Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/December 1884/The Oil-Supply of the World II


MANY and varied are the uses to which human ingenuity has already contrived to turn this precious gift of dirty-green earth-oil. At first its value was only recognized as a lubricating oil for machinery, and a somewhat dangerous burning-oil for illuminating, commonly called kerosene. Now it has been discovered that, by careful refining, all the highly inflammable naphtha, which is the dangerous ingredient, can be separated, and made valuable to painters and chemists, while the oil, thus purified, becomes absolutely safe for domestic use. Another valuable product of petroleum is gasolene—a form of gas most convenient for use in country houses. Then comes precious paraffine, in the form of beautiful wax-light candles, and vaseline, for healing broken skin or bruises. For medical use we have an anæsthetic called rhigolene, and for cleansing we have benzine. Various volatile ethers have been obtained, among others a petroleum-spirit, which acts as a substitute for turpentine, and which will dissolve lacquer. And, after all these good things have been separated, there still remains a residuum of tar, which yields anthracene, benzole, and naphthaline, from which are obtained a madder-red, mauve, magenta, and indigo-blue dyes, which bid fair to supersede those already known to commerce, and even seriously to affect the interests of our indigo-planters, as they have already injured the madder-cultivators of Turkey and Holland.

America has devised various furnaces, of which petroleum is the only fuel. These are chiefly used by metal-workers, as it is found that in such labor as bending armor-plates, and iron-work generally, mineral oil raises the required heat in half the time required by iron.

From America we turn to Asia, which, in more senses than one, may be called the Cradle of Light; for there is good reason to believe that, upward of four thousand years ago, the people of Nineveh and Babylon had found out this use for the mineral oil which flowed from the fountains of Is, on the Euphrates. It was collected in great pits, and the more solid deposits formed the asphalt (or, in Biblical phrase, "slime") which was used by the builders of Babylon to cement their sun-dried bricks.

Whether the petroleum-springs and asphalt-shores of the Dead Sea—the Lake Asphaltites—were ever turned to equally practical purpose does not appear; but Burmah has long recognized the value of her home supplies of earth-oil, derived from wells near the river Irrawaddy; and Burmese naphtha and Rangoon tar find their way even to British markets. These Burmese wells are sunk to a depth of about sixty feet, and yield an oil of the consistency of treacle.

I am told that Hindostan and Siberia have alike received their share in this distribution of the earth-mother's gifts, and that both in China and Japan native naphtha has long been employed in certain districts for burning in lamps. I infer, however, that the production can not be very great, as the consumption of American kerosene in those countries is already enormous, and it has found its way to small villages in remote districts of Japan, to which no less than 5,600 tons were last year imported from America. China generally welcomes such foreign boons less readily; but even the Celestial Empire does not disdain to accept cheap oil, and 82,000 tons were there disposed of last year, while India consumed 94,000 tons.

The Guebres of Persia have ever recognized a sacred fire-symbol in the flame of the native naphtha which flows from the soil in various parts of Persia in so pure a form as to burn without rectification—in fact, the name, though now applied to various artificially produced fluids, is derived from the Persian word nafata, "to exude." In its purest natural form it is a light, colorless fluid, consisting of carbon and hydrogen, without any oxygen. In Persia, fire-temples were erected near the naphtha-springs, and reverent pilgrims came from afar to worship at the temple of Surukhani, on the western shore of the Caspian, where, for at least two thousand years, the sacred earthfed flame burned unceasingly.

In the American consul's report for 1880, he mentioned that this temple was still frequented, that priests came from India to conduct the services, and that inexhaustible supplies of gas to feed the sacred flame were obtained by merely inserting pipes into the earth. A later report, however, states that since this spot has become so important a center of busy trade and the springs have been desecrated by the imprisonment of the oil and gas in vulgar commercial tanks and pipes, the ancient fire-temple has been abandoned, and in place of reverent worshipers, wondering travelers go for an evening row on the Caspian, to visit the submarine oil-springs to the south of the town of Baku, whence petroleum and naphtha rise to the surface, forming little eddies on the shallow waters (the depth of the sea at this point being only about fourteen feet). On to each eddy they throw a handful of blazing straw, to ignite the naphtha; and thus, on a still, calm night, the sea itself appears to be in flames at a dozen spots—a truly fairylike illumination.

Besides these submarine springs, the naphtha which exudes from the ground on every side of the old Persian seaport town of Baku is so exceedingly inflammable that the light naphtha-gas was often known to ignite spontaneously, and play in pale lurid flames above fissures in the rock. On stormy nights, fanned by the wind, these flames blazed up, and this led to the town being considered by the Guebres a place of great sanctity. Arabian chroniclers likewise tell of a great volcanic mountain, now extinct, but which, eight centuries ago, was in full action, and doubtless contributed to inspire the fire-worshipers with reverence for the neighborhood.

Great, however, is the change that has come over the sleepy Persian town, with its limited trade in silk and opium, salt, naphtha, and perfumes, since the genius of commerce here established itself, and commenced working so thoroughly in earnest that Baku, which ten years ago was the peaceful home of some 12,000 persons, has now developed into a great commercial center, and a place of daily increasing political importance. It already numbers 30,000 inhabitants, and has very large shipping interests. And this transformation is wholly and solely due to petroleum.

The town which has acquired a new celebrity with such strange rapidity is situated on the Apsheron Peninsula, which is a high, sandy plain, about fifteen miles in width, and projecting thirty miles into the Caspian, from the point where the Caucasus (the mighty boundary which divides European Russia from Asia, Circassia from Georgia) terminates on its shores. It certainly can not be described as an inviting place of residence, for the dry and desert sand is only varied by patches of clay, through which here and there crops up a blue graystone.

On every side the ground is black with waste petroleum; indeed, the whole surface of the soil is as a sodden crust, into which, in hot sunshine, the foot sinks to a depth of two or three inches, while in cold weather it hardens to the consistency of asphalt. Every breath of wind raises blinding clouds of parched sand; and water is so scarce that the streets are watered with coarse, black naphtha, which lays the dust effectually for about a fortnight, and then forms a thick, brown bituminous dust, that ingrains clothes indelibly, but over which carriages glide noiselessly, so that the inhabitants are at least spared one item of torture. On the other hand, they have to breathe an atmosphere poisoned by the dense smoke pouring from the chimneys of about two hundred and fifty refining-factories, and the whole air is redolent of all-pervading petroleum.

Equally desolate and dreary is the surrounding country, which by nature is totally unproductive. Some morsels are carefully cultivated, but there is no natural vegetation, nothing but great dismal flats saturated with the naphtha, which lies on the surface in pools and lakes.

The principal oil-wells of the Baku district lie at Balaxame or Balakhani, about six miles to the northeast of the town: this is an oil-field about three and a half miles in length by one and a half in breadth. To the south lies a smaller field called Bebeabat. One fountain at Balakhani, ninety-eight feet in depth, is noted as having been flowing steadily for upward of two years, and still continuing to yield 800 barrels a day. Another well not far off, 490 feet deep, commenced its career by throwing up a jet thirty feet in the air, and then flooding the land with oil for a considerable distance all around, overflowing other wells and several small refineries, so as effectually to stop their work. The roar of the rushing oil and gas could be heard a mile from the spot.

Various flowing wells are said to yield 6,000 barrels a day, and some far more; but, from the fact that these quantities are generally stated in the Russian measure of poods, it is not very easy to realize what is meant. One pood, we learn, is equal to thirty-six pounds English. Hence one thousand poods represent somewhere about sixteen tons. Accounts have just reached England of an oil-fountain which was struck last December, and flows at the rate of from fifty to sixty thousand poods daily, gushing forth with such force as to break in pieces a three-inch cast-iron plate which had been fastened over the well in order to divert the flow in a particular direction. In the same district a huge heap of sand marks the spot where an oil-spring, on being tapped, straightway threw up a column of petroleum to twice the height and size of the Great Geyser in Iceland, forming a huge black fountain two hundred feet in height—a fountain, however, due solely to the removal of the pressure on the confined gas, for there is no trace of volcanic heat. The fountain was visible for many miles round, and on the first day it poured forth about two million gallons, equal to fifty thousand barrels.

An enterprising photographer who was on the spot secured a photograph which places this matter beyond cavil. The fountain continued to play for five months, gradually decreasing week by week, till it finally ceased to play, leaving its unfortunate owners (an Armenian company) well-nigh ruined by the claims brought against them by neighbors whose lands were destroyed by the flood of oil.

Until about nine years ago the working of the oil was entirely in the hands of Russians and Armenians, and everything was done in the most slovenly fashion. The oil drawn from the wells was collected in shallow pits, whence it was ladled into barrels or skins, and then transported eight or ten miles on quaint native carts to the refineries at the town. The purified oil was afterward rebarreled, sent by steamer to the mouth of the Volga, transferred to river-boats, and then again transferred to carts, to be thus conveyed to the railway, and so transported to all parts of Russia. But the labor this involved was great, and the expense of carriage was consequently exorbitant. And all this was greatly in favor of America, which could still contrive to pay freight from Pennsylvania, and yet undersell the Baku oil-merchants in their own Russian markets.

The beginning of a new commercial and political era (of which we as yet see only the dawn) dates from the year 1875, when Ludwig Nöbel (one of two Swedish brothers, engineers, whose father had settled in St. Petersburg as a gunsmith) sent his brother Robert to the Caucasus to purchase walnut-wood suitable for making gun-stocks. On his journey Robert Nöbel chanced to visit Baku, and was so struck with the wonderful capabilities of the oil-region that, on relating his impression to Ludwig, the latter sent him back to make further investigations, and soon afterward followed in person, when he found that the reality far exceeded all that he had heard.

At once perceiving the enormous advantages to be derived from systematic working, with the aid of iron cisterns and pipes, the brothers sought to interest others in the matter, and induce them to co-operate with them. This, however, they found to be quite in vain. Their theories were all denounced as utter folly. The oil-producers, the land transport corps of carriers, the steamboat and railway companies, all refused to aid their schemes, so there was nothing for it but to start unaided in their own fashion.

They calculated that to do so would involve an outlay of about £1,380,000, and to obtain the needful capital it was necessary to fire others with something of their own enthusiasm. The energetic Swedes were not to be daunted. Difficulties of every sort were thrown in their way, but one by one each was fought and conquered. First they imported a body of wise and steady Swedes whom they could trust to work faithfully for them. They then established great refineries at Baku, laid down oil-pipes thence to the oil-fields of Balakhani (distant upward of six miles), and there commenced scientific boring to a depth greater than had yet been attempted. When their borers struck oil there was no waste, as at the other wells, for the pipes were ready to carry the oil direct to the refineries.

The first step having thus been taken, the next was to avoid the great cost of barrels (and here we must note that the total absence of timber from all this region is a very serious item in working expenses, as all the wood required for the derricks and other erections must be imported from afar).

In order to dispense with barrels, the Nöbel brothers resolved to carry pipes from their refineries to the sea-coast, so as to pump the oil direct into great iron tanks on board the steamers, whence it might at the end of its voyage be pumped into tanks on the railway, and so carried to great reservoirs in all parts of Russia. As the railway and steamboat companies persisted in their refusal to co-operate, the Nöbels were compelled to take every department of their business entirely into their own hands. So they sent to Stockholm and to Russia to have steamers built specially for their own trade, fitted with great cisterns capable of containing seven hundred and fifty tons of oil, and constructed to burn only oil-fuel. They now own upward of a dozen large steamers on the Caspian, and thirty specially adapted for traffic on the Volga; and, besides these, they charter fully twoscore more steamers to carry their naphtha refuse to various ports for sale.

The petroleum shipped at Baku is carried direct to Tzaritzin on the Volga, whence it is dispatched by rail to every part of the empire in trains, each numbering twenty-five oil-cars. Thus it is conveyed even to the shores of the Baltic, whence it passes on to Sweden, to Germany, and wherever else it can effect an entrance, in determined rivalry to the petroleum of America, which it has already well-nigh expelled from the vast Russian market.

In every direction is the Caspian oil now spreading. In 1883 about a thousand tons were sent to England to try the British market. A somewhat larger quantity was sold in France, and extensive orders were taken for Austria. But it must have required the inventive genius of a Swede to think of sending coals to Newcastle, in the form of sending lubricating oil for machinery to America, and even this has been successfully done! And now that the railway has been completed from Baku to Tiflis, and to Poti and Batoum on the Black Sea, the market of the whole world is open to receive the inexhaustible supplies of the Caucasian oil-fields. Turkey, and all lands on the shores of the Mediterranean, with all that may be reached via the Suez Canal and Red Sea, Southern India, China, and Japan—all are open markets for whoever can supply the best oil at the cheapest rate. It is therefore evident that America has now a formidable rival in the field.

Of the relative merits of Pennsylvanian and Caspian oil, it may be said generally that the former yields on an average seventy per cent of kerosene, with a large residuum of lubricating oil. The latter yields only from twenty-five to thirty-five per cent of pure oil, and from twenty to thirty per cent is refuse, only fit for fuel. But here Nature seems to adapt her gifts to the need of the recipients, since the American oils flow in the heart of the forests, while in Central Asia the oil-fuel makes existence and travel possible.

As regards quantity, in the year 1872 only 212,000 barrels were saved from the waste at the Caspian wells. In 1881 the amount rescued was 4,000,000 barrels, equal to 160,000,000 gallons. In the same year America produced 1,450,000,000 gallons. Commenting on these figures, Ludwig Nöbel says that the same amount could annually be produced at Baku without the slightest difficulty, but that at present it would be useless to do so, owing to difficulties of cheap transport. As it is, great stores lie waste for lack of purchasers, and the amount wasted is fully equal to that which is exported.

As regards price, which in America has varied from tenpence to one penny per gallon, it has at Baku fluctuated from one shilling and eightpence to one penny. In like manner, the barrel of forty gallons of crude petroleum, which in the days of monopoly sold at Baku for eight shillings, has latterly fetched fourpence, and by the latest accounts was further reduced to threepence halfpenny per ton on the spot! This is due to the enormous increase in the supply. Thus, last November a steady-going old well, which for the past ten years has been quietly yielding a fair amount of oil, suddenly commenced to play, and thenceforth threw up a daily average of five hundred tons!

The supply is apparently altogether inexhaustible, for already twelve thousand square miles in this region have been proved to be oleiferous, and of this vast surface only six miles are as yet being developed. The oil-bearing stratum is found to extend beneath the Caspian Sea, where it crops up in Tcheliken, a true isle of oil, which literally streams into the sea from hills and cliffs which are entirely formed of ozokerite—in other words, of crude paraffine.

On the eastern shore of the Caspian it reappears at Krasnovodsk and elsewhere. A hundred miles inland lies the Neft, or Naphtha Hill, whose deposits are officially valued at £35,000,000 sterling—oleonapht, as this particular material is called, being found especially valuable for lubricating machinery; so it promises to become an important article of export.

The oil-bearing stratum also reappears in the opposite direction; for as Baku lies at the eastern extremity of the Caucasus range, so at its western extremity, on the shores of the Black Sea, lies another great petroleum-region in the river-basin of the Kouban River, in the province of the same name. This oil-field, extending over about two hundred and fifty miles, terminates in the peninsula of Taman, between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azof—a strange region, abounding in mud-volcanoes, some extinct, others still active, which, combined with strong outflows of gas and occasional earthquakes, prove subterranean action to be only quiescent.

The natural petroleum-pits are scattered in all directions; some lie in deep valleys, others nearly nine hundred feet above the sea-level. In some places the gas bubbles up through pools and lakes, which are covered with a rainbow-tinted scum; in others, the thick oil oozes from rock-crevices or bubbles up in mud-volcanoes. In some valleys there are regular terraces of a thick paste resembling asphalt, and smelling of petroleum. Rich deposits of ozokerite and flowing wells of petroleum have been partly worked, and it is noted that the oil here is of a yellowish-green color, while that at Baku varies from very dark green to transparent lilac. These Kouban deposits are as yet quite undeveloped, but it is evident that, from their local position on the shores of, the Black Sea, they must soon attain to considerable importance. In all this region the character of the soil differs essentially from that of the oil-region of the States; here layers of solid limestone are comparatively rare, and the general formation consists of thick layers of clay, sand, quicksand, and sea-shells, telling of a period when the whole formed the ocean-bed. The methods of drilling and pumping have, of course, been adapted to suit these different conditions.

While Ludwig Nöbel continues to be the acknowledged oil-king of the Caspian, his marvelous success has given a tremendous impetus to the whole life of the oil-trade, and numerous capitalists have pressed forward to follow in his footsteps; so that Baku has rapidly developed into a large city, having a coast-line of about six miles sweeping round a well-protected harbor, crowded with shipping. At the close of 1882 the Russian papers noted this increase of shipping as altogether marvelous, seven thousand vessels having cleared the port within the previous six months, and of those fifteen hundred were actually Caspian vessels, chiefly hailing from Baku itself. Of course, many of these were merely small sailing-vessels; but no less than seven hundred steamers are now employed on the regular passenger and freight service of the Caspian and Volga, and some of these are splendid vessels, one at least being lighted throughout with Edison's electric lamps.

These are quite apart from the large and rapidly increasing oil-fleet. In addition to those belonging to Messrs. Nöbel, a Russian company (the Caucasus and Mercury Company) owns nineteen steamers, and other firms possess many, and are rapidly importing more and more from Finland and elsewhere. Forty new steel steamers, specially fitted with great tanks, were to be delivered to various firms before the close of 1883, and several hundred sailing-vessels have been constructed for the same purpose.

For the accommodation of all these, twenty-five piers have been run into the harbor, many of them fitted with pumps and pipes, in order to fill the great cistern-steamers with the least possible delay. Sixty miles of pipes connect these piers and refineries with the wells. The most notable feature of all these steamers is, that they are worked entirely with oil-fuel. Newcastle coal will soon cease to find a market on the Black Sea or the Mediterranean—it may even be driven out of the Red Sea, as the use of petroleum refuse in engines becomes better understood. Already it is the only fuel in use on the Caspian, either in the mercantile marine, in the Russian gunboat flotilla, or on the railways. Even in domestic stoves it is in favor throughout the Caucasus—all government offices in the neighborhood are thus heated—and the people are greatly encouraged in its use, with a view to saving the fast-decreasing forests of the Caucasus.

At present much oil refuse is poured into the sea as the only way to dispose of it, and yet its value as fuel is fully established; for whereas ordinary coal-burning steamers require to devote nearly half their carrying capacity to stowing fuel, those burning oil-refuse find that petroleum gives out twice as much heat as an equal weight of coal, so that they only require to carry half the quantity. The petroleum also requires far less constant attention from stokers than ordinary fuel. No stoking is required, no banking of fires—the whole thing is simple as a gas-stove, and one man can easily manage the simple apparatus composed of two tubes, through one of which trickles the petroleum, while through the other passes a jet of steam, which converts the oil into a spray so inflammable that it ignites, forming a great sheet of flame, which can be regulated at will—and thus steam is always ready at the exact pressure required, and labor and expense are reduced to the minimum. The advocates of coal declare that this fuel produces much heavy smoke and a tarry deposit, and also that it is liable to explosion. All this, however, depends on the refining, which will become more and more perfect as the value of each separate ingredient is more fully realized.

For instance, it is found that the dark waste fluid left after distillation contains four times as much gas as common coal. This has therefore been turned to account, and Messrs. Nöbel, having obtained a government monopoly in the lighting of the town for forty-nine years, have already established two thousand gas-lamps. They have also devised a new process for making candles of kerosene and solid oil for exportation. Soon they purpose turning their attention to the beautiful dyes to be obtained from the refuse tars, which they hope to turn to such good account that Baku shall be known throughout the world for the excellence and cheapness of its colors. Nöbel prophesies that it will become the world's emporium for cheap and beautiful paint in addition to all its other products.

  1. Abridged from "Blackwood's Magazine."