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What Did People Use Petroleum For Before The Internal Combustion Engine?

Vintage advertisement for benzine-based stain remover.

Petroleum is currently the backbone of the motoring industry, despite the push for alternate fuel sources such as biodiesel, electricity, ethanol, etc.  Ever since Karl Benz first invented the internal combustion engine and fitted it to the horseless carriage, vehicles have run on petroleum of some type – apart from a brief period where Diesel engines ran on vegetable oil.

On Bertha Benz’s legendary first long-distance drive in her husband’s new invention, she ran out of fuel and had to stop and pick up more from the nearest pharmacy.  It’s easy to just take in that sentence and think what a funny place a pharmacy is to pick up petrol until you stop and think about it: why was a chemist’s shop selling petrol?  What on earth were people using it for before we had cars to put it in?

Petroleum has certainly been known for at least four millennia. The name comes from Ancient Greek: petra elaion, meaning “rock oil”, which distinguished it from other sorts of oil such as olive oil, sunflower seed oil and the like.  The stuff was coming out of the ground all around the world, and quite a few ancient societies found a use for it.

The most useful form of petroleum back in the days BC (as in Before Cars as well as Before Christ) was bitumen, the sticky variety that we now use for making asphalt for road surfacing.  Bitumen (also called pitch or tar) didn’t just stick to things; it was also waterproof. As it was a nice waterproof adhesive, it came in handy for all sorts of things, from sticking barbed heads onto harpoons through to use as mortar – the famously tough walls of the ancient city of Babylon (modern-day Iraq, 2which is still oil-rich) used bitumen as mortar.  The Egyptians sometimes used it in the process of mummification, using it as a waterproofing agent.  In fact, the word “mummy” is thought to derive from the Persian word for bitumen or petroleum, making mummies the very first petrolheads.

For the next thousand years, petroleum in the form of bitumen was mostly used for waterproofing ships, to the extent that sailors became known as “tars” because they tended to get covered with the stuff.  In the 1800s, it was used to make road surface – before there were cars to run on them.

It was probably the Chinese who first had the idea of using petroleum as fuel.  “Burning water” was used in the form of natural gas for lighting and heating in homes, and in about 340 AD, they had a rather sophisticated oil well drilling and piping system in place.

The bright idea of refining bitumen to something less sticky and messy first occurred in the Middle East (why are we not surprised?) at some point during the Middle Ages.  A Persian alchemist and doctor called Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (aka Rhazes) wrote a description of how to distil rock oil using the same equipment the alchemists used for distilling essential oils.  The end result was what we know today as kerosene, and it was a lot more flammable.  Kerosene was used for lamps and in heaters, especially as it was a lot cleaner than coal.  It was also used in military applications.  Naphtha (one of the other early names for petroleum products) was possibly one of the mystery ingredients in Greek fire.

Kerosene and the like really took off during the Age of Coal and the Industrial Revolution, as they were by-products of the coke-refining industry.  About this time, scientists started tinkering around with various ways to refine crude oil into products like paraffin and benzene and benzine.  Benzene and benzine are not named after Karl and Bertha Benz the way that diesel fuel is named after Rudolf Diesel.  These words are actually derived from “benzoin” and benzene was given its official name by yet another German scientist in the early 1800s.  The similarity between the surname Benz and the name of the petrol product is pure coincidence – really!

The petrol product (ligroin) that Bertha Benz picked up at the pharmacy was probably sold as a solvent, like the ad in the picture up the top. This was one of the most common household uses of bottled refined petroleum.  Petrol is still very good as a solvent and can bust grease like few other things, so it was popular as a stain remover and a laundry product.  It might have ponged a bit and you had to be careful with matches, but it was nice and handy, and meant you could get that candle-grease off your suit without putting the whole thing through the wash.  Other uses for benzene that sound downright bizarre to us today included getting the caffeine out of coffee to make decaf and aftershave.  REALLY don’t try this one at home, even if you love the smell of petrol, as we now know that petrol products are carcinogenic and you should keep them well away from your skin, etc.

It was the widespread use of petroleum-based products such as paraffin in the 1800s that made the demand for whale oil drop dramatically.  This happened just in time to stop whales being hunted to extinction.  Using petrol was the green thing to do and helped to Save The Whales.  Now that whales have been saved and are thriving, cutting down on the use of fossil fuels is the main focus of a lot of environmental groups.  Irony just doesn’t seem to cover it.

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