evaluations for a variety of clients. His taste for the practical would also carry him into direct participation in speculative business ventures, the success of which, he explained, would give him "plenty of sea room...for science." A brother-in-law was more skeptical. Benjamin Silliman, Jr., he said, "is on the constant go in behalf of one thing or another, and alas for Science."
When Silliman undertook his analysis of rock oil, he gave his new clients good reason to think they would get the report they wanted. "I can promise you," he declared early in his research, "that the result will meet your expectations of the value of this material." Three months later, nearing the end of his research, he was even more enthusiastic, reporting "unexpected success in the use of the distillate product of Rock Oil as an illuminator." The investors waited eagerly for the final report. But then came the big hitch. They owed Silliman the $526.08 (the equivalent of about $5,000 today), and he had insisted that they deposit $100 as a down payment into his account in New York City. Sil
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