Book Review: Shining Light on the Frontier of Mineral Science

Oil rig. iStockphoto.

Modern oil rigs show considerable advances in drilling technology since Drake dug the first well. iStockphoto.

Paul Lucier. Scientists and Swindlers: Consulting on Coal and Oil in America, 1820–1890, Washington, DC: Johns Hopkins University Press, 448 pp, $60.

In August 2009 the consumer world, and particularly that of chemicals, celebrated a tremendous anniversary—150 years have passed since Colonel Edwin Drake drilled for and struck the first intentional well of oil outside of Titusville, Pennsylvania. In our over sim p lified view of history, it’s often assumed that this discovery began an instant revolution of the lighting and transportation industries. Paul Lucier’s Scientists and Swindlers denies readers this simplified view.

Lucier explores the world of emergent energy in the early to mid-19th century. In an era with limited supplies of both science and energy, the two came together unevenly during the mid-1800s to create the nation’s energy future. Lucier investigates the ethics of the exploration and the learned men who guided the effort. Were they scientists or swindlers? This account suggests they had to be a bit of each.

The quest for easier, more affordable illumination drove the scientific minds in this story. Therefore Lucier organizes the book in three parts based on the progression of energy sources: coal, kerosene, and petroleum. Contextualized in the multi-decade effort to understand, access, and use minerals for illumination, Drake’s 1859 discovery seems much less consequential. In fact, it appears to be inevitable.

In most cases those who pursued these resources required capital and know-how. In a relatively unscientific era geology evolved with each field experience. Consultants guided the efforts and then experimented with the findings in laboratories afterward. If the field experiences proved successful, the consultant’s reputation and his laboratory findings became hotly pursued by men of capital—their know-how quickly commodified and transformed to profit. Often the men of science were left to contemplate the ethics of profiting from their findings themselves.

In the literature of illumination history, scholars have relied for years on Harold Williamson and colleagues’ two-volume The American Petroleum Industry (Age of Illumination, 1859–1899, and Age of Energy, 1900–1959, published in 1959 and 1963, respectively). For breadth and context Williamson remains the simplest source to use. Nonetheless, Scientists or Swindlers plumbs entirely new depths in the early era by exploring early court cases related to nascent chemical and mineral knowledge. It focuses on two characters who are present in Williamson’s retelling of the progression of illumination—Abraham Gesner and Benjamin Silliman— but with additional nuance in presenting each man’s effort to create his career and expertise.