The Polish inventor and pharmacist Ignacy Lukasiewicz (1822-1882) was the inventor of the kerosene lamp and an important figure in the early European oil industry.
Lukasiewicz belonged to the tail end of the age of the amateur inventor. He was fascinated by petroleum and its possibilities, but not because he had any education in the fields of geology or mining. He operated simply on an accurate instinct that petroleum would prove immensely important to industrial development, and although he died young, he lived long enough to see his intuitions validated and to profit from them. His breakthroughs on the design of the kerosene lamp were accomplished while he was working days behind the counter of a pharmacy.
Life and Learning
Ignacy Lukasiewicz was born on March 8, 1822, in the small town of Zaduszniki, Poland. He was the youngest of seven children. His parents, Josef and Apolonia Lukasiewicz, were landowners whose fortunes had declined; his father belonged to a noble family and had taken part in a rebellion against Russian rule led by Thaddeus Kosciusko in 1794. After that he moved to the Galicia region in southern Poland and leased a large farm where Ignacy spent the first part of his childhood. In 1830 the family moved to Rzeszow, where they purchased an apartment building and rented out rooms. Despite their aristocratic background, they never had money to spare.
Lack of money hampered Lukasiewicz's education, but he nevertheless had a zest for learning and pursued it as rigorously as he could whenever he had the chance. He was enrolled in a Catholic grammar school in 1832, gaining a good grounding in Latin and German, but after his father's death he had to drop out of school. Interested in chemistry, he chose the profession that seemed nearest to that field and still allowed him to make a living: he apprenticed himself to a pharmacist, Antoni Svoboda, in the town of Lancut.
As a young man Lukasiewicz was involved in political activities in Galicia, at that time under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Lukasiewicz joined a group called the Polish Democrats' Conspiracy that aimed to educate the Polish people about the goal of independence; one of Lukasiewicz's compatriots was arrested and imprisoned, and Lukasiewicz himself narrowly escaped a prison sentence. After passing an exam that qualified him to work as a pharmacist, he was hired at a pharmacy in Rzeszow. There again he was involved with independence organizations; he became an agent of the Polish Democratic Society, which hoped to foment regional uprisings. He used the pharmacy where he worked as an after-hours meeting place for himself and his co-conspirators. This conspiracy was also a failure, and this time Lukasiewicz was arrested by Austrian authorities and imprisoned for much of 1846 and 1847. He was released on condition that he not leave the city of Lvov (now Lviv, Ukraine, where he had been arrested) and that he check in regularly with police.
Lukasiewicz found work at the Under the Golden Star pharmacy of Piotr Mikokaj in Lvov. There he compiled an almanac titled Manuscript that summarized the pharmaceutical knowledge of the day. Hungry for more education, he moved to Krakow and enrolled in pharmacy courses at the Jagiellonian University. He then moved to Vienna, Austria, and completed a doctoral degree in pharmacy in the summer of 1852, after which he returned to the Under the Golden Star pharmacy. Around that time Lukasiewicz became fascinated by petroleum, which at the time had been the subject of just a few experiments trying to determine how it might be exploited as an energy source. Obtaining small amounts of petroleum was not a problem, for it came to the surface of the earth in “seeps” all over the Carpathian mountain region of southern Poland.
Refined Seep Oil
In 1852 Lukasiewicz and Jan Zeh, a lab assistant in Mikolaj's pharmacy, joined forces to work on the problem of converting petroleum into a form in which it would burn slowly and steadily. Zeh remembered a local peasant who had experimented on his own with petroleum distillates that would remove volatile compounds, essential for the creation of a lamp that would not explode when lit. They tried various ways of removing other impurities in order to create a constant-burning flame, working through the night on experiments that more than once ended in small explosions. Lukasiewicz is widely credited with this research, but the relative contributions of Lukasiewicz and Zeh are a matter of historical dispute.
At the time, the only lamp illumination available came from whale oil, a substance that was difficult to transport and that was in increasingly short supply as whale stocks were depleted. Lukasiewicz and Zeh also had help from a local tinsmith. After a year's worth of work, they were ready to present the first prototype of a kerosene lamp. It was first exhibited in Mikolaj's window, where it became the focus of intense public attention. The new lamp was cylindrical, with transparent mica windows running around its top. Openings in the tube above and below the flame provided air sources for a burning wick. Lukasiewicz's creation essentially resembled the kerosene lamps of today. Lukasiewicz also sent a shipment of the new lamps to the Lvov hospital, which used them to illuminate its operating room and make nighttime surgery possible. The lamps were installed on July 31, 1853, a date that has been used as a symbolic marker of the beginning of the Polish petroleum industry.
Lukasiewicz and Zeh patented their invention, and by the winter of 1858-59, when the Emperor Ferdinand Northern Railway began to replace candles with Lukasiewicz's kerosene lamps in its railway stations, Lukasiewicz was on his way to a new level of financial success. Lukasiewicz continued to work as a pharmacist for a few more years, but now he had the opportunity to indulge his interest in oil exploration on a bigger scale. Beginning in the mid-1850s he worked with Titus Trzecieski, a philosopher, farmer, miner, and estate owner to develop an oil field near the village of Bobrka, where a Polish oil industry museum stands today.
The wells Lukasiewicz constructed were among the world's first. The earliest wells at Bobrka, 1.2 by 1.2 meters square, were dug with picks and shovels and reinforced with wood beams. At first the wells were only 15 meters deep, but Lukasiewicz soon succeeded in increasing the depth to 60 meters, and then, in the case of a well named Izydor, to 150 meters. Each well had its own name; two of them, Franek and Janina, are still in existence.
Lukasiewicz moved with his wife to the town of Jaslo in the late 1850s (he suffered through the birth and death of an infant daughter that year), continuing to work in a pharmacy (this time one that he leased) and manage the Bobrka field. He also opened several new oil fields and refineries. Purchasing a large estate in Chorkowka, he constructed a stateof-the-art refinery there. His estate became an informal headquarters for petroleum specialists from across eastern Europe, and his wells and refineries were considered the best in the Carpathian-Galician region, the center of the early eastern European oil industry. He finally gave up the practice of pharmacy in the early 1860s.
Even in addition to these varied activities, Lukasiewicz once again became involved in Polish independence causes, generously funding the unsuccessful January Uprising against Russian rule in 1863. He provided housing and jobs for defeated soldiers and their families, and opened several schools around Bobrka, including an oil industry trade institute and a lace-making school for girls. He founded churches and community organizations, built roads, donated money to charity, and offered free kerosene lamps to Orthodox and Catholic churches and monasteries near his home. In 1876 he became a deputy in Poland's parliament. Awarded the papal Order of St. Gregory in 1873, he became a figure of national renown in Poland.
In 1880 he was named head of Poland's National Petroleum Society, a lobbying group. Lukasiewicz's frenetic pace, maintained over much of his adult lifetime, may have weakened his health. He died of pneumonia on January 7, 1882, and was buried in Chorkowka, near a church he and one of his business partners had founded. He is considered the father of Poland's oil industry. Lukasiewicz's memory survives today in the names of various schools and monuments, and the petroleum industry museum in Bobrka also bears his name. In 2003 the Polish government issued coins in 2-zloty and 10-zloty denominations, bearing Lukasiewicz's portrait and commemorating the lighting of his kerosene lamps in the Lvov hospital. They bore the Polish inscription “150 Years of the Oil and Gas Industry.”
“The First Kerosene Lamp in the World,” Government of Poland, http://www.poland.gov.pl/Ignacy,Lukasiewicz:,the,first,kerosene,lamp,in,the,world,1985.html (February 10, 2008).
“Ignacy Lukasiewicz (1822–1882),” http://www.gim2jaslo.edu.pl/patron/english.html (February 10, 2008).
“The Ignacy Lukasiewicz Memorial Museum of the Oil Industry,” Bobrka, http://www.geo.uw.edu.pl/BOBRKA/LUKASIEWICZ/lukasiewicz.htm (February 10, 2008).
“The Oil Field at Bobrka,” Bobrka, http://www.geo.uw.edu.pl/BOBRKA/MINE/mine.htm (Feburary 10, 2008).
“Polish Coins Commemorating 150 Years of the Oil Industry,” http://www.geo.uw.edu.pl/HOBBY/MONEY/poland4.htm (February 10, 2008).