“It was a real sensation. All and sundry flocked to the Mikolasch pharmacy in Lwow to see with their own eyes that amazing invention. Crowds grew dense in front of the pharmacy. With great difficulty did the police keep order. Somebody even called a fire brigade. It came at a gallop shrilling with its bell, with the snorting of its foamy horses, and it departed as it had come — there was no fire. In the pharmacy window, the first oil lamp in the world shone with a dazzle never seen before. It was March 1853. Crude oil had been known to men for centuries. Fatty, rainbow-colored splashes on bogs and mires, the strange smell and taste of water from forest streams, thick liquid spouting up from the ground — all this fired imagination. Crude oil, earlier called earth or rock oil, was ascribed magical properties, it was used for the treatment of wounds and burns, for lubricating axles and for tanning hides. People soon saw also that this fatty liquid drawn from the earth burned easily, but it gave more black soot and stink than light.”
The above quote by an unknown author is probably one of the best historical descriptions available on the discovery of kerosene as we know it today. The man responsible for the discovery — Ignacy Lukasiewicz.
It’s possible that you may have never heard of the name since there are many Poles in History who have inadvertently been bypassed. Lukasiewicz was born in the village of Zaduszniki in 1822 (last year the 150th anniversary of his birth was celebrated) and most likely would have gone to university had it not been for the poverty at home. As a result, after what we here call high school, Ignacy Lukasiewicz was apprenticed to a pharmacist in Rzeszow since pharmacy had been one of his areas of interest during his early youth.
He remained as an apprentice, for four years passed a very difficult examination and could enroll at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow in a pharmacy course, but again his strained circumstances at home prevented him from attending. He remained in Rzeszow and finally decided to move in, first to Lancut and then to Lwow where he found employment in a pharmacy run by a fellow named Mikolasch.
Eventually, this self-made chemist became interested in crude oil. He collected it into a small casks and experimented filtering and straining the oil and mixing it with various other liquids. His work was interrupted when during the years 1846-48, Lukasiewicz going a Polish revolutionary struggle and it eventually led him to the inside of an Austrian Prison.
After being released, Ignacy Lukasiewicz concentrated on attending Jagiellonian University in Cracow and later the University of Vienna. At the age of 30 he obtained the degree of Bachelor of Pharmacy. He returned back to the Mikolasch pharmacy and continued his investigation into crude oil. So intense was his work that he even aroused the curiosity of his neighbors, some of them actually accusing him of the practice of black magic.
Finally, this alchemist produced a transparent liquid which after purification with sulfuric acid and lye burned with a steady and bright flame. This was to become known as the birth of kerosene.
There was still, another difficulty to be overcome, however, since a suitable lamp was needed to properly burn the inflammable liquid. So Lukasiewicz went to a well-known tinsmith in Lwow by the name of Bratkowski who listened attentively and then set out to put together a small fuel tank, a burner protected by a transparent mica globe and a plated wick into one assembly. The following description points an exciting picture:
“At last came the time of the great trial. With beating hearts, protecting their eyes, they lighted the burner — it began to burn with a bright, soot-free flame. Never before had there been such a lamp or such a light. Placed in the window of the Mikolasch pharmacy on a March afternoon in 1853, the lamp caused astonishment and sensation. And only a few months later, in July of that year, the local hospital received complete kerosene lighting. This was the first practical application of the new source of light the beginning of the oil industry in Poland and the world”.
Ignacy Lukasiewicz became an instant success. He leased a pharmacy and opened a small oil distillery. Eventually, this led to the construction of larger distilleries. The next step was to maintain his supply. To do this Ignacy Lukasiewicz built the first oil well in the work in 1854. Its site was a town named Bobrka.
Other wells followed but they were primitive and manually drilled. Then in 1861 a new drilling method considerably increased oil output and actually brought about the development of the oil industry in Poland and — the rest of the world.
Suffice to say that the first oil well in the United States was sunk five years after Lukasiewicz’s first well.
Today Bobrka is an open air museum of Poland’s petroleum industry and if you’re in the country its well worth the visit.
Lukasiewicz, in addition to his scientific inventiveness was also a social worker and excellent organizer. He took care of his co-workers by developing what today would be called a monetary assistance fund and a savings bank. In effect, it helped his workers in case of sickness and set up for them in principle — a pension fund — since that is what a savings plan is.
By any definition set up by today’s historians, Ignacy Lukasiewicz was the fore-runner of his times. Through him oil was born in Poland. For he not only refined it and put it to use, but also his modest discovery, improved and developed, became the foundation stone at the base of modern transport and the chemical industry.
Ignacy Lukasiewicz, we salute you on the 146th anniversary of your discovery.
. . . . SEE YOU SOON, GOD BE WILLING . . .