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Oil in the age of steam*

  • Nuno Luís Madureira (a1)

This article explains how oil as an energy carrier evolved alongside the technology of the steam engine. In practical terms, fuel oil was adapted to machines that were originally devised to be coal-fuelled and this led to the flexible switchover between energy carriers. The article links the micro account of technological developments with the macro records of energy consumption, to reveal how steam technology set the stage for the commoditization of oil, the customary fuel of the internal combustion engine. The analysis of the oil–steam combine embraces its diffusion across leading producing nations such as Russia and the United States, the diffusion in industrial and transport activities in South America, and the diffusion throughout European navies. What was at stake was the transformation of oil into a geostrategic good and the triggering of an international race for the seizure of fossil fuels.

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1 Fernand Braudel, Écrits sur l’histoire, Paris: Flammarion, 1969; Krysztof of Pomian, L’ordre du temps, Paris: Gallimard,1984.

2 R. G. Lipsey, C. Bekar, and K. Carlaw, ‘What requires explanation?’, in E. Helpman, ed., General purpose technologies and economic growth, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988, pp. 15–54; Carlota Perez, ‘Structural change and the assimilation of new technologies in the economic and social system’, Futures, 15, 5, 1983, pp. 357–75; Giovanni Dosi, ‘Technological paradigms and technological trajectories: a suggested interpretation of the determinants and directions of technical change’, Research Policy, 11, 3, 1982, pp. 147–62; Thomas P. Hughes, Networks of power: electrification in Western society, 1880–1930, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983; Charles Edquist and Bengt-Åke Lundvall, ‘Comparing the Danish and Swedish systems of innovation’, in Richard R. Nelson, ed., National innovation systems: a comparative analysis, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 265–9.

3 See, for instance, the role of time-specific technical factors in energy transitions as underscored by Magnus Lindmark, ‘Patterns of historical CO2 intensity transitions among high and low-income countries’, Explorations in Economic History, 41, 1, 2004, pp. 426–47.

4 David Edgerton, The shock of the old: technology and global history since 1900, London: Profile Books, 2008; idem, ‘From innovation to use: ten eclectic theses on the historiography of technology’, History and Technology, 16, 2, 1999, pp. 111–36.

5 See the classic work of H. J. Habakkuk, American and British technology in the 19th century: the search for labour-saving inventions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

6 Variants of these refining technologies are presented in Harold F. Williamson and Arnold R. Daum, The American petroleum industry: the age of illumination 1859–1899, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1959, vol. 1. See also S. F. Peckham, Report of the production technology and uses of petroleum and its products, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1885.

7 Williamson and Daum, American petroleum industry, vol. 1, pp. 253–308.

8 Roger Fouquet and Peter J. G. Pearson, ‘Seven centuries of energy services: the price and use of light in the United Kingdom (1300–2000)’, Energy Journal, 27, 1, 2006, pp. 191–216; Roger Fouquet, Heat, power and light: revolutions in energy services, Cheltenham, Glos: Edward Elgar, 2008, pp. 139–78.

9 William D. Nordhaus, ‘Do real-output and real-wage measures capture reality? The history of lighting suggests not’, in Timothy Bresnahan and Robert J. Gordon, ed., The economics of new goods, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998, pp. 29–66.

10 Bryan Donkin, A text-book on gas, oil and air engines, London: Charles Griffin and Company, 1894, p. 266.

11 This economy of waste applies both to oil production in the Dutch East Indies and in the United States. See F. C. Gerretson, History of the Royal Dutch Shell, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1955, vol. 1, pp. 135–45; vol. 2, pp. 35–52.

12 Charles van der Leeuw, Oil and gas in the Caucasus & Caspian: a history, New York: St Martin Press, 2000, pp. 36–60; Gerretson, History, vol. 2, pp. 212–17.

13 Ian F. Elliot, The Soviet energy balance: natural gas, other fossil fuels, and alternative power sources, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974.

14 Ralph Hewins, Mr Five Per Cent: the story of Calouste Gulbenkian, New York: Rinehart and Company, 1958, p. 24.

15 Essad Bey, Blood and oil in the Orient, trans. Elsa Talmey, London: Nash & Grayson Limited, 1931, p. 18.

16 A. A. Fursenko, The battle for oil: the economics and politics of international corporate conflict over petroleum, 1860–1930, trans. Gregory L. Freeze, Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1990, pp. 69–75.

17 Robert W. Tolf, The Russian Rockefellers: saga of the Nobel family and the Russian oil industry, Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, pp. 52–73; Fursenko, Battle, pp. 8–29; Mike Ratcliffe, Liquid gold ships: a history of the tanker, 1859–1984, London: Lloyd’s of London Press, pp. 18–23; Edgar Wesley Owen, Trek of the oil finders: a history of exploration for petroleum, Tulsa, OK: American Association of Petroleum Geologists, 1975, pp. 1355–8.

18 William L. Cleveland, A history of the modern Middle East, Boulder, CO: Westview, 1994, pp. 88–9.

19 Alfred D. Chandler, Jr, Scale and scope: the dynamics of industrial capitalism, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

20 Robert Henriques, Bearsted: a bibliography of Marcus Samuel, New York: Viking Press, 1960, pp. 27–34.

21 Russia averaged 41% of oil in its overall total commercial primary energy consumption in the last decade of the nineteenth century (estimates based on B. Etemad and J. Luciani, World energy production, 1800–1985, Geneva: Droz-Université de Genève, 1991; and B. R. Mitchell, International historical statistics: Europe 1750–1988, London: Macmillan, 1992).

22 Daniel Yergin, The prize: the epic quest for oil, money, and power, New York: Touchstone Books, 1991, pp. 78–95.

23 Nevertheless, at its highest level bitumen or asphalt represented no more than 6% of fuel-oil production: National Resources Committee, Energy resources and national policy, Washington, DC: NRC, 1939, p. 173.

24 Williamson and Daum, American petroleum industry, vol. 2, p. 39, table 2.11, showing the mean crude oil prices by field for 1900–10.

25 George W. Melville, Report of the U.S. Naval Liquid Fuel Board, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1904, p. 431.

26 Fuel oil regulations for ships are summarized in F. B. Dunn, Industrial uses of fuel oil, San Francisco, CA: Technical Publishing Company, 1916. pp. 157–63; fuel oil regulations for railways are described in Eugene McAuliffe, Railway fuel: the coal problem in its relation to the transportation and use of coal and coal substitutes by steam railroads, New York: Simmons Boardman, 1927.

27 R. W. Ferrier, The history of the British Petroleum Company: The developing years 1901–1932, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 69–72; 461–479; George S. Gibb and Evelyn H. Knowlton, History of Standard Oil Company: The resurgent years, 1911–1927, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956, pp.197–203.

28 David White, ‘Petroleum resources of the world’, Oil & Gas Journal, 18 June 1920, pp. 5–6; Michael Aaron Dennis, ‘Drilling for dollars: the making of US petroleum reserves estimates, 1921–25’, Social Studies of Science, 15, 2, 1985, pp. 241–65; Amos Salvador, Energy: a historical perspective and 21 stcentury forecast, Tulsa, OK: American Association of Petroleum Geologists, 2005, pp. 42–7. For the inconsistency and limited scope of Russia’s surveys in this period, see Heinrich Hassman, Oil in the Soviet Union: history, geography, problems, trans. Alfred M. Leeston, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953, pp. 35–42.

29 Outside Russia, the first steam sprayer was patented in 1865. See David Allan Snyder, ‘Petroleum and power: naval fuel technology and the Anglo-American struggle for core hegemony, 1889–1922’, PhD thesis, Texas A&M University, 2001, p. 70.

30 Tolf, Russian Rockfellers, pp. 70–1.

31 Donkin, Text-book, p. 275.

32 Van der Leeuw, Oil and gas, p. 73.

33 Melville, Report, p. 430.

34 ‘Growth of world’s bunkering ports’, Oil & Gas Journal, 8 December 1924, p. 12.

35 A good catalogue of devices and applications is provided in Dunn, Industrial uses.

36 Snyder, ‘Petroleum’, pp. 133–44.

37 Donkin, Text-book, pp. 275–77; Melville, Report, pp. 320–35.

38 James Kewley, The petroleum and allied industries, London: Ballière, Tindall and Cox, 1922, p. 266.

39 Ellis W. Hawley, ‘Secretary Hoover and the bituminous coal problem, 1921–1928’, Business History Review, 42, 3, 1968, pp. 247–70; Sam H. Schurr and Bruce C. Netschert, Energy in the American economy, 1850–1975, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975, pp. 62–78.

40 Simon P. Ville, Transport and the development of the European economy, 1750–1918, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1990, pp. 50–2; Saif Shah Mohammed and Jeffrey G. Williamson, ‘Freight rates and productivity gains in British tramp shipping 1869–1950’, Explorations in Economic History, 41, 2004, pp. 172–203.

41 Sam H. Schurr, ‘Productive efficiency and energy use: an historical perspective’, Annals of Operations Research, 2, 1, 1984, pp. 229–38.

42 Estimates for a 34-day round trip between New York and Antwerp in 1924–25 by a 9000–ton steamer, using oil burning with steam atomization. Based on ‘Growth of world’s bunkering ports’; C. Hardy, Oil ships and sea transport, London: George Routledge and Son, 1931, pp. 144–6; Dunn, Industrial uses, p. 158.

43 Dunn, Industrial uses, p. 6.

44 Brian R. Sullivan, ‘Italian warship construction and maritime strategy, 1873–1915’, in Phillips O’Brien, ed., Technology and naval combat in the twentieth century and beyond, London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2001, pp. 3–21. Russia was nevertheless the first navy in the world to adapt a whole fleet (its Caspian fleet) to fuel oil, in 1882, more because of the easy access to fuel oil than a focus on speed.

45 Paul Halpern, ‘The French navy, 1880–1914’, in O’Brien, Technology, pp. 36–51.

46 Snyder, ‘Petroleum’, pp. 99–144; David C. Evans, ‘Japanese naval construction, 1878–1918’, in O’Brien, Technology, pp. 22–35; Nicholas A. Lambert, ‘Admiral John Fisher and the concept of flotilla defence, 1904–1909’, in O’Brien, Technology, pp. 69–92.

47 Michael Epkermans, ‘Technology, shipbuilding and future combat in Germany, 1880–1914’, in O’Brien, Technology, pp. 53–67; Karl Lautenschlager, ‘Technology and the evolution of naval warfare’, International Security, 8, 2, 1983, pp. 3–51.

48 For a good account of the interests involved in navy supply, see Peter A. Shulman, ‘Science can never demobilize: the United States navy and petroleum geology, 1898–1924’, History and Technology, 19, 4, 2003, pp. 365–85; Hugh Lyon, ‘The relations between the Admiralty and private industry in the development of warships’, in Bryan Ranft, ed., Technical change and British naval policy, 1860–1939, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977, pp. 37–64.

49 Lautenschlager, ‘Technology’; Nicholas A. Lambert, ‘British naval policy, 1913–1914: financial limitation and strategic revolution’, Journal of Modern History, 67, 3, 1995, pp. 595–626.

50 James E. Hamilton, ‘A short history of the naval use of fuel oil’, Journal of the American Society for Naval Engineers, 45; 3, 1933, pp. 270–92, and 45, 4, 1933, pp. 486–522; Shulman, ‘Science’.

51 Lautenschlager, ‘Technology’, pp. 19–20.

52 Quoted in C. W. Barron, ‘Oil expansion of peace to outstrip war demands’, Wall Street Journal, 17 May 1917, p. 3.

53 Keith Neilson, ‘Reinforcements and supplies from overseas: British strategic sealift in the First World War’, in Greg Kennedy, ed., The merchant marine in international affairs, 1850–1950, London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2000, pp. 31–57; Orest Babij, ‘The Royal Navy and the interwar plans for war against Japan: the problem of oil supply’, in Kennedy, Merchant marine, pp. 84–107.

54 Nicholas A. Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s naval revolution, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2002; John H. Maurer, ed., Churchill and strategic dilemmas before the World Wars, London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2003. For an econometric evaluation of how the building programme of the Royal Navy was politically internally driven as opposed to driven by foreign threats, see Richard J. Stoll, ‘Steaming in the dark? Rules, rivals and the British Navy, 1860–1913’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 36, 2, 1992, pp. 262–83.

55 The British position generated larger repercussions in the context of a shift in United States international policy that brought the federal government towards a more active position. The idea that the country was running out of oil compelled the government to secure international sources of supply. See John G. Clark, Energy and the federal government: fossil fuel policies, 1900–1946, Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1987; Edward W. Chester, United States oil policy and diplomacy: a twentieth-century overview, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983.

56 Chester, United States; B. S. McBeth, British oil policy 1919–1939, London: Frank Cass, 1985; Stephen White, The origins of détente: the Genoa conference and Soviet–Western relations, 1921–1922, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002; Lorenzo Meyer and Isidro Morales, Petróleo y nación: la política petrolera en México (1900–1987), Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1990; Edward Peter Fitzgerald, ‘France’s Middle Eastern ambitions, the Sykes-Picot negotiations, and the oil fields of Mosul 1915–1918’, Journal of Modern History, 66, 4, 1994, pp. 697–725; William Stivers, ‘International politics and Iraqi oil, 1918–1928: a study in Anglo-American diplomacy’, Business History Review, 55, 4, 1981, pp. 517–40; André Nouschi, La France et le pétrole de 1924 à nos jours, Paris: Picard, 2001; David Lawrence Knudson, ‘Petroleum, Venezuela, and the United States, 1920–1941’, PhD thesis, Michigan State University, 1975.

57 Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, London: Lloyd’s, 1920–35; Ville, Transport, pp. 49–89.

58 E. B. Swanson, National survey of fuel oil distribution 1926, American Petroleum Institute, 1931; A. T. Coumbe, A. R. Hedfield, and E. B. Swanson, National survey of fuel oil distribution 1930, American Petroleum Institute, 1931; Schurr and Netschert, Energy, pp. 107–15.

59 NICB, Oil conservation and fuel oil supply, New York; National Industrial Conference Board, 1930, pp. 61–82.

60 Mira Wilkins, American business abroad from 1914 to 1970, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974, pp. 96–98.

61 NICB, Oil conservation, pp. 63–5, 76. The weight of fuel oil imports in total oil imports is a distinctive trait of the Chilean pattern of energy usage. See Marcelo Bucheli, ‘Multinational corporations, business groups, and economic nationalism: Standard Oil, Royal Dutch-Shell, and energy politics in Chile’, paper presented at the Business History Workshop, Harvard University, 10 November 2008, pp. 41–2.

62 C. Lyle Cummins, Jr, Diesel’s engine, Wilsonville, OR: Carnot Press, 1993; Vaclav Smil, ‘The two prime movers of globalization: history and impact of diesel engines and gas turbines’, Journal of Global History, 2, 3, 2007, pp. 373–94.

63 Cummins, Diesel’s engine; Smil, ‘Two prime movers’.

64 Norman E. Nordhauser, The quest for stability: domestic oil regulation, 1917–1935, New York: Garland Publishing, 1979; Clark, Energy.

65 Robert W. Campbell, The economics of Soviet oil and gas, Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1968, pp. 7–13; Marshall I. Goldman, The enigma of Soviet petroleum, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1980, pp. 23–31.

* This article was written during a stay as visiting scholar at Harvard University. I am grateful for the support of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the Foundation for Science and Technology, Harvard University, and the Center for European Studies, Harvard.

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