Although it has been known from the ancient times, it was only during the industrial revolution when petroleum was established as the most crucial natural resource to keep the world’s economy going. It built empires and waged wars but few know that its fame started with one very special man in the South-
Ignacy Łukasiewicz was born in 1822 in Zaduszniki, Podkarpacie region, into a poor noble family. Due to his parents’ financial situation, he had to start working early in his life and he did so as an apprentice in a pharmacy in Łańcut. This is also where Łukasiewicz joined a conspiracy to restore Polish independence from Russia, Austria and Germany, as Poland was partitioned between those nations at that time. Later he was imprisoned in Lvov but was released shortly after and went on to study pharmacology in Cracow and Vienna.
As a pharmacist himself, Łukasiewicz started experimenting with “rock oil” and in 1852 managed to distill kerosene from it. In 1853, he developed the first modern kerosene lamp (and, at the same time, first modern street lamp). That year witnessed also the first surgical operation performed by the light shed from kerosene lamps, but that was only the beginning.
It was not easy to popularize the newly developed technology mostly due to the scarcity of the resource. Petroleum seeps had been known to occur around Krosno, not far away from the picturesque Bieszczady mountain range in Podkarpacie. Łukasiewicz, together with Tytus Trzecieski and Karol Klobass-Zrenicki, decided to invest their money and buy a field there. It paid off. A year after the creation of the kerosene lamp, the first modern oil well was constructed in Bóbrka. Numerous wells and drills of various kinds followed. Some were operated by hand, others used steam engines for the pumps, but all of them can still be seen in the museum in Bóbrka today. A couple of them, established in 1864 and 1870, are still working, which makes them the oldest operational oil wells in the world.
Łukasiewicz continued his “first in the world” trend with building an oil refinery in Ulaszowice, a village right next to a town called Jasło. His business bloomed. He was even visited by members of the Rockefeller family, wanting to buy the technology from him. When asked how much it would cost, Łukasiewicz replied “Nothing. This is for the good of humanity, not for someone to get rich” and he shared it for free. He became quite wealthy nevertheless but gave away most of his money to charities, social and patriotic undertakings. It seems to have been his idea from the very beginning because as soon as in 1854, he said “This liquid is the future wealth of the country, it’s the wellbeing and prosperity of its inhabitants, it’s a new source of income for the poor, and a new branch of industry which shall bear plentiful fruit.”
Ignacy Łukasiewicz died of pneumonia in 1882, aged 60, leaving great legacy for Podkarpacie, Poland and the world. On the premises of the Bóbrka museum, there is a building with the memorabilia of Łukasiewicz, with two multimedia chambers that let the visitors feel they really are in the same room with the famous inventor. In a few years, there will also be a science center bearing his name built in Rzeszów, the capital city of the Podkarpacie region, so it will be easier to explore and learn about these not-as-well-known-as-they-should-be facts about Polish history.