How the oil revolution began with the Poles

170 years ago, in a hospital in Lviv, Dr. Zaorski operated on a patient after dark. It was the first operation ever performed with a strong and bright light source from kerosene lamps. They were installed in the Lviv hospital by Ignacy Łukasiewicz. An apothecary who later made a fortune in oil production.

Every day the world produces 16 billion litres of oil. It is still a source of wealth for the countries that have the deposits. It is a ticket to elitist debauchery or Byzantine entertainment. Petrodollars are spent without much inhibition. The latest example: the preference of football clubs from Saudi Arabia (the country is number 2 on the list of oil exporters) to acquire big stars. They have brought in Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, among others, and the league's spending has reached half a billion dollars. The unimaginably wealthy Saudis can afford not only to satisfy their sporting whims, but also to make investments that challenge the rest of the world, such as the futuristic Saudi metropolis of Neom, to be built at a cost of $500 billion. It will be powered entirely by renewable energy, with plans for beaches whose sands glow in the dark and an artificial moon to illuminate the city at night. When you have oil, you can do anything.

Anyway, you don't have to look that far. If it weren't for fossil fuels, Russia wouldn't be such a threatening aggressor. - “It’s a gas station masquerading as a country,” U.S. Senator John McCain said of Putin's state. Russia is still the No. 3 producer in the world - despite the war in Ukraine and sanctions (or perhaps because of them, as oil and gas prices have risen significantly since the aggression), it recorded $218 billion in revenue from crude oil sales in 2022.

With the birth of the automobile and the patenting of the diesel engine by Rudolf Diesel in 1893, oil began to drive the economy of many countries. The ban on the registration of new petrol and diesel cars, which is to be introduced in the European Union from 2035 is more wishful thinking than a realistic prospect of an environmental posturing by Brussels. Economic forecasts say that there will be 3 billion cars worldwide in 2050 (twice as many as today), half of which will still be powered by petroleum derivatives. "Petroleum is the lifeblood of the modern world, and humanity's dependence on this resource will continue for decades," writes civilization researcher Professor Vaclav Smil in his book "Oil: A Beginner's Guide"

Regardless of how we evaluate the use of petroleum - whether from an environmental, economic, or political perspective - it is undeniable that it has had a significant impact on our civilization. And it is worth remembering that its career began on Polish territory, albeit under partition. 170 years ago in Lviv. On July 31, 1853, the first operation after dark was performed in a Lviv hospital by the light of kerosene lamps. The inventor of this lighting system, unique for that time, was a Pole who came from a noble Armenian family. A humble pharmacist from Lviv, 31-year-old Ignacy Łukasiewicz.

After centuries of darkness and living in chambers illuminated by smoky and smelly tallow candles, paraffin candles, and later oil lamps, it was finally possible to light rooms after dark with a device that produced a flame of about 20 candles (the equivalent of a 20-watt light bulb). In the lamp invented by Łukasiewicz, the combustion source was oil distillate or kerosene - a liquid that burns for a relatively long time, does not smoke and produces a relatively bright flame.

It is no coincidence that the invention originated in Galicia. There were many natural spills of crude oil which peasants collected from the surface of lakes and ponds.

Many tried to distill the oil, but the sticky substance heated on the stove was dangerous. Łukasiewicz and his fellow pharmacist Jan Zeh managed to boil the oil in such a way that their laboratory did not blow up. They heated the raw material and gradually added sulfuric acid. Petroleum ether separated from the slurry, later gasoline, which at the time was treated only as a side effect of the process, was too dangerous to burn and was used as a cleaning agent. At the time, no one had any idea of the importance this substance would have decades later.
When the temperature reached 300 degrees, the kerosene could be separated. The result was a substance that burns for a long time, glowing with a bright and clean flame. This process, invented 170 years ago in Lviv, is now used on a large scale in more than 820 refineries around the world.

It should be noted that the first developer of the distillation method was the Canadian Abraham Gesner, but he obtained the product from coal. The first distillation from oil in the United States was carried out in 1855 by Yale scientist Benjamin Silliman - two years after the development of Łukasiewicz's method. The Polish inventor is overlooked in many English-language accounts of the history of the oil industry, and for good reason - because he did not publish his discovery. Nor was he interested in obtaining a patent for the kerosene lamp itself. When he developed a suitable device with tinsmith Adam Bratkowski, he did not register the invention.

  The invention of the kerosene lamp was not as simple as it seems today. The kerosene in a conventional oil lamp could explode, and there was a risk of fire. The new lamp needed a different design, a different fuel tank, an air supply, an openwork burner, and a special chimney. Most important, however, was a suitable wick to ensure even combustion. Unfortunately, none of the first lamps made in Lviv at that time has survived to this day, and the history of Bratkowski's business did not go well - soon mass production was dominated by the Vienna factory of Karl Rudolf Dittmar.

News of the Lviv invention spread quickly throughout Austria-Hungary. The first advertisement for the new lighting was the pharmacy itself, which displayed something unusual for the time: a shop window lit after dark. Soon the pharmacy owner Peter Mikolasch, who came from Moravia, was approached by the authorities of the Lviv hospital because for them the solution was invaluable: thanks to the night lighting, they could operate on patients without having to wait for the sun to rise. On July 31, 1853, in Lviv, the surgeon Dr. Zaorski (whose name is not mentioned in the sources) operated on the appendix of his patient Wladyslaw Cholecki using kerosene lamps. It was the first such operation in the world. The apothecaries were incredibly successful, but only Łukasiewicz had enough business sense to know that the next step should not be a cottage industry or selling lamps. His primary goal became oil extraction, and his next goal was to create an oil basin that was soon the largest in Europe.

The first oil mine in the world was established in Bóbrka near Krosno. In the following years, more and more wells were drilled in Galicia, and in 1856 the first industrial oil distillation plant was built in Ulaszowice near Jaslo. The extraction of this raw material by Łukasiewicz's company amounted to about 5 tons per day. Soon the inventor began to present at economic exhibitions not only kerosene, but also other products derived from petroleum: heavy oil, lubricating oil or asphalt. And as early as 1858, the management of the Austrian Northern Railway decided to introduce kerosene lighting at stations and on trains.

The achievements of Łukasiewicz and his Krosno partners were ahead of the black gold rush that was to break out in the United States. The exploitation of the deposits in Pennsylvania completely changed the economic history of the world, for soon oil was to serve not only as a source of light, but also as fuel for automobiles. Great fortunes were made overseas, including that of John Davison Rockefeller, who bought his first refinery in Cleveland in 1865 at the age of just 26.

An American delegation of oilmen from his company later arrived in Krosno. Some claim that Rockefeller himself, who later became the richest man in the world, was among the guests. However, there is no confirmation of this visit in any of the biographies of the American tycoon. Polish researchers studying the history of Ignacy Łukasiewicz, however, have repeatedly described the event, claiming that the Polish oil king allowed his guests to see everything, make sketches of facilities, and refused to take any money for it.

Russia is a clinical case of "Dutch disease"

"Putin is losing the European market and has to sell fuel to China and India, offering substantial price discounts. And this hurts," says Andrzej Krajewski, author of the book "Oil. The blood of civilisation".

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25 years after the foundation of the first mine in Bóbrka, the shafts reached up to 250 meters deep. Oil was extracted in 160 places in Galicia. Łukasiewicz became rich enough to buy the Chorkówka property near Bóbrka and build another refinery. This 19th century Polish industrialist was a visionary, not only in the field of economics, but also in the social solutions he introduced in his companies. Even before Bismarck's famous Prussian social insurance schemes came into being, Łukasiewicz set up welfare funds, accident insurance and a system of benefits for workers unable to work in his factories as early as the 1860s. in 1873, Pope Pius IX awarded him the title of Papal Chamberlain for his charitable work and decorated him with the Order of St. Gregory the Great.

Ignacy Łukasiewicz died of pneumonia in 1882 at the age of 60, leaving no heirs - his only daughter Marianna from his marriage to Honorata Stacherska died in her infancy. Only a decade later, the oil industry received a new boost when Diesel developed his famous engine.

It is also worth mentioning the contributions of other Poles to the history of oil, such as Witold Zglenicki and Pawel Potocki, who contributed to the creation of an oil basin on the Azerbaijani peninsula of Absheron. The deposits in the Russian-owned Caucasus later became among the richest in the world. Born near Kutno, Zglenicki, a student of Dmitry Mendeleev, pioneered the exploitation of oil under the seabed, which brought him unimaginable wealth. He owned oil fields of 1,000 hectares on land and about 220 in the sea. He donated the proceeds of his fortune to the Józef Mianowski Fund in Warsaw, which financed prizes for scientists. Among the prize winners were Oskar Kolberg and Maria Skłodowska-Curie.

When the largest oil deposit was discovered in 1904 in the area of Tustanovice in the Lviv region (now a district of Boryslav in Ukraine), later named Oil City, a second "black gold rush" broke out. In the following five years, production reached 2 million tons from a depth of more than 1,000 metres. Three weeks after drilling, however, the Oil City well caught fire due to a lightning strike, and the fire was not extinguished for 40 days.

However, the petroleum industry could not develop in Poland because the resources proved to be small and the extraction costs - compared to other oil-bearing areas in the world - were too high. Today there are 86 documented oil and gas deposits in Poland. They are located in the Carpathian Mountains and foothills, in the Polish lowlands and in the Polish economic zone of the Baltic Sea. Their total reserves are estimated at about 150,000 tons of oil and 230 million cubic metres of gas. By comparison, the natural resources of the Middle East are estimated at tens of millions of tons of oil.

For the sake of order, it should be mentioned at the end: Ignacy Łukasiewicz created the prototype of the kerosene lamp in 1853. A year later, Heinrich Goebel, a German optician who had emigrated to New York, invented the electric light bulb.

– Cezary Korycki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: An oil well in northern North Dakota, USA. Photo: Bayne Stanley / Zuma Press / Forum
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