Post Eagle Newspaper


May 18, 2024

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Lighting The Way

I wonder how many of you know about the commercial discovery of oil — how it all began and where. Well, it was late afternoon in a small village in Poland. The date was July 31, 1853. A small crowd of onlookers assembled in the main hospital in Lwow to witness an operation carried out by surgeon Zaorski on a Mr. Cholecki. Unlike in many similar cases, interest was focused not on the operation itself but on the lamp lighting the operating theater. This was the first time that the kerosene lamp was used for, so to speak, commercial purposes. The real hero of the historic event, inventor of the lamp, was actually absent from the scene.

Ignacy Lada Lukasiewicz was born in 1822 in the village of Zaduszniki near Tarnow in Southern Poland. He could not complete secondary school because his parents were in financial trouble. So he began his apprenticeship at a pharmacy in Lancut.

Working himself up, Lukasie-wicz did not miss an equally important thing at that time — underground work for a free Poland. Pretty soon he found himself in jail. Released in 1848, he qualified for a chemist and then completed his studies as a pharmacist.

One day, a man turned up at the pharmacy where Lukasiewicz was employed in Lwow. He brought with him a story of how peasants in the Carpathian foothills had developed a habit of scooping a thick liquid off the ground in some places. They would then boil this “rock oil” for awhile to obtain a lubricant for their vehicles. This man discovered that during the boiling a yellowish liquid would gather on the lid of the pot. He produced a sample of the liquid and suggested that it might yield alcohol.

Though the pharmacist rejected the idea of distilling alcohol from the yellowish stuff, he began to investigate its properties nonetheless. After a period of laborous experimentation, Lukasiewicz eventually obtained a substance which turned out to be the kerosene used later for lighting. Together with a tinsmith he built a lamp and by early 1853 had the first kerosene lamp shed brightness to the show window of his pharmacy. Four months later, the Lwow Hospital received the new lighting as the first public building in the world.

The demand for crude oil and its products had been growing ever since. Lukasiewicz, while being a monopolist in the field, founded a big oil distillery (we would call it a primitive refinery today) and became an organizer of this industry in Poland. In fact, he started the first oil mine at Bobrka, which was quite a modern installation for its time. In spite of his engagement in the development of the new industry, he went on with research work in order to improve the technology of oil refining.

The local population knew him even better as a great civic leader. As a Deputy to the local Parliament, Lukasiewicz did his best to improve relations in the newly developed oil industry and also the living conditions of the people. The district of Krosno owed to him a network of roads, and many a village had a school built with his support. What’s more, Lukasiewicz founded the first social insurance system whereby everyone could safeguard himself against disease, disability, and old age. His system came into operation twenty years ahead of any other in the world. He also set up local banks where credit could be obtained at low interest without usury. He provided hide-outs for insurgents after the abortive 1863 national rising. He used his money to send people without employment to America.

Lukasiewicz worked hard all his life. Though he made alot of money, he would dress like a peasant and lived modestly. He spent most of his money on public purposes or simply gave it away. Small wonder that his funeral on January 7, 1882, turned into a massive demonstration in his honor.

It so happened that most of his contributions lived only in human memory not on paper. Even his invention of the kerosene lamp was quickly forgotten. After a time, in source books you could find the name of B. Silliman, an American, as the inventor of the kerosene lamp. Historical evidence leaves no doubt, however, as to the genius of Lukasiewicz. It is likewise a fact that crude oil was first mined in Poland, and only then in America — at a time when Polish oil was used to heat railroad cars in Vienna.

This alone is a valid reason to recall a Polish contribution to the progress of science and technology in the world.