January 2022

100th Anniversary

History of the HPI-Up to the 1930s: Whales, lamps, automobiles, plastics and war

Over the next 10 mos, Hydrocarbon Processing will provide a detailed history of the origins and evolution of the hydrocarbon processing industry (HPI).

Nichols, Lee, Hydrocarbon Processing Staff

Over the next 10 mos, Hydrocarbon Processing will provide a detailed history of the origins and evolution of the hydrocarbon processing industry (HPI). This robust analysis will chronicle the beginnings of the modern refining and petrochemical industries through the technological advancements that have created the global energy juggernaut the industry has become today. This examination of the history of the HPI will dictate how human ingenuity has provided the products that have increased the standard of living for billions of people around the world, as well as a reflection on technological advancements over the past 170 yr.

The discovery of kerosene

Everything has a beginning. From the construction of roads, buildings and ship assembly to use in medicines and weaponry, ancient civilizations have been using oil for thousands of years. However, the modern refining industry traces its origins back nearly 170 yr, with the invention of kerosene by Canadian physician and geologist Abraham Gesner and the construction of new refining facilities to produce the high-demand product.

In the early 1840s, Gessner began experimenting with hydrocarbons, specifically bitumen from Trinidad. From these experiments, he developed a process to extract oil, which could be burned.1 However, the bitumen product was expensive to obtain and the burning of it produced a horrendous odor. Therefore, he started experimenting with a tpye of asphalt called albertite. Gessner noticed that the oil that was extracted—the process was done by heating coal in a retort2—burned with a strong yellow flame with no odor. He termed the product “keroselaion” from the Greek words “wax oil.” He later shortened the name to kerosene. Little did Gesner know that his discovery was soon to usurp whale oil in the burning of lamps and begin an international movement.

Whales, lamps and refineries

Through the late 1800s/early 1900s, whale oil was used extensively as a fuel for lighting. The oil, which is more of a liquid wax, was obtained from the blubber from the head of whales. The oil was processed and sold as a fuel for lamps, lubrication, making soap or to produce candles. Although highly dangerous, the whaling industry grew significantly as consumer demand for oil to fuel lighting expanded exponentially.

The whaling industry peaked in the 1820s and declined over the next several decades. Decreasing whale populations and taxation led to higher prices for whale oil, which could not compete against other options, such as kerosene. Consumers’ pocketbooks dictated the pathway to the adoption of a cheaper and comparable alternative, ushering in a new era of refined products.

Several years after Gesner’s discovery of kerosene, Samuel Kier began his own experimentation on petroleum that would seep into his family’s salt wells near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (U.S.)—at the time, this substance was known as “carbon oil.” Although the substance could be burned for lighting, much like Gesner’s experiments with bitumen from Trinidad, the unrefined material had an unpleasant odor. Instead, Kier used the material for medicinal purposes until it lost its appeal in the early 1850s.

To find another path for the oily substance, Kier experimented with using the substance for lighting. On the recommendation of James Booth, a chemist and professor from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (U.S.), Kier used distillation to extract the best materials for the use of lamp burning fuel. In 1851, Kier began selling his lamp fuel oil for $1.50/gal, a more cost-effective product than whale oil.3 As demand grew, Kier established North America’s first oil refinery in 1853, which processed 1 bpd–2 bpd of liquid petroleum in its first year, growing to 5 bpd in 1854 (FIG. 1). In 1859, Edwin Drake drilled the first commercial oil well in North America in Titusville, Pennsylvania. After trial-and-error, he discovered oil at a depth of nearly 70 ft. Soon, his commercial well produced 25 bpd. The oil was destined to be sold to a local refiner to produce kerosene for lamp fuel. His first customer: Samuel Kier.

FIG. 1. Samuel Kier standing next to his 5-bpd petroleum still. Photo courtesy of the Drake Well Museum.

Nearly 4,300 mi away, Ignacy Łukasiewicz started to produce kerosene in the early- to mid-1850s, as well. After experimenting with different oils extracted by wells drilled near Bóbrka, Poland and other sites he set up with local business entities, Łukasiewicz opened Europe’s first oil distillery in 1856 in Jaslo. The refinery was established to produce kerosene for lamp lighting. Shortly thereafter, a larger scale refinery was built in Ploieşti, Romania by brothers Teodor and Marin Mehedinţeanu.4 The Râfov refinery used cylindrical iron and cast iron vessels, which were heated by wood fire, to produce 7 tpd of distilled oil.5 The oil was ultimately used as lamp lighting fuel, leading Ploieşti to become the first city to be lighted by distilled crude oil.5

In the 1860s, John D. Rockefeller established and increased the size, wealth and power of Standard Oil Company, which produced and shipped kerosene, eventually becoming a monopoly within the U.S.—the company was eventually split into several entities that would lead to the creation of Amoco, Chevron, Exxon, Mobil and Marathon. By the mid-1890s, Standard Oil Co. had also become the dominant kerosene exporter to other parts of the globe, such as Asia. However, Standard Oil Co. soon found a competitor in the kerosene trade, a European trading company called Shell Transport and Trading Co.—the company established its first refinery in Balikpapan, Indonesia in 1897 (known as Dutch Borneo at the time).6 In 1901, Shell Transport and Trading Co. merged with a smaller competitor—Royal Dutch—that had set up a sales organization in Asia. The company took the name the Royal Dutch Shell Group. The company’s operations—drilling, exploration and refining—expanded rapidly to various parts of the globe.6

As oil exploration began to increase globally, new refineries were being built in various locations worldwide to produce kerosene and gasoline. For example, after oil was discovered by accident in northeast India, the Assam Oil Co. opened the Digboi refinery in Digboi, Assam, India. The refinery, which produced kerosene, was the first refinery in Asia.7

In 1908, George Reynolds, backed by English investor William D’Arcy, discovered oil in Persia (modern-day Iran). Four years later, the Anglo-Persian Oil Co. (APOC) opened the Middle East’s first refinery in Abadan, which would become the largest refinery in the world. However, APOC found it difficult to find a market for its oil, primarily due to intense competition from more established companies (e.g., Standard Oil Co.). The company soon found an ally in Britain’s newest Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Churchill was assigned to modernize Britain’s navy, which included switching from coal-powered ships to using oil. Not wanting to rely solely on Standard Oil or Royal Dutch Shell, Britain signed a lucrative oil deal with APOC, which resulted in Britain becoming the majority shareholder in the company. A little over 40 yr later, the company adopted the name British Petroleum (bp).8

The genesis of synthetic plastics

In the mid-1850s, English inventor Alexander Parkes was conducting research on cellulose—an organic material component in the cell walls of green plants and the most abundant biopolymer in the world at the time. His research/tests, which included treating cellulose with nitric acid and a solvent, led to the creation of Parkesine, the world’s first thermoplastic.

A few years later in 1861, English chemist Thomas Graham discovered a new substance while dissolving organic compounds in solutions. He noticed that some of the substance (e.g., cellulose) would not pass through fine filter paper, leaving behind a sticky residue. He termed this substance “colloids” after the Greek word for glue. The use of colloids led to research that would lead to the birth of new plastics technologies and commercial production.

The American inventor John Wesley Hyatt acquired Parke’s patents and began experimenting with colloids and natural polymers. In 1870, he discovered celluloid—one of the world’s first plastics—by applying heat and pressure to a mix of cellulose nitrate and camphor. In the late 1880s, French engineer and industrialist Count Hilaire de Chardonnet used a nitrocellulose solution to create “Chardonnet silk,” which was a synthetic silk and the basis for rayon—rayon fibers are still produced and less flammable than the ones produced in the 1890s.9

Up until the early 1900s, plastics were produced using organic materials. That changed in 1907 with the discovery of Bakelite by Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland. His process involved reacting phenol and formaldehyde—in the presence of a catalyst—under pressure at high temperatures, which occurred in his innovative Bakelizer—a steam pressure vessel (FIG. 2). The result was an extremely versatile resin that could be molded and shaped. This invention was the world’s first synthetic plastic.10 Five years later, Swiss chemist Jacques Brandenberger invented Cellophane—a transparent sheet made from cellulose, which was primarily used as a packaging material. Around the same timeframe, German chemist Friedrich Klatte patented a method for polymerization of vinyl chloride to produce polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Note: PVC was first discovered in the 1870s by the German chemist Eugen Baumann but never patented.11 

FIG. 2. The Bakelizer, the pressure vessel Leo Baekeland used to produce the world’s first synthetic plastic. Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution).

A new process for fertilizer production

Using fertilizers for agricultural significantly expanded in the 1800s/early 1900s. However, the primary sources to develop ammonia—niter and guano—were not adequate to satisfy demand; therefore, a new process was needed to produce adequate amounts of ammonia and nitrates. This challenge was solved by the German chemist Fritz Haber in 1909 and later commercialized and expanded by Carl Bosch of BASF. Baden Aniline and Soda Factory (BASF) traces its roots back to 1865. The company started as a producer of dyes and inorganic chemicals, and, at the turn of the century, added ammonia production to its products portfolio.

The first industrial-scale production plant based on the Haber-Bosch process began operations at BASF’s Oppau facility in Germany in 1913 (FIG. 3). This process—still in use today—enabled BASF to become the first company to employ high-pressure technology.12 The process was also employed in the production of nitrates for munitions during World War I (WWI). The Oppau facility’s success with ammonia production expanded to include a second site in Leuna, Germany. This site would not only utilize the Haber-Bosch process to produce ammonia but would also be instrumental in the research and development of synthetic gasoline from the hydrogenation of lignite (i.e., the Bergius process, the forerunner to the Fischer-Tropsch process). Other ammonia process pioneers (e.g., the Italian chemist Luigi Casale) would create their own technologies in later years, which would compete against the Haber-Bosch process.

FIG. 3. View of the world’s first ammonia synthesis plant. BASF opened the facility in Oppau, Germany in 1913. Photo courtesy of BASF.

The internal combustion engine (ICE)

The production of kerosene included byproducts, such as straight-run naphtha, the forerunner to gasoline.13 At the time, this product was usually discarded since there was no clear intended use for the material. However, the onset of the ICE changed the nature of oil refining, as it created an outlet for a byproduct that, at the time, had no real use.

Early pioneers of ICE designs include the French-born Swiss inventor François Issac de Rivaz, French brothers Claude and Nicéphore Niépce and English inventor Samuel Brown. De Rivaz’s design—invented in 1807—used an electric spark to ignite hydrogen and oxygen.14 Although his design led to the first ICE incorporated onto a carriage (a primitive automobile), it was never commercially successful. In the same year, the Niépce brothers patented their own ICE design. The Pyréolophore used a mixture of lycopodium powder, coal dust and resin for ignition purposes.15 The brothers proved the concept of their design by conducting a test run of their ICE on a boat on the Saône river in France. The successful test led to the brothers receiving credit as the first to use an ICE on a boat.

Samuel Brown is also one of the earliest developers of the ICE (his engine used hydrogen as a fuel to propel a carriage up to 7 mph in 1828 and a river boat up to 6 knots in 1827). Belgian engineer Étienne Lenoir’s ICE design was a single-cylinder engine that used the ignition of coal gas and air to create power that drove the pistons.16 Although inefficient, the concept led to the creation of the Lenoir gas engine and the production of rudimentary automobiles—the engine was also used for power generation.

Building off Lenoir’s design, the German engineer Nicolaus Otto created a four-stroke piston cycle ICE in 1876. Otto’s thought process was the inefficiencies in Lenoir’s engine design could be solved using a liquid fuel. Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach—both worked at Otto’s engine company in Germany in the late 1860s/early 1870s—patented their own ICE design in 1883. Their concept used ligroin (i.e., heavy naphtha) as fuel. Over the next 2 yr, Daimler and Maybach optimized their ICE design by including a carburetor that mixed gasoline with air for combustion.17 This design led to the first installation of a liquid petroleum-fueled automobile.

Other engine pioneers improved on earlier ICE designs. For example, Rudolf Diesel designed a more efficient ICE in the early 1890s. His engine could use several types of fuels but primarily used kerosene. The concept significantly improved energy efficiency vs. other engine types, especially those run off steam or gasoline. Diesel’s engine was later used in heavier industrial and transportation applications such as agricultural machinery, marine vessels, locomotives, trucks and many others.

Thermal cracking evolves the refining process

As the production of automobiles increased, giving rise to automobile pioneers such as J. Frank, Charles Duryea, Henry Ford, William Durant, Karl Benz and several others, refined gasoline demand surpassed kerosene demand in the early 1900s. This new form of gasoline was refined, unlike previous iterations of straight-run gasoline, which was a byproduct from the kerosene production process. However, the kerosene production process used a simple distillation technique, which did not yield enough gasoline fraction to meet burgeoning demand. This challenge was solved by the invention of the thermal cracking process.

The earliest thermal cracking process was patented by Vladimir Shukhov in Russia in 1891. The Shukhov Cracking Process used high pressure to “crack” heavier hydrocarbon chains into lighter, shorter chains.18 However, Shukhov’s process found little adoption since a market for lighter fraction fuels (e.g., gasoline) did not exist at the time. It was not until the worldwide growth of automobiles did gasoline demand increase in prominence.

In 1910, Americans William Burton and Robert Humphreys developed their own thermal cracking process while working at Standard Oil of Indiana’s Whiting refinery—the refinery was originally established to produce kerosene for lamps. According to literature18, the process involved heating crude oil in a still to 371°C–399°C (700°F–750°F). The petroleum vapors were regulated through a valve system that maintained constant pressure through the entire process. Once the fractions were evaporated, they gathered through a condenser. Lastly, the still was opened and the carbon deposits were collected. The process produced primarily gasoline, gasoil, residual fuel oil and petroleum coke.18 A view of Burton’s apparatus for the process, submitted to the U.S. Patent Office in January 1913, is shown in FIG. 4. The process significantly expanded the Whiting refinery and led to many other refining companies licensing the thermal cracking technology from Standard Oil of Whiting. The Burton process was used extensively for more than 20 yr, until the creation of catalytic cracking. It was not until after WWI that advances to the thermal cracking process accelerated within the industry. Note: One of the earliest pioneers in catalytic cracking was the American Almer M. McAfee, who created a process that used anhydrous aluminum chloride-based catalyst that produced a higher yield of gasoline from the distillation process. McAfee’s employer, Gulf Refining, would launch the first anhydrous aluminum chloride cracking unit in Port Arthur, Texas in 1915.19 

FIG. 4. View of Burton’s patented apparatus for gasoline production. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Patent Office.

In the same year Burton was patenting his thermal cracking process, German scientist Friedrich Bergius developed a new synthetic fuel process. The direct coal liquefaction process—a predecessor to the Fischer-Tropsch process, which used an indirect method for coal liquefaction—involved reacting hydrogen at high pressures with lignite to produce liquid fuels.20

National defense: War ushers in a new era for oil

Prior to the start of WWI, coal was the dominant source of fuel for marine vessels, especially for navies. However, the benefits of using oil soon became prevalent around the world. The fuel had double the energy intensity of coal, refueling at sea was easier, it enabled better flexibility in changing speeds, fewer crew members were needed to operate a ship’s fueling system and oil produced less smoke than coal—an imperative for line of sight when aiming cannons at enemy vessels.21

In 1914, WWI began in Europe. The 4-yr conflict significantly expanded the use and demand for oil. The war effort included the use of tens of thousands of trucks, motorcars and motorcycles, hundreds of ships and the introduction of airplanes and tanks, all using ICEs that ran off gasoline and used oil for lubrication. The use of oil became a mainstay for transportation, which continued after the war.

Demand increases and technologies advance

As WWI ended, global gasoline demand expanded immensely. Although thermally-cracked gasoline was the dominant choice in ICEs, premature combustion caused knocking, which can cause several problems with an engine’s operation. New research efforts were devoted to find solutions to this challenge. This included optimizing the thermal cracking process. C. P. Dubbs created a modified thermal cracking process (i.e., the Dubbs process) that operated at 400°C–460°C (750°F–860°F), which lessened carbon buildup in the system, enabling the process to operate longer before cleanout. Dubbs licensed his process for nearly two decades under the company name National Hydrocarbon Co., later changing the name to Universal Oil Products (UOP).22

In 1921, while working at General Motors, Thomas Midgley—who later also helped invent Freon—discovered that incorporating tetraethyllead (TEL) into gasoline prevented knocking in ICEs (increasing gasoline octane rating leads to better compression and, in turn, improved engine performance). Around the same timeframe, chemists at Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey produced isopropyl alcohol (IPA), which is credited as the first commercial petrochemical—it was a synthetic alcohol. Just one year later (September 1922), the inaugural issue of The Refiner and Natural Gasoline Manufacturer was published to provide technical articles and know-how to the global refining industry (later including petrochemicals and gas processing/LNG technical materials, as those industries evolved). The publication would change its name several times—evolving with discoveries in new industrial processes—before taking the name Hydrocarbon Processing.

Several other technological advances in refining and petrochemicals production happened in the 1920s. These included the discovery of synthetic rubber (styrene-butadiene rubber or SBR) by the German chemist Walter Bock, synthetic methanol by the German chemist Matthias Pier, the production of moisture-proof cellophane, the Fischer-Tropsch process for liquids production (coal liquefaction and gas-to-liquids), the discovery of silicones, an improved method to produce PVC by the American inventor Waldo Semon, the first ethylene plant built by Union Carbide in West Virginia (U.S.), and early research by French inventor Eugene Houdry that would eventually lead to the development of the catalytic cracking process in the 1930s.23 These milestones in the refining and petrochemicals industries helped provide the foundation for the acceleration of the industry to develop new and better products for the global population.

The 1930s

Over the following decade, the global HPI continued to evolve and advance technologies for fuels and petrochemicals production. The industry’s milestones of the 1930s will be discussed in the February issue of Hydrocarbon Processing. HP


  1. Wikipedia, Abraham Pineo Gesner, online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Pineo_Gesner.
  2. Russell, L., A Heritage of Light, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2003.
  3. Gerali, F., ”Samuel Martin Kier,” Engineering and Technology History, 2019, online: https://ethw.org/Samuel_Martin_Kier
  4. Nita, R., “Romania was the first country in the world to have exported gas since the 1900s,” World Record Academy, November 12, 2018, online: https://www.worldrecordacademy.org/technology/worlds-first-oil-refinery-ploiesti-218277.
  5. KazMunayGas International, “160 years of refining in Romania,” February 2016, online: https://kmginternational.com/mediaroom/events-and-special-projects/160-years-of-refining-in-romania-id-1106-cmsid-473.
  6. Shell, “Company History,” online: https://www.shell.com/about-us/our-heritage/our-company-history.html.
  7. Indian Oil, “Digboi Refinery (Upper Assam),” online: https://iocl.com/pages/digboi-refinery.
  8. bp, “Our History,” https://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/who-we-are/our-history.html.
  9. Schwarcz, J., “What was meant by Chardonnet Silk?,” McGill University, March 2017, online: https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/history-you-asked/what-was-meant-chardonnet-silk.
  10. American Chemical Society National Historic Chemical Landmarks, “Bakelite: The World’s First Synthetic Plastic,” November 1993, online: https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/bakelite.html#top.
  11. Bellis, M., “History of Vinyl,” ThoughtCo., February 2019, online: https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-vinyl-1992458.
  12. BASF, “First Ammonia Synthesis Plant,” online: https://www.basf.com/global/en/who-we-are/history/chronology/1902-1924/1913.html.
  13. Waddams, A. L., L. Solomon, H. Lee and J. Carruthers, “Petroleum refining,” Encyclopedia Britannica, November 2018, online: https://www.britannica.com/technology/petroleum-refining.
  14. Wikipedia, François Issac de Rivaz, online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fran%C3%A7ois_Isaac_de_Rivaz
  15. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Nicéphore Niépce,” Encyclopedia Britannica, July 2021, online: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Nicephore-Niepce.
  16. Tietz, T., “Étienne Lenoir and the Internal Combustion Engine,” SciHi Blog, January 2021, online: http://scihi.org/etienne-lenoir/.
  17. Wikipedia, Gottlieb Daimler, online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gottlieb_Daimler.
  18. Gerali, F., “Thermal Cracking,” Engineering and Technology History, 2019, online: https://ethw.org/Thermal_Cracking.
  19. Buonora, P., “Almer McDuffie McAfee: Commercial Catalytic Cracking Pioneer,” Bulletin for the History of Chemistry, 1998, online: http://acshist.scs.illinois.edu/bulletin_open_access/num21/num21%20p12-18.pdf.
  20. Probstein, R. and R. E. Hicks, “Synthetic Fuels,” Encyclopedia of Physical Science and Technology, 2003.
  21. Johnstone, P. and C. McLeish, “World wars and the age of oil: Exploring directionality in deep energy transitions,” Elsevier, September 2020, online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7471716/.
  22. UOP, “A Century of Innovation: Solving the world’s energy challenges since 1914,” online: https://uop.honeywell.com/en/uop-history.
  23. Baillie, C. et. al, “Guide to Fluid Catalytic Cracking: Unlocking FCC Value,” W. R. Grace, 2020.

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