The growing importance of oil as a source of fuel in the 19th century prompted increased exploration. New wells were sought worldwide and oil was known as ‘black gold’ for the fortune it brought to successful prospectors. Many refineries were quickly established, creating an ever-increasing reliance on petroleum products.
In America, the oil industry had its roots in small wells discovered in the states of Ohio and Pennsylvania. John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company rapidly emerged as a dominant player there, swallowing competitors in the late 1800s.
Well, well, well…
The industry was completely transformed in 1901 with the discovery of a huge oilfield beneath a salt dome in Beaumont, Texas, dubbed ‘The Lucas Gusher’. The drilling of a deep well there caused an eruption that showered a 150 foot high geyser of oil across a wide area. It was nine days before the geyser was brought under control by means of a flow-regulating device known as a Christmas Tree, which is still in use today.
The Spindletop oilfield, as it became known, produced 3.59 million barrels in its first year and 17.4 million barrels the next. This was more than was produced by all the rest of the world’s oilfields combined. While these vast reserves caused the price of oil to drop from $2 to 3 cents per barrel, the new oilfield was the catalyst for innovation.
Gains, trains and automobiles
Oil had mainly been used for kerosene lamps and lubrication, but the Texan strike sped up the switch to a reliance on liquid fuel. Gasoline-driven internal combustion engines rapidly ousted steam and electric competitors. Henry Ford’s Model T appeared just seven years later, introducing the age of mass transportation. Shipping lines and rail companies also switched from coal to oil. In 1901, the Santa Fe Railroad had only one oil-driven locomotive. By 1905 it had 227.
A year after the Spindletop discovery more than 1,500 oil companies had been set up. Of these, fewer than a dozen survived, including the Gulf Oil Corporation and Amoco.
Thanks to ‘Big Oil’, as it was called, the US became the dominant global superpower within the first decade of the 20th century. Even today, our reliance on petroleum products shows little sign of declining.