Early Textbooks of Petroleum Geology

Petroleum geology textbooks have been an essential tool for training generations of teachers, researchers, explorers, and managers in the petroleum industry. Here we look at some of the early textbooks in this field as a way of paying tribute to these works and their authors, upon whose shoulders stand the writers, teachers and textbooks of our time.
This article appeared in Vol. 8, No. 6 - 2012


In the mid-19th century, industrialists, chemists and geologists in Europe and North America began to appreciate the usefulness of petroleum (‘rock oil’). Scientific journals gradually started to publish papers on oil refining, location of oil seeps, the anticlinal theory for oil accumulations, and so on. As knowledge and activities in the oil sector accumulated, the first educational books on petroleum in English appeared in England in the 1880s and 1890s.  

In March 1886, Sir Boverton Redwood gave four lectures on the history, production, refining, and uses of petroleum at the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce in London. These lectures were collected in a book, Cantor Lectures on Petroleum and Its Products, published in London in 1886 and a year later in New York as Petroleum: Its Production and Uses.  

R. Nelson Boyd, a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in London, published a slim book, Petroleum: Its Development and Uses, in London in 1895. Its 86 pages covered topics as diverse as the origin of petroleum and geological strata in which it is found; chemical composition; ‘winning’ petroleum; storage and transport; liquid fuel; the flashing point and lamp accidents; petroleum engines; and the future of petroleum. Boyd begins his book with some interesting data: “Since the introduction of petroleum into this country the consumption has continuously and enormously increased. In 1859 the imports into the United Kingdom amounted to 2,000,000, and in 1893 they had reached a total of 155,126,667 gallons… To the quantity of the oil importedmust be added the mineral oil produced in Scotland from the 2,000,000 tons of shale raised and treated, which will probably amount to 20,000,000 gallons of illuminating oil.”  

Sir Boverton Redwood’s Petroleum: A Treatise – two volumes totaling 900 pages – was the first comprehensive text on petroleum, published in 1896. Being a useful manual, it went through subsequent editions in 1907 (two volumes) and 1913 (three volumes); the fourth edition was posthumously printed in three volumes in 1922 with an introduction by Sir Frederick W. Black (1864–1930), an officer with the Royal Admiralty who was then serving as the managing director of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Volume I of the book dealt with the geology and geography of oil; volume II was on oil refining, and volume III on oil laws and regulations.  

Into the Twentieth Century

Several events in the 1900s proved to be a turning point for the petroleum industry worldwide. Before 1900, the producing oil fields in the USA were confined to the north-eastern states; in the 1900s, however, large oil discoveries in Texas, Kansas and California spread the upstream oil sector across the country. Meanwhile, Henry Ford’s development of small, convenient automobiles generated a huge demand for gasoline (petrol). In the UK, the Royal Admiralty made a strategic decision to replace coal with oil as the main fuel for its fleet. The discovery of oil in Iran (Persia) in 1908 and the subsequent formation of the Anglo- Persian Oil Company (controlled by the British government) put the Middle East on the global petroleum map.  

In 1910, Arthur Beeby Thompson (1873–1968), a British petroleum engineer (and son of a geologist) and a pioneer oil explorer in Trinidad, published Petroleum Mining and Oil-Field Development. The book formed a basis for Thompson’s more exhaustive work, Oil-Field Exploration and Development, in which volume I was dedicated to ‘oil-field principles’ and volume II to ‘oil-field practice’.  

In 1912, Edward Hubert Cunningham- Craig (1874–1946), a Scottish geologist with the Burma Oil Company, published a purely petroleum geology text titled Oil Finding: An Introduction to the Geological Study of Petroleum. A second edition came out in 1920 with an introduction by Cunningham-Craig’s mentor – none other than Sir Boverton Redwood. The book consisted of ten chapters covering subjects ranging from the origins of petroleum to migration and subterranean storage of petroleum, geological structure, stratigraphy, and field-work for beginners. It also presented 13 field photos from Burma, Iran, and Trinidad. In discussing the origin of oil, Cunningham-Craig supported the notion of ‘terrestrial vegetation’ source because the oil basins he had studied were associated with coal deposits.  

The largest effort in the UK to synthesize the knowledge of oil during the first half of the 20th century was a four-volume publication, totaling a massive 3,200 pages, called The Science of Petroleum, edited by A.E. Dunstan, A.W. Nash, B.T. Brooks, and Sir H. Tizard and published by Oxford University Press in 1938.

North America

In North America, Dorsey Hager (1887–1971), a petroleum expert and a founding member of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG), was also a pioneer author of books on petroleum geology and industry. His publications included: Practical Oil Geology: The Application of Geology to Oil Field Problems, initially published in 1915, but with a sixth edition coming out in 1951; Oil-Field Practice (1921); and Fundamentals of the Petroleum Industry (1939).  

The early history of oil was shaped by wildcatters. However, between the two world wars field-based knowledge of petroleum geology was rapidly accumulating. In order to synthesize this knowledge and to formulate better practices for oil exploration both in the USA and overseas, several encyclopedic volumes appeared, including The Oil Encyclopedia, by Marcel Mitzakis in 1922, the three volume Structure of Typical American Oil Fields: Symposium on Relation of Oil Accumulation to Structure published between 1929 and 1948; Problems of Petroleum Geology, edited by William Embry Wrather and Frederic H. Lahee and produced by the AAPG in 1934, and Finding and Producing Oil: A Comprehensive Manual, published in 1939.  

Economic Resources Versus Subsurface Structures

There is more than one approach to teaching a subject. In the traditional division of geology into the physical, historical and economic (applied) disciplines, petroleum geology in academic circles usually comes under the category of economic geology. It is thus not surprising that some early books on petroleum geology written in the style of modern college texts came from the pen of economic geologists. One such text, The Geology of Petroleum and Natural Gas, was by Ernest Raymond Lilley (1895–1949), a professor at New York University. Lilley had previously published The Petroleum Industry (1925) which dealt with oil resources, production, transportation, refining, and marketing.  

Mention should also be made of William Harvey Emmons (1876–1948), who obtained a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Chicago in 1904, and who after teaching at Chicago joined the University of Minnesota and also served as the director of the Minnesota Geological Survey. Primarily an ore mineralogist, Emmons wrote Geology of Petroleum, first published in 1921, based on his course notes; a second edition came out in 1931.  

A different perspective on petrol- eum geology, especially held by structural geologists, was to focus on the subsurface geologic methods involved in oil exploration. Influential publications following this line of thought include Subsurface Geologic Methods: A Symposium, edited by Leslie Walter LeRoy (1950); Structural Geology for Petroleum Geologists by William Low Russell (1955); Structural Methods of the Exploration Geologist by Peter C. Badgley (1959); and Handbook of Subsurface Geology by Carl Allphin Moore (1963).  

After World War II

After World War II oil consumption increased worldwide (especially because of Europe’s reconstruction); therefore, petroleum geology courses were in high demand. Several textbooks to address this need came out. In 1949, Cecil Gordon Lalicker, professor of geology at the University of Kansas, published Principles of Petroleum Geology: In 1951 two other books appeared; William L. Russell, then a professor at Texas A&M, published Principles of Petroleum Geology (a second edition came out in 1960) and Kenneth Knight Landes, professor of geology at the University of Michigan, published Petroleum Geology. Its second edition came out in 1959, and this edition was also reprinted in 1975 and 1981.  

In the preface to the 1951 edition, Landes remarks that the growth of petroleum geology in the first half of the20th century was along three lines: “These are: (1) the geologic occurrence, by which is meant the origin and accumulation of the natural hydrocarbons; (2) the geographic occurrence or distribution of these substances; and (3) the methods and techniques of searching for oil and gas deposits.”

Then and Now

Every age and generation has its own share of college textbooks, but new books are built upon their predecessors. Therefore, even though the works and authors introduced in this article may not be familiar to the young generations of geologists today, their legacy lives on.  

A comparison of the early petroleum geology textbooks with those of our age reveals a marked difference in their contents: The early textbooks focused on oil habitats, field descriptions, structures, and regional understanding, while the modern texts attempt to teach the processes of the petroleum system and the methods of basin analysis with only supportive field examples. 


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