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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 748

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This is the grave of Benjamin Silliman, Jr.

Born in 1816 in New Haven, Silliman grew up in the early scientific world of the United States. His father was the pioneering geologist at Yale who gave the boy his name. He followed his father to Yale, going to school there and graduating in 1837. He then received a master’s degree there in 1840 and took a job working in the lab of the Boston-based chemist Charles T. Jackson. He then became a chemistry professor at at the University of Louisville, starting in 1849. He taught there for five years, leaving for a position at Yale in 1854. He was already a leading chemist, even before he was at Louisville. In 1847, he published First Principles of Chemistry, one of the early textbooks on the subject in the U.S.

In the 1850s, the oil industry was just getting underway in the United States. The current energy sources were limited. Coal oil had problems of smoke. Whale oil burned cleanly but whales were being hunted to the verge of extinction. People had known of petroleum for a long time, but the understanding of it as a serious energy source was still pretty nascent. Much of the oil that had seeped up to the surface or came up in other industrial processes was just in the ridiculous medical compounds of the day that did nothing to keep you healthy and a lot to make you more unhealthy. Some investors had the idea that you could turn this oil into a real fuel source. But how to get people to believe them? The answer was the Yale chemist Benjamin Silliman.

Silliman soon became the chief oil scientists in the United States. He built on his father’s discoveries in the field of fractional distillation and discovered just how powerful an illuminate oil could be. He noted in his 1855 report that it could burn at a very high temperature. He also believed it would have enormous benefits not only in terms of illumination, but as a lubricant for machines. With the Industrial Revolution continuing apace, it is impossible to overstate the importance of these discoveries. Of course, they would go far to destroy the planet’s ecology, though no one realized this at the time and if they had, they would have chalked it up to progress and the hand of God. His analysis noted that the substance included kerosene, which was perfect for light; paraffin that could be used for candles; lubricants that could replace nasty animal greases; and creating an high quality illuminating gas by passing it through heated coke. He also noted gasoline in it, but no one had any use for gasoline at this time and it would be burned as a useless byproduct for the next half-century.

Soon after Silliman’s initial analysis, Edwin Drake hit black gold in Titusville, Pennsylvania and the nation’s first oil boom was on. This allowed Silliman to become rich, not because of any patent, but because he was seen as a seer by the mining world. With the science behind both oil and mineral discoveries very limited at this time, all sorts of charlatans were out there with their divining sticks trying to figure out where the stuff was underground. This was basically anti-scientific at many times. So what made Silliman rich was mining companies hiring him to find minerals. Was he good at this? No. In fact, he was outright pretty bad at it. But he had that reputation. British investors hired him to ascertain how much minerals were in a mine in Utah. He believed it was filled with minerals. It was not. The investors lost their shirts. He did the same in mines in New Mexico. But the connection between quality, ability, and financial success in the Gilded Age was most definitely pretty weak. Silliman made a lot of money on abject failure.

On the other hand, Silliman got into a huge battle with Californians over oil. He took a year long trip to California in 1864. This was at the behest of the odious head of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Thomas Alexander Scott (who later would be noted for rooting on the slaughter of strikers in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877) to find new investments for the growing elite of the nation. The leading Californian experts on the subject, whatever that really meant at the time but including the head of the California Geological Survey, had determined that there was no oil in southern California. Silliman strongly disagreed and said so. To say the least, he was right about that one, even if it took time to develop. But the initial assurance that there was oil led to a big bubble that burst, with one of the investors committing suicide in 1865. Josiah Whitney, head of the Geological Survey, went on a public attack against Silliman that lasted until the latter’s death, saying he was only interested in bilking the public out of funds for nothing. Of course, that might have been true, even if he was correct.

In 1859, Silliman expanded upon his chemistry textbook by writing a pioneering American physics textbook, First Principles of Physics or Natural Philosophy. Silliman was among the original members of the National Academy of Sciences, founded in 1863. He also directed the New Haven Gas Works, what I assume was a lucrative private job. All this private work for industry was useful because Yale didn’t pay that much, certainly not enough to fund the lifestyle of a Gilded Age elite.

All of the attacks on Silliman out of California eventually had a significant effect. He was not drummed out of the National Academy of Sciences, but he did feel the need to resign from Yale in 1870. By the late 1870s, Silliman was proven correct as the first big strikes hit in California. But he did not gloat. He simply moved forward with his work. I doubt I would have had such reserve. It did mean that his scientific reputation was restored before he died, which was in 1885, at the age of 68.

Benjamin Silliman, Jr. is buried at Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut.

If you would like this series to visit other people involved in the American oil industry, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Columbus Marion Joiner is in Dallas and Samuel Kier is in Pittsburgh. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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