On this day in 1853, Polish pharmacist Ignacy Lukasiewicz gave a new invention he’d been tinkering with—a kerosene lamp—to a local hospital.
“This liquid is the future wealth of the country,” claimed Ignacy Lukasiewicz in 1854. “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.” He was talking, of course, about oil—the black gold—and only a year or so after he had first achieved the outstanding feat of distilling kerosene out of seep oil. After this, the Polish pharmacist invented the kerosene lamp in 1853, dug the first oil well in 1854, and built the first oil refinery in 1856.
Although oil is now seen as the source of many of our present-day problems—from global warming to Middle-Eastern wars—Lukasiewicz’s discovery of the distillation process for kerosene had plenty of positives, and he had the most extraordinary life; as an inventor who helped his local hospital to perform night-time surgery, as a revolutionary in 19th century Eastern Europe, and as a man who inadvertently saved the lives of countless whales throughout the world’s oceans.
Ignacy was born to Jozef and Apolonia Lukasiewicz on 8 March 1822 in Zaduszniki, a part of Poland that had been partitioned by the Austrian Empire. His father was a veteran of the failed Kosciuszko Uprising against Imperial Russia and the Prussian Kingdom in 1794, and he himself was also an avid supporter of the restoration of Polish sovereignty. When he wasn’t working as a pharmacist’s assistant, Lukasiewicz was very active in the outlawed Centralization of the Polish Democratic Society, and on 19 February 1846 he was even arrested and imprisoned in Lwow.
After his release, Lukasiewicz studied at the Universities of Krakow and Vienna, and soon afterwards he perfected the process of distilling kerosene. On 31 July 1853, he offered a kerosene lamp to a hospital to illuminate an emergency operation, and this philanthropic act has been taken as the start of the modern oil industry. He started setting up oil wells and refineries, and amassed an immense fortune. However, Ignacy Lukasiewicz did not squander his fortune of frivolities, rather he funded churches and chapels.
He openly supported the January Uprising against the Russian Empire, from 22 January 1863 to 11 April 1864, and even provided financial assistance to its refugees. Finally, the rise of affordable kerosene catalysed the collapse of the expensive whale oil industry within only a few years, and this saved hundreds of thousands of the animals from slaughter. Until then, whales had been used for all sorts; from candle wax to lamp oils, and even margarine.