Today is the birthday (1822) of Jan Józef Ignacy Łukasiewicz, a Polish pharmacist, engineer, businessman, inventor, and one of the most prominent philanthropists in the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, crown land of Austria-Hungary. Łukasiewicz was a visionary who saw the potential of petroleum products at a time when the chief fuel powering the Industrial Revolution was coal. He built the world’s first modern oil refinery, discovered how to distill kerosene from seep oil, invented the modern kerosene lamp (1853), created the first modern street lamps in Europe (1853), and constructed the world’s first modern oil well (1854). Chances are you have never heard of Łukasiewicz, yet his inventions changed the world. It should be noted, in small mitigation, that kerosene can be made in different ways and was known in antiquity. While Łukasiewicz perfected his method, others were working in Canada and the US on the production of kerosene from coal as a byproduct of gas production.
Ignacy Łukasiewicz was born in Zaduszniki, near Mielec, in the Austrian Empire (after the Partitions of Poland) as the youngest of five children. His family was of Armenian origin. His parents were Apolonia, née Świetlik, and Józef Łukasiewicz, a member of the local intelligentsia nobility entitled to use the Łada coat of arms and a veteran of Kościuszko’s Uprising. The family rented a small manor in Zaduszniki but, soon after Ignacy’s birth, was forced by financial difficulties to relocate to the nearby city of Rzeszów. There Ignacy entered the local secondary school (Konarski’s Gymnasium), but failed to pass the examinations and left in 1836. In order to help his parents and financially support all the relatives, he moved to Łańcut, where he began work as a pharmacist’s assistant. Toward the end of his life, Łukasiewicz often described his childhood as happy; the home atmosphere was patriotic and somewhat democratic, and he commonly recalled his first tutor, Colonel Woysym-Antoniewicz, who resided in their house.
Upon moving to Łańcut, Łukasiewicz also became involved in several political organizations that supported the idea of restoring Polish sovereignty and independence and participated in many political gatherings around the area. In 1840 he returned to Rzeszów, where he continued working at Edward Hübl’s private pharmacy. In 1845 he met diplomat and activist Edward Dembowski, who admitted Łukasiewicz to the illegal “Centralization of the Polish Democratic Society”, a party that focused on radical policies and supported a revolt against the Austrian government. The organization’s aim was to prepare an all-national uprising against all three partitioning powers. Since the movement was seen as a possible danger to the Austrian monarchy, on 19th February 1846 Łukasiewicz and several other members of the party were arrested by the Austrian authorities and imprisoned in the city of Lwów. However, on 27th December 1847 Łukasiewicz was released from prison due to lack of evidence, but for the rest of his life he was regarded as “politically untrustworthy” and often observed by local police who held his records. He was also ordered to remain in Lwów with his elder brother Franciszek.
On 15th August 1848 he was employed at one of the biggest and best pharmacies in Austrian Galicia (so-called “Austrian Poland”); the Golden Star (Pod Złotą Gwiazdą) Pharmacy in Lwów, owned by Piotr Mikolasch. In 1850, a handheld pharmaceutical almanac and a precious document entitled manuskrypt, the joint work of Mikolasch and Łukasiewicz was published. Because of this achievement, the authorities granted him a permit to continue pharmaceutical studies at the Royal Jagiellonian University in Kraków. After several years of studies, financed mostly by Mikolasch, he passed all his university examinations except for that in pharmacognosy (natural plant medicine), which prevented him from graduating. Finally, on 30th July 1852 Łukasiewicz graduated from the pharmacy department at the University of Vienna, where he earned a master’s degree in pharmaceutics. As soon as he returned to the pharmacy of Piotr Mikolasch in Lwów, he began a new phase of his life devoted to the studies of exploiting kerosene.
While oil was known to exist for a long time in the Subcarpathian-Galician region, it was more commonly used as an animal drug and lubricant, but Łukasiewicz was the first person to distill the liquid and was able to exploit it for lighting and to create a brand new industry.
In autumn of 1852 Łukasiewicz, Mikolasch and his colleague John Zeh analyzed the oil, which was provided in a few barrels by traders from the town of Drohobycz. In early 1854 Łukasiewicz moved to Gorlice, where he continued his work. He set up many companies together with entrepreneurs and landowners. That same year, he opened the world’s first oil “mine” at Bóbrka, near Krosno (still operational in the 21st century). At the same time Łukasiewicz continued his work on kerosene lamps. Later that year, he set up the first kerosene street lamp in Gorlice’s Zawodzie district. In subsequent years he opened several other oil wells, each as a joint venture with local merchants and businessmen. In 1856 in Ulaszowice, near Jasło, he opened an “oil distillery” — the world’s first industrial oil refinery. As demand for kerosene was still low, the plant initially produced mostly artificial asphalt, machine oil, and lubricants. The refinery was destroyed in an 1859 fire, but was rebuilt at Polanka, near Krosno, the following year.
By 1863 Łukasiewicz, who had moved to Jasło in 1858, was a wealthy man. He openly supported the January 1863 Uprising and financed help for refugees. In 1865 he bought a large manor and the village of Chorkówka. There he established yet another oil refinery. Having gained one of the largest fortunes in Galicia, Łukasiewicz promoted the development of the oil industry in the areas of Dukla and Gorlice. He gave his name to several oil-mining enterprises in the area, including oil wells at Ropianka, Wilsznia, Smereczne, Ropa, and Wójtowa. He also became a regional benefactor and founded a spa resort at Bóbrka, a chapel at Chorkówka, and a large church at Zręcin.
As one of the best-known businessmen of his time, Łukasiewicz was elected to the Galician Sejm. In 1877 he also organized the first Oil Industry Congress and founded the National Oil Society. Ignacy Łukasiewicz died in Chorkówka on 7th January 1882 of pneumonia and was buried in the small cemetery at Zręcin, next to the Gothic Revival church that he had financed.
All my life (until recently) I’ve had at least one kerosene lamp and a kerosene stove – for emergencies and for camping. I had pressure lamps and stoves because simple ones with nothing but wicks can produce a fair amount of soot. Pressure equipment provides a more complete combustion of the kerosene as well as a brighter light and stronger heat for cooking. Growing up in Australia we had a kerosene stove in the living room as our sole heating for the winter months, and camping with the boy scouts we used kerosene lamps at night. You could honor Łukasiewicz with a Polish recipe, and a scan through my posts will provide ample selection. Instead, here’s a video on cooking on a kerosene stove (not pressurized), to show how effective even the simplest equipment is. His technique for cooking of eggs is not to be imitated!!