National Geographic : 1941 Jun
Today's World Turns on Oil BY FREDERICK SIMPICH R OB US of oil, with its grease and gas oline, and our life rhythm would freeze. Every truck and automobile in the United States-more than 31,000,000 of them-would die in their tracks without fuel and lubricants made from petroleum. Planes, "out of gas," would be forced down all over the land. Every ship in our Navy and every ship in our whole merchant marine would lie useless at dock, or halt somewhere at sea to roll help less as dead whales in the troughs of the waves. All Army tanks and trucks, all guns and motorized cavalry would stop; soldiers would go back to shaving mules' tails, currying horses, carrying baled hay and shoveling manure. The whole mobile Army would slow down, from 40 miles an hour to the plodding four miles of horse-drawn days. Millions of us would shiver in our homes, before we could change all our oil heaters back into coal furnaces. Factories and mills would shut down, too, from coast to coast, else their wheels would catch afire from friction and burn, because there is not enough castor oil, lard, or tallow to grease all their axles. Every railway car would stop. Without oil to grease its wheels and cheat friction, mass production itself could never have come to pass. Of course we had wheels and machines long before we struck oil. But about the time man found oil and began to make axle grease from it, the then "machine age" had reached a peak. Power we had, in plenty; but the problem of friction had reached the point where all the grease we could get from tallow, castor beans, pig fat, and fish was not enough. By the time oil was struck in Pennsyl vania, in 1859, the steam engine, the sew ing machine, reaper, elevator, etc., were already in their early stages. But already, too, millmen, makers of machines, and in ventors were balked by friction, which they had not enough good grease to overcome; hence, no one product ever invented set free such a rush of mechanical inventions as did the advent of petroleum grease. Today in the United States we make about 57 percent of all the world's lubricating oil; and the story is current that Germany's war machine suffers more from lack of good grease for its wheels than from lack of fuels for its motors. Britain still builds many coal-burning mer chant ships because she has no domestic source of fuel oil. If all the million oil wells bored in the United States since 1859 were added together, they would make a sizable tunnel clear through the earth at the Equator. Where Oil Comes From From the 375,000 American wells produc ing in 1940, we took out 1,354,423,000 bar rels of crude oil, which was almost two-thirds of total estimated world production of 2,147, 000,000 barrels. Outside of the United States, most oil in 1940 was produced in Russia, Venezuela, Iran, the Netherlands Indies, Romania, and Mexico. Output in Mexico, however, has declined enormously in the last 20 years. Earth oil, as fuel and medicine, has been used since ancient days. Natural gas lit the "eternal" fires of Zoroastrian temples. With asphalt, akin to crude oil, Noah calked his Ark, and it lined little Moses' basket when he floated among the bulrushes (page 740). Nebuchadnezzar's masons used asphalt as mortar in his Babylon palace. I saw their fingerprints, as plain as if made yesterday, in that great banquet hall where the Hand wrote, "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin." Oil, seeping from the ground, was used by American Indians as salve and internal medi cine. Pioneer whites in Pennsylvania paid $20 a quart for this "Seneca oil"; yet some lived to see oil-field booms pound the price down to 10 or 15 cents a barrel! Until famed "Colonel" E. L. Drake sank his pioneer well in Pennsylvania in 1859, it seems Americans didn't think of boring for oil. In 1829, at Burkesville, Kentucky, a man drilling for salt water, to make salt, brought in an oil gusher. It caught fire, and burning oil flowed for miles down the Cumberland River. "I've struck Hell itself! May God have mercy on me!" yelled the driller as he fled the scene. Even before Drake's well, we had made "coal oil" from coal. But as wells mul tiplied, oil got cheaper; men couldn't use it all for medicine, so they began to distill it for use in lamps. Here again, an old art was applied. Men knew how to distill before Christ; some ancients hung a wool fleece in the steam from boiling liquids; when it cooled, they wrung out the condensed liquor.