Deep Dive | The Early Oil Industry

Ah, friends, I’ve got a new book I’m writing, and therefore a ton of new world building research I’ve been doing.

Of Honey and Wildfires is not set in the same world as my Bloodlands trilogy. This is a story all its own, with characters all their own. It’s set in a sort of Wild West/frontier world, in a place called Shine Territory, which is cut off from the rest of the world… for reasons.

In this world, magic, or “shine” as its called, is pulled out of the earth (like oil), or hacked out of the earth (like coal). Essentially, it is a nonrenewable resource and everyone wants some of it. Therefore, a lot of my research has had to do with the early oil industry, coal mining practices in the 1800s, and how the humans working and living around these places where natural resources were so plentiful and promising were impacted.

Today, I would like to talk to you a bit about the early oil industry, and how my research on it has impacted my world building for Of Honey and Wildfires.


The early 18th century marked a change in society, from agrarian to more industrial as steam engines and the like were introduced to the world. Suddenly, coal was a thing people could use to heat houses, and even power engines. The benefit of coal was that a little of it went a long way. A half-ton of coal produced four times more energy than the same amount of wood.

Soon, people started wondering what else the earth held in it (some say that environmental concerns drove people toward oil, some say it was just a natural progression). Regardless, the oil industry entered the American landscape in 1859 with a well dug in Pennsylvania.

That, however, is not really where the oil industry starts. Not globally, at least. Now, follow me, dear reader, while we go down a rabbit hole that will take us back a few thousand years, to China.

The earliest sign of wells being dug is in the Zhejiang Province, in China. Evidence for wells, dating back some 7,000 years ago, when people were just starting to enter the region and cultivate the land. At this time, people in the coastal regions would boil water from the sea to produce salt. Salt was a valuable preservative, used to preserve foods as well as in cooking. As people moved inland, and the population became denser, people inland began to dig salt wells. The first recorded salt well was dug in the Sichuan Province around 2,250 years ago.

There is evidence of the drilling techniques changing over time, from using percussive methods to break through the rock and shale, to eventually using bamboo and pressure, which allowed people to dig deeper wells, easier. The first well to reach more than 1,000 meters in depth was the Shanghai Well in 1835. Oil, natural gas, petroleum and the like was often an unwanted byproduct of salt water drilling.

Early 20th century scene. Zigong City, with hundreds of salt transportation boats on the Fuxi River. (Image from Zhong & Huang) Taken from the article linked one paragraph down.

Salt was often traded on boats through rivers, while bamboo pipeline was created to pump oil and natural gas. For a long time, the salt and natural gas industry were two separate beasts (the salt being more useful and desired than the oil), but there is evidence of a fledgling natural gas industry dating back to 61 BC. Around the 16th century, technology was developed that allowed people to cultivate more natural gas. Usually, until this point, wood had been used to boil the water, which would then evaporate and leave behind salt. Now, natural gas could be used, preserving more trees and reducing deforestation in areas.

This merging of the salt and natural gas industry is what allowed Zigong’s salt production to reach an industrial scale. (I highly recommend you read this article about all this to gain more depth and detail, as well as pictures.)

Another fun fact: Herodotus claimed that asphalt was used in the construction of walls, nearly four thousand years ago, and much of it was found on the banks of the river Issus. (more here)

This brings us to the US oil industry. In 1849, a man named Samual Keir began extracting oil from the saltwater wells on his property. After some experimentation, he discovered that the substance that was the byproduct of his saltwater wells had the same chemical properties of the stuff his wife was being prescribed for her ailments. He decided to see what else it could be used for. He started selling his oil for medicinal purposes and, of course, being the enterprising soul he was, he grew rich.

In the 1850’s, Kier started drilling for crude exclusively, rather than finding it as a byproduct of salt water. He joined up with John T. Kirkpatrick and started the first oil refinery wherein they refined the oil so it was cleaner and more efficient “carbon oil.” (more here)

From news of Kier’s success came the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, created by George Bissell and Benjamin Silliman. (more here)

In 1859, one very lucky chap, Edwin Drake, was sent by the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company to rural Pennsylvania dig, specifically, for oil. He ended up with a well that was 69.5 feet deep. While whale oil had been used for a long time, this “rock oil” was safer than many other oils used on the market, like camphene, which was explosive. This discovery turned Pennsylvania into one of the first “producing states.”

Edwin Drake, right, stands with friend Peter Wilson of Titusville, Pennsylvania, at the drilling site – but not the original cable-tool derrick – of America’s first oil well. Photo courtesy Drake Well Museum. (Image found in this article.)

Fun fact: crude oil had been found in medicine as far back as 1814, though the oil used for these was found using primitive drilling methods, and the people who found this crude (in Kentucky and Tennesse, respectively), were often drilling for brine, using “spring poles” instead of the pressurized drilling used in Pennsylvania. The small amount of oil was an unwanted byproduct and thus, put into medicine. (more here)

Truthfully, oil has been used throughout civilization in many different ways, but usually, the finding of it was met with dismay. It was an unwanted byproduct of drilling to find brine, which was a valuable source of salt, used to preserve food, and etc. (more here)

Anyway, back to good ol’ Americana Black Gold.

Word got out about Drake’s find in Pennsylvania, so all sorts of people decided to come out and find their own oil. There was so much competition, that within two years, Drake had to shut his well down. Not long after, more oil was found in states out west, and Pennsylvania sort of dried up while people hied off to Texas and other states to strike it rich with the black gold.


This seems like a good place to stop things for now. It leaves a jumping-off point for what happens next – the introduction of big oil companies, Rockefeller, frontier life, western expansion, the resource curse, and I can even drop down some Kit Carson and his eldest daughter posts, because that enters into Of Honey and Wildfires as well.

What I do want to say is that the early oil industry plays a huge part in the magic system for Of Honey and Wildfires. The discovery, the boom, the way it’s used from medicine, to building things, lighting lamps, the alteration of industry and more. The cost, and all that. It all makes an appearance in the “shine” magic of Of Honey and Wildfires.

Most of Of Honey and Wildfires focuses on how resources, like oil, can impact the lives of those around it. The resource curse plays heavily in the setting, and the world that this book takes place in. The division between those who have, and those who work for those who have. I think it is very stark, and very evident when one sees how the oil industry started, and how it has changed over time. But, in order to get there, I have to lay the groundwork. Introduce you a bit to what oil (and “shine”) did, why people wanted it, and the hope so many saw in it.

It’s a pretty interesting, and lush topic to research, as it has had such a fundamental impact on the global economy. So, I ask you, what happens in a fantasy world where “shine” (magic) is found deep in the earth, and needs to be drilled/pumped/dug out of it?

Well, it mirrors a lot of what happened in the oil industry, from modern discovery on, and it’s both ugly and hopeful.

(Of Honey and Wildfires is set to drop in early 2020.)

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