A Prometheus on a Human Scale – Ignacy Łukasiewicz

by Piotr Franaszek (Author) Paweł Grata (Author) Kozicka-Kołaczkowska Anna (Author) Mariusz Ruszel (Author) Grzegorz Zamoyski (Author)
©2019 Monographs 298 Pages
Open Access


This book is dedicated to the life and work of Ignacy Łukasiewicz, Polish pharmacist whose world-renowned achievements include construction of the world’s first oil refinery and invention of the modern kerosene lamp. The authors also portray the history of the Galician oil industry and set it in the context of political, social and technological changes taking place in the 19th-century Central and Eastern Europe.
"The work adds substantially to existing scholarship in English. As the author of the only English-language academic monograph devoted to a general history of the Galician oil industry, I can attest that this manuscript adds significant and important information, details, depth of investigation that is not provided in my book or any other book. It therefore makes a novel contribution that will be very valuable to anyone looking for a truly detailed account of Ignacy Łukasiewicz’s contribution within the context of the Galician oil industry in general."
Alison Frank Johnson
Professor of History and of Germanic Languages and Literatures
Harvard University, Center for European Studies

"The authors sketch the profiles of two outstanding Poles, pioneers of the oil industry – Ignacy Łukasiewicz, MSc. in Pharmacy, and mining engineer and geologist Witold Zglenicki, called the Polish Nobel (...) This scientific work is an interesting and captivating read. It can be used not only by scientists and students, but also by everyone who is interested in industrial cultural heritage (...)."
Krzysztof Broński
Professor and Head of Department of Economic and Social History
Economic University in Kraków

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the authors
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • I. The One Who Said Goodbye to the Candle
  • In nostra terra
  • From the temple of eternal fire to the Zglenicki platform
  • Unwritten masterpieces
  • And this is what Poland is
  • From Kościuszko’s homeland
  • Carnival in the colour of blood
  • The conspirators from the Hotel near “Luftmaszyna”
  • How can we doubt the good results…
  • A manuscript under a lucky star
  • Studies – the most urgent intention of all
  • There will be no white spirit
  • We distil!
  • I need lamps for this and that – one of these and one of those
  • II. The One Who Spurred the World
  • Pharmacy and dreams of kerosene
  • Entrepreneur and manager
  • An employer from another era
  • In the fight for the interests of the oil industry
  • For the common good – political activity
  • A good man – philanthropist and social activist
  • Chorkówka – the charm of the Polish court
  • The man in the stained apron
  • Honours and distinctions
  • The memory of Łukasiewicz
  • Łukasiewicz – known unknown
  • Father Ignacy is a model for modern generations
  • Teamwork
  • Responsibility in business
  • Energy policy and Łukasiewicz’s legacy
  • III. Underwater Oil Pioneer – Witold Zglenicki
  • The Heir, Witold Zglenicki
  • 2,400,000 dollars in gold
  • In the Mazovian manor house and Subcarpathian Bóbrka
  • In Warsaw and St. Petersburg
  • In the footsteps of Stanisław Staszic. Flights and falls
  • The Assayist of Riga
  • In Baku, where heaven and hell exist
  • The Assayist Engineer
  • Learning and working, not throwing a hat
  • The inventor
  • Desiderata – the key to the unnoticeable Aladdin’s cave
  • And yet they will make the sea sleep
  • 165 oil-producing fields, marine fields, platforms and breakwaters
  • Fields according to Zglenicki
  • The first maritime field, or when there are enough important matters on land
  • Technology, science and art
  • No happy ending
  • A legacy “for everlasting times”
  • Shafts in the Gulf of Ilyich Lenin
  • And the oil is still pouring
  • IV. The Power of Bóbrka
  • Political and social life of the Austrian Partition until 1914
  • The economy of Galicia until 1914
  • Galician industry
  • Banking
  • Transport
  • Subcarpathian petroleum mining
  • Drilling, or the breakthrough
  • From Canada and Pennsylvania
  • Borysław fever
  • Entering the 20th century. Innovation, patents and competition
  • Geology or divining rod
  • Eruptions, fires, landslides, groundwater
  • The Subcarpathian refinery industry
  • Factories of drilling machines and tools in Subcarpathia and Lesser Poland at the turn of the 20th century
  • Austrian authorities vis-à-vis the Subcarpathian oil industry
  • Societies and journals
  • Professional vocational education
  • MacGarvey and others
  • Łukasiewicz’s heirs in the world
  • Congresses and exhibitions
  • Success in spite of obstacles
  • List of Figures
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Geographical Index

The History of the Oil Industry in Poland
Ignacy Łukasiewicz

I. The One Who Said Goodbye to the Candle

In nostra terra. From the temple of eternal fire to the Zglenicki platform. Unwritten masterpieces. And this is what Poland is. From Kościuszko’s homeland. Carnival in the colour of blood. The conspirators from the “Hotel pod Luftmaszyną.” How can we doubt the good results… A manuscript under a lucky star. Studies – the most urgent intention of all. There will be no white spirit. We distill! I need lamps for this and that – one of these and one of those.

In nostra terra

“For there is no light for it to hide under a bushel.

Nor the salt of the earth for kitchen spices”1

Cyprian Kamil Norwid “Promethidion(1851)

“In nostra terra, scilicet Polonia”2

Vitello (1230–1314)

Take two rulers and a map of Europe. With one ruler, link Norway’s highest fjords with Greece’s lowest shore. With the other, divide the half-vertical Spanish shore and the mountain range of Europe’s border with Asia. At the point where the sticks cross, lies Cracow. The heart of Europe. A thousand years old, the first capital of Poland. It is dominated by Wawel Hill. The castle of former Polish kings, which is viewed in the mirror of the Vistula River. The queen of Polish rivers writhes in a gentle arch at its feet. A few streets further, at the Jagiellonian University, Ignacy Łukasiewicz – a man who, in the name of mankind, took the first few steps along the road that the whole world is now rushing – studied pharmacy.

Here, in the Museum of Pharmacy of the 650+-year-old Jagiellonian University, you can enter his pharmacy. Because it is Polish pharmacy that is considered to be the mother of petrochemistry and the oil industry. Łukasiewicz’s pharmacy was its cradle.

“In terra nostra, silicet Poloniae, habitabili quae set circa latitudinem 50 graduum”3 more than seven hundred years ago the astronomer and ←11 | 12→mathematician Erazm Ciołek wrote about his birth within the radiant range of Cracow under the Latin pseudonym Vitello, whose astronomical writings and legendary work Perspectiva were still studied by Copernicus and Galileo. Indeed, it is an extraordinary fact that it is in Cracow that the 50th parallel and the 20th meridian, i.e. full-degree grid lines, intersect. There are only five such intersections of full grid points around the globe, including New Delhi, Mecca and Jerusalem.4 In addition, the 20th meridian connects Cracow with the farthest end of Africa – Cape Agulhas – the cradle of human civilisation. It was recognised as the water boundary of two oceans – the Atlantic and the Pacific.

And if between the cobblestones of the royal courtyard of Wawel you put a branch with two threads attached, and one of them is 500 miles long and the other is 1000, then, like a pair of compasses, you will mark two special circles. The shorter thread will mark Central Europe. The other will embrace it all. The Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci closed the circle of his Vitruvian man in a similar way. The lines of the outstretched limbs of Leonardo’s model intersect in his navel.5 They designate the centre of the microcosm of man and the macrocosm of the world. 6

Seven hundred years after Vitello, the historian Norman Davies simply called his book about the history of Poland The Heart of Europe. He explains this metaphor of Poland located in the centre of the continent in the following way:

The title ‘Heart of Europe’ came during the writing of the last parts of the book (…).The image of Poland as one of the most vital organs of our continent, the traditional homeland of our most intimate feelings and emotions, seemed to be ←12 | 13→particularly appropriate. (…) (…) After examination, it turned out that the title also indicated the geographical location of Poland in the very centre of Europe.7

The work of Ignacy Łukasiewicz is one of those phenomena of history which made Poland the heart of Europe and the “centre of the world” in a no less symbolic way. In the middle of the night of the world, precisely in the middle of the 19th century AD, Ignacy Łukasiewicz switched on the light which instantly conquered the whole globe. Thus, he initiated the history of crude oil in the history of human civilisation, the development of methods of its extraction, its distribution into individual fractions and its widespread use. The mass use of kerosene in the lamp of his construction, on the other hand, already at the end of the 19th century, transformed into the stage of turbulent development of the internal combustion engine.

It was Ignacy Łukasiewicz, a pharmacist from pharmacies in Gorlice, Jasło and Brzostek located in Lesser Poland – a geographical district within the realm of Cracow – the future world’s first sheikh, not much more than 150 years ago, who commissioned a local craftsman to make a lamp of his own design for everyday use, in which the wick immersed in kerosene could burn and shine with an even, regulated, calm and safe light according to the owner’s will. A lamp in which the fire of burning kerosene distilled from petroleum, which had hitherto been despised by science and chemistry as a wild mustang, for the first time in the history of human civilisation surrendered to man.8

Because it was Ignacy Łukasiewicz who not only immersed people in the element of open fire, which had not yet been tamed by man, but also connected it with the phenomenon of crude oil, which so far had seemingly been somewhat useless, rather tedious, dangerous and taking land away from people. Surprisingly shrouded in the fumes of poisonous, gaseous vapours above the bogs and puddles of stinking slurry. Fascinating with fiery fountains. An astonishing view of distant, mysterious night-time fireflies based on legends, myths full of ghosts and spells, mighty gods and titans. When this pharmacist from Polish Subcarpathia tamed this unpredictable monster, he himself experienced its paroxysms. During his experiments with oil distillation in his laboratory, explosions often took place. One such explosion permanently burned his brow.

And yet he promoted crude oil. He consciously and deliberately opened the first oil well in the history of the world, caused the excavation of its first shaft in the forest of Bóbrka, halfway from Dukla to Krosno. As a ←13 | 14→celebration of this fact and a symbol that can be compared probably only to the metaphorical semantics of the Greenwich Meridian, there has since then been a stone obelisk with a date engraved on it – 1854.9

A sign of the year in which man made the world aware that oil is a valuable and useful mineral, just like coal and other treasures of the Earth. To commemorate the landmark date. The year in which a new history of the world began in Bóbrka near Krosno.

From the temple of eternal fire to the Zglenicki platform

22 June 1830: Second visit to the gas fires. Indians call this place Joal, the Persians Atashkadeh, from which the Russians made Tazhki. Joal is for Indians what Mecca is for Mohammedans. (….)From afar you can see four pillars of stationary fire standing in the air. The white wall surrounding this place of pilgrimage for the Indians was clearly visible on the dark background. Fires, scattered here and there, crawled at various distances. The entire Absheron Peninsula is their volcano. The main crater is in Joal. By the whirlpool all the air is infiltrated by the strong smell of coal gas. A wall of measurable height, cut into teeth on the top, encircles Joal in an irregular pentagon. The outer part serves pilgrims as a garden, the inner part as accommodation. (…) (…) Having entered, you can see in front of you in the middle of the courtyard a small bell tower with four arcades into a square space. On each of the four corners is a chimney from which a pillar of fire explodes. This belfry was built on the well that was the most abundant in the fiery gas. (…) Some Indians, naked to their waist, sat stationary, while others prayed or played dice.10

(Aleksander Chodźko-Borejko 1804–1891)

This description of the temple of the worshippers of the Atesgias in the village of Surakhani in Azerbaijan on the Absheron Peninsula, located about 18 km northeast of Baku, is an account of the last decades of tradition, which in ←14 | 15→this place dates back to ancient times and was considered the epicentre of Zoroastrianism.

The “Country of Fire” fascinated the civilisations of Eurasia and the Middle East for thousands of years. In the 4th century BC, this was the name of the Caucasian state. In Persian it sounded like – “Ader – badagan,” ←15 | 16→in Armenian “Aterpatakan” or “Artpatakan”, while in Arabic it was “Aderbaijan” and “Azerbaijan.”11

In the imagination of the ancient Greeks, the rocks of the Caucasus Mountains – the mysterious and terrifying land of fire – were the most appropriate place for Prometheus’ eternal execution. The story of the cruel punishment imposed on the Greek titan by Zeus aroused mercy and fear of the spectators of ancient theatre already two thousand five hundred years ago in the tragedy of Aeschylus.12 For many centuries it was the topos of Mediterranean civilisation. People grateful for the gift of fire have recalled the history of Prometheus for centuries. Prometheism was one of the great ideas of the Romantic era, the times of the author of the above-mentioned memoirs – Aleksander Chodźka, a close friend of the genius Polish Romantic Adam Mickiewicz. It was understood as a readiness to fight for people’s happiness even in a dispute with the gods. To steal its divine treasures from the heavens.

But even there, in the temple of fire in Azerbaijan, which for almost 150 years has been an un-drying Aladdin’s cave of oil, the permanence of eternal fire has only been combined over the centuries with flammable gas. All the memoirs of travellers of old speak only of gas. The oil with which the land of the Southern Caucasus is saturated like a sponge goes unnoticed by the travellers and diarists. They are not convinced to light it, to play with this unknown, wild liquid capable of the only fireworks in nature.

“A travelling Frenchman expressed it thus: If the fires in Baku and all the details relating to them had been visited by experienced physicists and experts in chemistry, the gas would have been used for lighting far earlier.”13

The Polish exile Butowt-Andrzejkowicz, who had been sentenced there for ten years as punishment for political activity by the Russian authorities between 1844 and 1855, noted the remarks, of course only about the gas, while since 1853 Łukasiewicz’s kerosene lamp had already been sent out into the world.

If Łukasiewicz had not insisted on lighting with kerosene, oil could have long remained a stinking, useless slurry by which the earth becomes useless and worthless. After centuries of thinking and generations of brainstorming about what it could be used for, and getting used to the idea that nothing special, apparently few people, except perhaps pharmacists, wanted to pay attention to it.

←16 | 17→

And unsuccessful attempts to make it useful had been going on since the earliest times. Oil was known to the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Byzantines. The word “naphtha” is derived from the Assyrian naptu, which meant “earth oil.” Mediaeval Europe noticed oil. The occurrence of oil in Poland was mentioned by the 15th-century history writer Jan Długosz. It was seen in old Polish encyclopaedias, herbaries and physiographic descriptions. Gabriel Rzączyński (Historia naturalis curiosa Regni Poloniae, Magni Ducatis Lithuaniae XX divisa, 1721, Auctuarium historiae naturalis, 1736) and Jan Krzysztof Kluk, a geologist and outstanding natural scientist, described its resources in the Subcarpathia region (Exploration, cognition and use of peculiarly fit fossil objects 1781, 1782). A particularly outstanding Polish geological paper from the turn of the 19th century was the work of Stanisław Staszic (On the Upper-Sarmatian and later Polish landscaping, 1806).

Samuel Bogumił Linde defined the word “kerosene” in his monumental “Dictionary of the Polish Language” of 1807–1815. We read in it that the word means “a species of natural oil, very liquid, easily igniting.”14

However, still in the middle of the 19th century oil was ignored by great chemists of this world, although from today’s perspective its first distillation and invention of common use for lighting was no less a discovery than electrification, and certainly more important than steam engines. On the other hand, even as a goodbye to the century the same dons, proud of the memorable successes of science, called their age just the age of “steam and electricity.” All the more so, the technology of the second half of the 19th century – in the times of Łukasiewicz – was unable to see the extraordinary future of crude oil. It was Ignacy Łukasiewicz who made fuel and energy from the explosive, unpredictable “rock oil” uninteresting to the worlds of science, industry or business, which in the future would start engines, motors, cars and machines of successive decades.

At the end of the 19th century, travellers who visited the temple of Ateshgah did not see there yogis, who until recently had come to make a life by the sacred fire of burning gas. The place was guarded by the last, honorary custodian of the temple – the Pole Gabriel Wrzosek, who came to Surakhani in his youth as a recruit to the Russian army and stayed there.15 At that time Azerbaijan was already a promised land for oil-hungry people.

It was not a coincidence, but the result of Łukasiewicz’s example that every metre of its surface and adjacent bays of the Caspian Sea in search of this wealth was measured, researched, sketched and described by the Polish ←17 | 18→engineer Witold Zglenicki at that time. He would fight with obstinacy worthy of his predecessor Łukasiewicz for permission to build the first ever offshore drilling platform, several decades before others matured to this project.16

Unwritten masterpieces

Thanks to Łukasiewicz’s kerosene lamp, a civilisational change in everyday life habits took place. People made a mass, common, great step towards independence from the power of the rotation of their planet Earth, in liberation from the rhythm of day and night, darkness and light, life and death.

In 1853, Jane Austen had only been dead for 36 years. George Byron had been dead for 29 years. Goethe had died 21 years earlier. Only four years earlier Fryderyk Chopin. All of them, when they wanted to write, create, play from a score, have fun, dance, eat, just live, the darkness of evenings and nights, of living rooms, bedrooms, halls, nooks and crannies of home and corridors, were illuminated above all by the uncertain, flickering, expensive light of the open flame of burning candles.

In 1849 Johann Strauss, the father, died. If he had lived a bit longer, would he have matched his son in creating larger musical forms? How many miraculous operettas and maybe even operas could have been created earlier, if Strauss the Elder had had a chance to make better use of his time, thanks to the cheap, available, safe light of an oil lamp? There is no doubt that Johann Strauss the Younger was already writing his masterpieces by kerosene light.

Łukasiewicz’s lamp advertised by the Pole in Vienna, sent in numerous prototypes around Europe, made a rapid career on all continents and changed the daily rhythm of people’s lives. It appeared in flats, workshops, salons, ballrooms, and school, university and hospital rooms. It remained in them for a long time before Edison’s light bulb and electricity became the daily bread of the next century for everyone. Unlike electrical installations, it was reliable during the wars that ruined the 20th century and during natural disasters. For the first time in the history of the world it saved man’s life during the night-time, urgent operation on 31 August 1853, in then Polish Lviv.17

Łukasiewicz’s lamp project, based on Romantic ideas – for the good of mankind – unpatented by its originator and constructor, captured by a Viennese ←18 | 19→company, multiplied in Europe and around the world. Thousands of designs for kerosene lamps were created, becoming a showcase for the artists’ imagination. Luckily for them soon, at the end of the 19th century, came Art Nouveau with its capricious line, wealth of floral motifs, colours that turned the moods of twilight and night into a colourful fairy tale. Petroleum lamps were clad in delicious glass crinolines and stained glass, until they became works of art.18 It is difficult for people to forget about them even in the era of electricity, which is why electric lamps which pretend to be oil are still lit today.

It was thus only with the first petroleum lamp that fire – the gift of Prometheus – began to bring to all mortals not only warmth, cooked food, the wobbly light of an easily extinguished candle, the pinching smoke of torches, the element of bonfires and fire disasters, but friendly, tamed, mobile, safe, home light.

Uncontrolled fire – the unpredictable dragon of burning kerosene, breathing with stinking breath and fire – turned in this lamp into a friendly, service-minded, domestic dog. Ignacy Łukasiewicz – this true Prometheus on a human scale – today gives the world his lamp from the portrait of the museum in the historic oil mine – the first in the world. In the unique open-air museum, The Ignacy Łukasiewicz Oil and Gas Industry Museum in Bóbrka onear Krosno you can also admire an exact replica of sheet metal and mica panes. Its first flame marked a new starting point in the history of the world in the race for the new, desirable treasure of oil. That was its power. That is its power.

And this is what Poland is


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2019 (November)
Oil rafinery Crude oil Karosene lamp Pioneers of the oil industry Oil well
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 298 pp., 12 fig. col., 21 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Piotr Franaszek (Author) Paweł Grata (Author) Kozicka-Kołaczkowska Anna (Author) Mariusz Ruszel (Author) Grzegorz Zamoyski (Author)

Piotr Franaszek is Professor in the Department of Economic and Social History, Jagiellonian University in Kraków. His main research areas are social and economic history of the 19th and 20th centuries. His academic interests also include the problem of surveillance of Polish universities by political secret services in the communist era. Paweł Grata is Professor in the University of Rzeszów and Head of the Section of Economic and Social History in the Institute of History. His scientific interests include economic history, social history, social policy, economic policy and regional history. Anna Kozicka-Kołaczkowska is the author of a series of articles on history of the energy sector (Ignacy Lukasiewicz Energy Policy Institute), columnist, novelist and speech coach for media (University of Wrocław and University of Gdańsk). She studied Philology at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. Mariusz Ruszel is Assistant Professor in the Department of Economy of the Faculty of Management, Rzeszów University of Technology. He is also Chairman of Ignacy Łukasiewicz Energy Policy Institute. His scientific interests revolve around geopolitics, geoeconomics, energy policy, energy security and natural gas market. Grzegorz Zamoyski is Professor in the Department of Economy, Rzeszów University of Technology. He is also the author of over 80 books and articles on Jewish history and socio-economic history of Galicia. His main scientific interest are history of Galicia, economic history and social history.


Title: A Prometheus on a Human Scale – Ignacy Łukasiewicz
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300 pages