How our obsession with oil turned Churchill into a ‘socialist’

The modern rediscovery of oil was, at first, very good news for whales. Petroleum had been used in ancient warfare to make flaming arrows and other projectiles, and bitumen was used to caulk boats or as mortar between bricks. But the industrial age of oil began with prospectors in 19th-century America, who quickly discovered that it could be used as lamp oil, at lower cost (and less peril to the prospector) than cetacean blubber. For decades, oil was primarily a source of light, not of heat.

One of the many pleasing ironies in this impressively weighty history is that, before then, finding oil had often been an annoyance. Of people drilling for salt in western Virginia in the early 1800s, we learn: “Inconveniently, the drillers frequently struck gas or oil”, causing unwanted explosions and the rapid disassembly of equipment. Once the market for lamp oil made this sort of thing rather desirable half a century later, all manner of cunning inventors and entrepreneurs flooded in. (One scientist “appears to have exploited the occurrence of an explosion in his lab to demand more money for new apparatus” from his investors.)

This concentration of activity came at the expense, of course, of the original occupiers of the land, as Keith Fisher darkly emphasizes in A Pipeline Runs Through It: “The emergence of the modern oil industry was premised on the near total destruction of the Native American nations of the region,” a destruction prosecuted energetically through the American War of Independence by luminaries such as Jefferson, and effectively completed after the Civil War. (The first modern oil company, Seneca Oil, had been named, tastelessly, after one of the native tribes in 1858.)

Improvements were next required in forms of transportation: it wouldn’t do for long to haul away the black gold gushing from the ground with teams of horses. So Fisher describes the gradual introduction of sea-going oil tankers, the building of railways, and the construction of pipelines across the land. Here we first espy such famous names as that of the young trader John D Rockefeller, who skipped service in the Civil War by paying someone to fight under his name in the Union Army, and entered the refinery business to eventually become head of the all- powerful and tentactular Standard Oil conglomerate. (Because it was not legally possible to merge all of Standard Oil’s subsidiaries into one corporation at the time, it was instead set up as a “trust”: hence the name of later “anti-trust” legislation introduced to break up such giant monopolies .)

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