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The Early Days of Oil

Alberta's rich oil sands contain the largest deposit of oil in the world. Its potential was first identified by members of the Geological Survey in the 1870s and 1880s.

Photograph of drilling rig used by the Geological Survey at Victoria, Alberta, 1898

Drilling rig used by the GSC to try to find oil and gas on the Prairies, Victoria, Alberta, 1898. The drilling pictured here stopped at 1,840 feet because of the primitive equipment being used

Oil is an important and valuable resource today. But at the time the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) was formed, few people knew anything about oil and no one had much use for it. That would all change once the automobile was invented in the 1880s. Many parts of Canada have oil, and the GSC geologists were among the first to study the country's oil deposits.

Back in 1846, GSC geochemist Thomas Sterry Hunt became very interested in springs and other liquids that bubbled up from the ground. He collected samples in jars and took them back to the lab for examination. Some of these liquid samples were oily, bituminous and even flammable. It was Hunt who discovered what caused these liquids to be trapped in certain kinds of sedimentary rocks, and who helped others understand the geology of oil.

Many GSC geologists have also been interested in oil. Robert Bell studied the oil deposits in Petrolia, Ontario, when the oil boom was beginning in 1865, and later in 1886 when an oil industry had been developed. Under Alfred Selwyn and George Dawson, the GSC investigated locations in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The oil found there was not used until years later, when oil was in more demand and better methods for getting it out of the ground were developed.

Newsworthy Nuggets

- In southwestern Ontario, local First Nations knew about the gum beds (pools of oil that have seeped to the surface). They used the sticky oil to waterproof their canoes and for medicinal purposes long before carriage-maker James Williams registered the world's first commercial oil well in 1858. It was located in Oil Springs, Ontario.

- The word "petroleum" comes from Latin words: "petra" for rock and "oleum" for oil. Oil lies inside porous rock like water in a sponge.

- American-born Canadian John Henry Fairbank invented the jerker rod system of pumping oil. His descendants have continued to pump oil for over 145 years in Oil Springs, Ontario. Charles Fairbank Oil Properties Ltd. is the oldest petroleum company in the world!

- Oil (petroleum) took millions of years to form, yet humans will eventually consume the world's oil supply, as fuel, in a much shorter time. Once it is used up, we cannot make more. Oil is also a cause of air pollution. The exhaust fumes from our cars, trucks and planes contain chemicals that make acid rain and smog.

Digging Deeper

How Oil is Made

Diagram of how oil is madeExplore this Topic

Digging Deeper

Energy Sources

Illustration showing different sources of energyExplore this Topic

Photograph of oil derricks, Petrolia, Ontario, 1886

Oil derricks, Petrolia, Ontario, 1886;
photo taken by Robert Bell

Photograph of oil refinery stills, Petrolia, Ontario, 1886

Stills, used to process petroleum, at the Producers Oil Refinery, Petrolia, Ontario, 1886

Photograph of tar sands, Alberta, 1892

Tar sands along the Athabasca River,
Alberta, 1892