I just watched “In the Heart of the Sea” about Moby-Dick and Herman Melville. It seems a lot of labour and danger to kill whales to get oil for light and heating. Wikipedia says petroleum was known in ancient Persia and also China. Why wasn’t this more explored and used?

world history of oil mentions use in street lights in Poland in 1500, and it seems by then Europe had some idea about oil. Compared to the use of eg. coal it just seems to have been no interest in petroleum until the wells started in Pennsylvania in 1850s.

  • 7
    "Wikipedia says petroleum was known ..." If you are referring to this article, it also says that petroleum was first distilled to a light thin oil suitable for use as lamp oil in 1848. That's only three years before Moby Dick was published.
    – yannis
    Feb 28, 2018 at 13:33
  • @yannis: Kerosene was first distilled much earlier than the 1800's
    – Giter
    Feb 28, 2018 at 13:53
  • 2
    Welcome to History, Carsten Kunz! Please take the tour and read the help center. What else has your research shown you so far? Where have you already searched? Please help us to help you and document a bit more of you prior research.. You may improve your question to comply with site guidelines with an edit and the help of How to Ask. Thanks! Feb 28, 2018 at 14:04
  • 2
    Whales provided a lot of economic advantages besides just oil; also, production aside, it's actualy no small feat to ship liquid petroleum around. Oil tankers only emerged in the mid 1800. @Giter kerosene (or rather, early forms thereof) was used for lighting before whales, but it produced too much smoker for indoor use.
    – Semaphore
    Feb 28, 2018 at 14:11
  • Cost of extraction/production/transportation?
    – MCW
    Feb 28, 2018 at 17:53

1 Answer 1


Looking at the Wikipedia page...

  • The first patent for refining crude oil was filed in 1850
  • The first oil refinery was built in 1856
  • The first commercial oil well was built in 1858

So the technological advancements seem to relate to (1) making something generally useful from oil, and (2) being able to extract oil in a large enough scale to create a large market for it.

One could imagine that people living near tar pits realized that oil would burn. But unrefined petroleum won't burn cleanly—as cleanly as whale oil, for instance. So until petroleum could be distilled, it wasn't a very good product for lighting.

  • Whale oil is still a very good source for oil. It does the jobs and is of very good quality.. – Now that not very many people us any burning liquid for lighting…; are there other reasons? (besides: "1958" for first commercial oil well?) Mar 1, 2018 at 4:51
  • The question was why it took so long for petroleum to catch on, not why we don't burn whale oil anymore.
    – adam.baker
    Mar 1, 2018 at 8:37
  • The comment is not complaining or asking another question but trying to give you hints on improving this answer. Of course, there are still more comments on this page now. Perhaps, looking at them might clear up things a bit. Mar 1, 2018 at 14:12

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.