Shining Light on the Frontier of Mineral Science

Brian Black reviews Paul Lucier’s Scientists and Swindlers: Consulting on Coal and Oil in America, 1820–1890.

By Brian Black | November 21, 2009

Paul Lucier. Scientists and Swindlers: Consulting on Coal and Oil in America, 1820–1890, Washington, DC: Johns Hopkins University Press, 448 pp, $60.

In August 2009 the consumer world, and particularly that of chemicals, celebrated a tremendous anniversary—150 years have passed since Colonel Edwin Drake drilled for and struck the first intentional well of oil outside of Titusville, Pennsylvania. In our over sim p lified view of history, it’s often assumed that this discovery began an instant revolution of the lighting and transportation industries. Paul Lucier’s Scientists and Swindlers denies readers this simplified view.

shining light

Oil rig

Modern oil rigs show considerable advances in drilling technology since Drake dug the first well.


Lucier explores the world of emergent energy in the early to mid-19th century. In an era with limited supplies of both science and energy, the two came together unevenly during the mid-1800s to create the nation’s energy future. Lucier investigates the ethics of the exploration and the learned men who guided the effort. Were they scientists or swindlers? This account suggests they had to be a bit of each.

The quest for easier, more affordable illumination drove the scientific minds in this story. Therefore Lucier organizes the book in three parts based on the progression of energy sources: coal, kerosene, and petroleum. Contextualized in the multi-decade effort to understand, access, and use minerals for illumination, Drake’s 1859 discovery seems much less consequential. In fact, it appears to be inevitable.

In most cases those who pursued these resources required capital and know-how. In a relatively unscientific era geology evolved with each field experience. Consultants guided the efforts and then experimented with the findings in laboratories afterward. If the field experiences proved successful, the consultant’s reputation and his laboratory findings became hotly pursued by men of capital—their know-how quickly commodified and transformed to profit. Often the men of science were left to contemplate the ethics of profiting from their findings themselves.

In the literature of illumination history, scholars have relied for years on Harold Williamson and colleagues’ two-volume The American Petroleum Industry (Age of Illumination, 1859–1899, and Age of Energy, 1900–1959, published in 1959 and 1963, respectively). For breadth and context Williamson remains the simplest source to use. Nonetheless, Scientists or Swindlers plumbs entirely new depths in the early era by exploring early court cases related to nascent chemical and mineral knowledge. It focuses on two characters who are present in Williamson’s retelling of the progression of illumination—Abraham Gesner and Benjamin Silliman— but with additional nuance in presenting each man’s effort to create his career and expertise.

Organizing his account around these two professionals, Lucier employs a wonderful assortment of visual materials from their reports and other mineralogical diagrams. He also provides long excerpts from court transcripts that allow readers to see representations of each perspective of the era. By prioritizing these primary resources Scientists and Swindlers becomes an essential reference for readers in the history of science—particularly chemistry.

The emphasis on Gesner and Silliman dramatizes contrasts within the scientific community at that time. Gesner represents the archetypal gambler, earning his scientific credentials through public display and demonstration, as well as his travelogue-style scientific writings. Conversely, Silliman, as a more traditional member of the higher-education elite at Yale and elsewhere, brought credibility to enterprises undertaken by men of capital. Together, the work of both men led chemists through a wilderness of mineral possibilities toward an illuminated future through kerosene.

In the background of this unfolding story of minerals, men, and science is a critical energy transition. Lucier does not spend a great deal of time directly discussing this shift; but it is inferred as the context for the entire story, including his investigation of New Brunswick’s “Albert mineral” and Pennsylvania’s “rock oil.” Lucier writes,

Coal oil and petroleum were in competition [which] . . . might explain why it took three years after the first flowing well to establish the predominance of petroleum. Coal oil companies were as much a hindrance as a help to petroleum. Technological change was not sudden or smooth—and perhaps not inevitable. (p. 232)

Such observations, particularly in 2009, are instructive as our nation continues to navigate through a sluggish energy transition from petroleum. Lucier makes no overt argument for scientific freedom and flexibility to find new methods of deriving energy, though it is inherent in the stories that he retells. In this early era there is neither guidance from the federal government nor from concerned consumers. Instead, the scientists and their sponsors control the emphasis of exploration and the emergence of governing scientific knowledge.

After the close investigation of these specific episodes—and a representative investigation of exploration in California—Lucier’s account seems to search for a quick opportunity to close. It is disappointing to see Scientists and Swindlers fold into a brief epilogue discussion of the morality of mixing science and profit. But as it stands, the vision of 19th-century science conveyed by Scientists and Swindlers is compelling in its dramatization of the literal “frontier” of science. Lucier depicts an era of experimentation when loose oversight allowed knowledge in chemistry and energy to unfold naturally— at times through the scientific method and at others through deception and business acumen.