Petroleum has been known throughout historical time. It was used in mortar, for coating walls and boat hulls, and as a fire weapon in defensive warfare. Native Americans used it in magic and medicine and in making paints. Pioneers bought it from the Native Americans for medicinal use and called it Seneca oil and Genesee oil. In Europe it was scooped from streams or holes in the ground, and in the early 19th cent. small quantities were made from shale. In 1815 several streets in Prague were lighted with petroleum lamps.
The modern petroleum industry began in 1859, when the American oil pioneer E. L. Drake drilled a producing well on Oil Creek in Pennsylvania at a place that later became Titusville. Many wells were drilled in the region. Kerosene was the chief finished product, and kerosene lamps soon replaced whale oil lamps and candles in general use. Little use other than as lamp fuel was made of petroleum until the development of the gasoline engine and its application to automobiles, trucks, tractors, and airplanes. Today the world is heavily dependent on petroleum for motive power, lubrication, fuel, dyes, drugs, and many synthetics. The widespread use of petroleum has created serious environmental problems. The great quantities that are burned as fuels generate most of the air pollution in industrialized countries, and oil spilled from tankers and offshore wells has polluted oceans and coastlines.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.