America's petroleum industry was started by men with no formal training in chemical engineering or geology. They substituted serendipity, persistence and entrepreneurial spirit for scientific knowledge.
Samuel Kier lived in rocky western Pennsylvania where he operated salt wells, wherein water was flushed through underground salt caverns to dissolve the salt, and then the water evaporated to get the product. Kier's brine, unfortunately, was frequently contaminated with crude oil. At first he just dumped the worthless stuff into the nearby Pennsylvania Main Line Canal, establishing an unfortunate precedent. But when an oil slick inadvertently caught fire, Kier realized that there might be a market for something that combustible. His first product, "Rock Oil", was actually used as a patent medicine. It was not a commercial success. After some tinkering, he was able to distill out a product similar to kerosene, which had earlier been produced from coal. Kier sold his "Carbon Oil" to local miners to burn in their lamps. Carbon oil quickly replaced whale oil as lamp fuel for consumers and more than likely saved a few species of whale from extinction. Though he became fairly wealthy, Kier never got around to patenting his process, so there was little barrier to entry in the nascent oil industry.
In 1866, a farmer, Hiram Bond Everest, and a carpenter, Matthew Ewing, experimented with a vacuum distillation apparatus to produce kerosene from petroleum. As a convenient means to produce kerosene, it was a failure, but Hiram decided that the oily residue left over held promise as a lubricant. Everest loaded up a cart with oyster cans full of this new harness oil and begin selling it all around Rochester, NY. "Friction costs more than lubrication," was an early advertising theme. Another early use for the oil was to keep leather soft and pliable. As the Industrial Age literally gained steam, Everest's Gargoyle 600-W Steam Cylinder Oil became a best seller. Thus the Vacuum Oil Company was born
Within a very few years, the oil industry had attracted the attention of New York financier John D. Rockefeller. He bought a controlling interest in Vacuum Oil in 1879 but left Everest as the salaried head of the company. Vacuum Oil was merged into Standard Oil Company of New York (Socony) in 1883. Vacuum-Socony was the predecessor of Mobil Oil Company, now part of Exxon-Mobil.
The oil industry has always a reputation as a rough-and-tumble business and it was so from the beginning. In 1887, Hiram Everest and his son Charles were convicted of conspiring to blow up the manufacturing facilities of a rival, the Buffalo Lubricating Company. Nonetheless, both retained their leadership roles in Socony-Mobil. Charles succeeded his father as chief executive in 1906.