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Technology Through Time

Crude Oil and Gas

Drilling for oil near Pincher Creek, AlbertaSince the earliest recorded history, there have been accounts of crude oil and natural gas seeping to the earth's surface. The oil was used to caulk boats and buildings, grease wheels and dress the wounds of people and animals. Until the refining process was developed in the 1850s, oil was not commonly used as fuel because of its foul-smelling fumes.

Natural gas fed the celebrated "perpetual fires" at Delphi in Greece, Baku on the Caspian Sea and other sites in the ancient world. In the third century AD, the Chinese transported gas in bamboo pipes to light their temples. They also used natural gas heat to extract salt from water.

Rocky Mountain Development Company camp, Waterton area, AlbertaDiscoveries of oil and natural gas became more common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as people dug deeper wells in search of water. "Rock oil" or petroleum (from the Latin roots petra for rock, and oleum for oil) was once a popular patent medicine in Canada and the U.S.

Although natural gas was gaining popularity, it was coal gas that provided the "gas lights" in nineteenth century cities in some parts of Europe and North America. Coal was heated in a closed vessel to produce a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and methane. Coal gas first lit the streets of London, England, in 1807; Montreal in 1836, and Toronto in 1841.

C. C. Snowdon and Company office, Calgary, AlbertaPeople tapped safer, cleaner-burning natural gas for the same purpose as early as 1821 when it was piped through hollow logs to Fredonia, New York—"the best-lit city in the world." However, natural gas was not widely used until the end of the 19th century when better drilling techniques and cast iron pipes were developed.

Oil workers at well head, Medicine Hat, AlbertaThe demand for improved lighting also led directly to the first widespread use of crude oil. The need was urgent. By the 1850s, the best available lamp oil, obtained from whale blubber, was selling for $2.50 U.S. per gallon, or 66 cents per litre—a lot of money in those days. Growing demand for this oil decimated whale populations, putting some species at risk of extinction.

  Petroleum Communication Foundation. Our Petroleum Challenge: Exploring Canada's Oil and Gas Industry, Sixth Edition. Calgary: Petroleum Communication Foundation, 1999. With permission from the Centre for Energy.




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Gas Discovered at Medicine Hat

Drilling for water near Medicine Hat leads to the accidental discovery of Natural Gas in 1883...

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