Oil is a risky business. It is not surprising to hear a geologist predict that ‘peak oil’ has past. Oil’s future will be inexorable decline. It would not shock you unduly to hear them say oil is now just “a temporary and vanishing phenomenon—one which young men will live to see come to its natural end.”
On the other hand, you might be surprised to learn that geologist who made that doom-laden prediction made it in 1885. It He was speaking of an ‘industry’, if such it could be called, less than 30 years old. At the time of this monumentally incorrect prediction, those vast reserves that would extend dependence on oil for at least 150 years had yet to be found, so the prophesy carried some weight.
Why oil in the first place? Its first purpose was not as fuel for just about everything from lawn mowers to jet fighters, but as a source of light. Before oil, the industrial and agricultural revolution was a daytime affair. No-one could work in most factories because they simply could not see well enough. Lighting adequately all of a large factory was next to impossible unless it was in the heart of an urban area (which is why much polluting industry was placed exactly there – look on any 19th century street map). Since the early 19th century city factories and offices had been lit by gas. This entailed naked yellow flames burning from fishtail jets in multi-branched arrays like so many Bunsen burners. These were fixed to the wall or from the ceiling where they could not supposedly cause fires. You can imagine the quality of light from such a system on a breezy evening. The gas mantle wasn’t perfected until the mid 1880s.
Though the White House had gas lighting from 1848, only cities had gasometers and gas mains. So for the vastness of America gas light was not an option. Outside the very centre of cities and away from a gas pipe, multiple candles for industrial use were impractical, dangerous and provided little illumination. Oil-fired lamps were better, but whale oil was expensive (not unreasonable considering the source whose number was diminishing as rapidly as demand was increasing), that only rich private households could use it.
An affordable source of night-time light had huge social benefit. It could be thought of to actually extend people’s lives. Poorer people that were previously condemned to a life abbreviated by hibernation during winter darkness would get hundreds of hours more of ‘leisure’ during their lives – time which which their parents and grandparents never had. They would be able to read, to have hobbies, pastimes, study, ‘improve themselves’.