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Oil and Gas Industry: A Research Guide

History of the Industry

This page provides an overview of the history of the oil and gas industry and includes relevant resources. The historical information is split into two time-periods: pre-19th century, and from 1800 to the present.

Ancient History to 1800

Petroleum has been used for waterproofing, construction, and lighting purposes spanning back to ancient civilizations. Petroleum and its semi-solid cousin, bitumen (asphalt), could be found in seepages in Italy, China, Egypt (Gebel Zeit), Cuba, and the Dead Sea.1 Baku, in present-day Azerbaijan, was well-known from Antiquity to the modern era for its natural seeps of crude oil.2 Natural gas deposits were recorded by early societies in ancient India, Greece, Persia, northern Iraq, and China. Some harvested the energy, like those in the Sichuan Valley to heat brine for salt production.3 Below are books and articles to explore the gas and oil industries up to 1800. The following materials link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are provided when available.

Late Modern History

As techniques for extracting and refining fossil fuels improved, and as technology-driven demands increased, petroleum and natural gas became sought-after resources. The United States and Russia become leading countries in the oil industry, joined at times by Canada, Mexico, Iran, Trinidad, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

In 1855, looking for a more efficient replacement for asphalt-based kerosene, George Henry Bissell and a group of investors formed the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company. They hired Edwin Drake who completed the first drilled oil well—often seen as the beginning of the modern oil era—at Oil Creek near Titusville, Pennsylvania on August 27, 1859.4 Their renamed Seneca Oil Company was soon overshadowed by the Standard Oil Company, which was founded by John D. Rockefeller in 1870 and went on to control close to 80 percent of the oil products market.5 With the introduction of electricity in 1882, natural gas and oil were no longer needed to fuel light. The natural gas industry shifted to heating and cooking applications, and the oil industry found demand in the newly invented automobile. In 1909, anti-trust laws forced Standard Oil into 34 different companies, but by the 1940s three of them, along with four other international companies, grew to dominate the market and were nicknamed the "Seven Sisters."6

Founding Oil Companies - Date founded Seven Sisters 7
Standard Oil Company - 1870 Standard Oil of New Jersey (later Esso, then Exxon)
Gulf Oil - 1901 Standard Oil of New York (Mobil)
Texaco - 1901 Standard oil of California (Socal, then Chevron)
Royal Dutch Shell - 1907 Royal Dutch Shell
Anglo-Persian Oil Company - 1909 Texaco
Turkish Petroleum Company - 1910 Gulf
Seneca Oil Company - 1858 Anglo-Persian (British Petroleum (BP))

As oil exporting countries became more protective of their resources and interested in benefiting from the wealth of the oil industry, the major companies had to negotiate deals to continue to extract oil. A fifty-fifty profit sharing arrangement was put in place after World War II, but soon oil exporting countries began nationalizing companies in order to have more control over revenue.8 Oil supply and prices were in a tenuous balance for both the oil exporting and oil importing counties, often upset by politics and wars which resulted in a number of oil crises and panics in the latter half of the 20th century.9 The following are select resources for researching the history of the oil and gas industry.

The following materials link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are provided when available.

The subscription resources marked with a padlock  are available to researchers on-site at the Library of Congress.  If you are unable to visit the Library, you may be able to access these resources through your local public or academic library.

Searching the Library of Congress Online Catalog

Additional works on the history of the oil and gas industries in the Library of Congress may be identified by searching the Library of Congress Online Catalog under appropriate Library of Congress subject headings. Choose the topics you wish to search from the following list of Library of Congress subject headings to link directly to the Catalog and automatically execute a search for the subject selected. For assistance in locating the many other subject headings which relate to this subject, please consult a Ask a Business Librarian.

Works on the history of specific companies can be found in subject headings with the format: [Company name]--History. For example:

Works about the petroleum industry in specific countries can be found using subject headings with the format: Petroleum industry and trade--[country]--history. For example:


  1. H. W. Halleck, Bitumen: Its Varieties, Properties, and Uses, (Washington: Peter Force, 1841) 8, 12, 166. Back to text
  2. R. J. Forbes, “Bitumen and Petroleum in Antiquity,” in Studies in Ancient Technology, 2nd ed., Vol. 1:1–123, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1955). Back to text
  3. “Natural Gas,” in Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History, William McNeill, ed. Vol. 4. (Great Barrington, Mass.: Berkshire, 2010), 1817; Hans Ulrich Vogel, “The Great Well of China,” Scientific American 268, no. 6 (1993): 116–21. Back to text
  4. Vaclav Smil, Energy and Civilization: A History (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017), 246-247. Back to text
  5. Daniel Yergin, The Prize (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991), 35. Back to text
  6. Anthony Sampson, The Seven Sisters (The Viking Press, Inc.: New York, 1975), 32-33, 58, 147. Back to text
  7. Morgan Downey, Oil 101 (Wooden Table Press, 2009), 7. Back to text
  8. Anthony Sampson, The Seven Sisters (The Viking Press, Inc.: New York, 1975), 108-112, 156-165. Back to text
  9. Daniel Yergin, The Prize (New York: Free Press, 2008). Back to text