Petroleum-crude oil-and its products have been in use for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians used pitch, a thick, sticky form of petroleum, to coat mummies as they prepared them for burial. Ancient Babylonians used pitch to build walls and pave streets.
Yet it took two inventions of the 1800s-the kerosene lamp and, to a much greater extent, the internal combustion engine-to create the enormous demand that has made petroleum such a crucial commodity today.
The petroleum industry is one of the world’s largest. It experienced its first boom in 1859, when a retired train conductor in Pennsylvania powered a well drill with an old steam engine and struck oil. The growth of this industry is an excellent example, however, of the interplay between technology and industry. At first kerosene was the chief product of the petroleum industry. Gasoline was seen as a useless by-product of the process and was even dumped in creeks and rivers. Around 1900, however, electric lights began to replace kerosene lamps, reducing the demand for this petroleum product. At the same time, the use of automobiles began to increase. With that development, the petroleum industry expanded rapidly.
Today petroleum powers automobiles, farm equipment, airplanes, trucks, trains, and ships, and it generates heat and electricity. Yet it is used for much more than fuel-petroleum products include detergents, carpeting, cosmetics, plastic, and fabrics.