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No. 3178:
Samuel Kier

by Andy Boyd

Today, distilling black gold. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In the mid nineteenth century Samuel Kier had a problem. For years he'd made a good living extracting salt from salt wells in western Pennsylvania. But over time, he found the wells were increasingly tainted with black goo. That goo - crude oil - was a nuisance, and he did what industrialists of the time often did: he routinely dumped it into a local canal where it fouled the water. As the story goes, when oil on the canal caught fire, the enterprising Kier saw a potential new source of income.

Pouring Petroleum
Pouring Petroleum   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Before appreciating its flammability, Kier sold what oil he could for medicinal purposes under the name Rock Oil. Said one happy customer, "I have taken many a dose of it inwardly, and ... if you ever get a bad cold in the chest, there is no better remedy today than to soak a flannel cloth with crude petroleum and lay it across your breast." But when Kier saw how the oil burned, he turned his attention to making fuel for lamps. Whale oil was growing scarce and a good replacement hadn't emerged.

Oil Lamp
Oil Lamp   Photo Credit: Public Domain Pictures

Unfortunately, crude oil typically generates thick, black smoke when set on fire. So Kier set out to make it burn more cleanly. The question was how. Kier wasn't trained in chemistry, so he sent an oil sample to a prominent Philadelphia chemist. In turn, the chemist sent Kier instructions on how to build a still.

Distilling Louisiana Oil, Southern U, NOLA
Distilling Louisiana Oil, Southern U, NOLA   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Distilling is one of the simplest yet most ingenious methods of processing oil - and other blended concoctions as well. Crude oil doesn't have a simple formula. It's a mix of many different component substances. Distilling takes advantage of the fact that these substances vaporize at different temperatures. By heating the crude oil, Kier could separate the different components by their different vaporization temperatures. On a large scale, it's the way most crude oil is processed today.

After some experimentation Kier found a reasonable distillate that he christened carbon oil. It wasn't ideal - it smelled - but it served its purpose and was relatively inexpensive to produce. He opened a shop in Pittsburgh where he made a few barrels at a time. The setup was small, but there's no denying what it was: an oil refinery. Kier had set the stage for what would become a behemoth industry.

Samuel Martin Kier
Samuel Martin Kier   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Kier was happy selling his carbon oil on a small scale. He never filed any patents, nor did he participate in the oil rush that would soon envelop western Pennsylvania. He nonetheless made a comfortable living for the time while happily working to improve his product and the lamps in which it burned. Not a bad ending for a man who turned lemons into lemonade.

[Theme Music from The Beverley Hillbillies]

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

Development of the Pennsylvania Oil Industry. From the website of the American Chemical Society: Click here. Accessed June 26, 2018.

Samuel Kier. From the Wikipedia website: Accessed June 26, 2018.