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.

Organizing his account around these two professionals, Lucier employs a wonderful assortment of visual materials from their reports and other mineralogical diagrams. He also provides long excerpts from court transcripts that allow readers to see representations of each perspective of the era. By prioritizing these primary resources Scientists and Swindlers becomes an essential reference for readers in the history of science—particularly chemistry.

The emphasis on Gesner and Silliman dramatizes contrasts within the scientific community at that time. Gesner represents the archetypal gambler, earning his scientific credentials through public display and demonstration, as well as his travelogue-style scientific writings. Conversely, Silliman, as a more traditional member of the higher-education elite at Yale and elsewhere, brought credibility to enterprises undertaken by men of capital. Together, the work of both men led chemists through a wilderness of mineral possibilities toward an illuminated future through kerosene.

In the background of this unfolding story of minerals, men, and science is a critical energy transition. Lucier does not spend a great deal of time directly discussing this shift; but it is inferred as the context for the entire story, including his investigation of New Brunswick’s “Albert mineral” and Pennsylvania’s “rock oil.” Lucier writes,

Coal oil and petroleum were in competition [which]… might explain why it took three years after the first flowing well to establish the predominance of petroleum. Coal oil companies were as much a hindrance as a help to petroleum. Technological change was not sudden or smooth—and perhaps not inevitable. (p. 232)

Such observations, particularly in 2009, are instructive as our nation continues to navigate through a sluggish energy transition from petroleum. Lucier makes no overt argument for scientific freedom and flexibility to find new methods of deriving energy, though it is inherent in the stories that he retells. In this early era there is neither guidance from the federal government nor from concerned consumers. Instead, the scientists and their sponsors control the emphasis of exploration and the emergence of governing scientific knowledge.

After the close investigation of these specific episodes—and a representative investigation of exploration in California—Lucier’s account seems to search for a quick opportunity to close. It is disappointing to see Scientists and Swindlers fold into a brief epilogue discussion of the morality of mixing science and profit. But as it stands, the vision of 19th-century science conveyed by Scientists and Swindlers is compelling in its dramatization of the literal “frontier” of science. Lucier depicts an era of experimentation when loose oversight allowed knowledge in chemistry and energy to unfold naturally— at times through the scientific method and at others through deception and business acumen.

Brian Black is the author of Petrolia and several other books. He is an environmental historian who studies the cross-section of energy and society. Currently he is writing about the culture of 20th-century petroleum consumption in the United States. Black teaches history and environmental studies at Penn State Altoona.