Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Samuel Martin Kier pioneered the American oil industry.
Samuel Martin Kier was born in Indiana County, Pennsylvania, in 1813 and began his business career when he moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1834. Kier carried out many business ventures in his lifetime, but he is most remembered for his business in oil. He began selling unrefined oil for medicinal purposes in 1849, and later invented an oil-distilling device. Kier was the first American to refine oil and sell it as an illuminant, and for this reason historians have dubbed him the “Grandfather of the American Oil Industry.” He continued with his oil refining business until his death in 1874.
Samuel Martin Kier was born on July 18, 1813, in Saltsburg, Indiana County to Scots-Irish immigrants Thomas Kier and Elizabeth Martin Kier. Little is known about his childhood, except that he completed a common school education and he moved to Pittsburgh at the age of 21. In Pittsburgh, he gained employment with a railway express company and realized his talent for business. He soon became a partner in the growing establishment, and the business continued to prosper until it suddenly collapsed in the economic ruin of the Panic of 1837.
Kier recovered from the failure of his first business by moving on to new ventures. First, in 1838, he became involved in the business of canal transportation. He took advantage of the Commonwealth’s system of canals running across the state from Lake Erie to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Kier hired several independent canal operators of the Pennsylvania Canal to create one connecting link from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, and established a firm by the name of Kier, Roger, and Company to oversee the operation. This venture brought Kier great financial success, and he was able to pay off any leftover debts from the failure of the railway express company. When the government began work on the Pennsylvania Railroad, which was set to run parallel to Kier’s Pennsylvania Canal route, Kier adjusted his canal business. In 1846, he produced “amphibious” canal boats that were compatible with the railroad tracks but could also operate in the canal where the railroad tracks had not yet been laid. This new form of transportation was successful until the railroad was completed in 1854. At this time, Kier stopped the production and operation of the hybrid boats. Fortunately, when he terminated his canal business in 1854, Kier had several ventures going simultaneously, including a firebrick and pottery factory, expenditures in steel and iron, and most famously, his business in oil. By this time he had also married Nancy Eicher of Greensburg, Pennsylvania.
Despite his other commercial successes, Samuel Kier is most famous for his business in oil. Kier first became interested in oil in 1846, when his father’s salt wells in Tarentum, Allegheny County, became saturated with petroleum. At that time, salt farmers knew little about the substance, and they often tossed the extracted oil into the Allegheny River. Kier found a use for the byproduct in 1849 when his wife became sick and the doctor prescribed “American Medicinal Oil.” He recognized that the medicine was in fact the same oily substance that was saturating his salt wells. He bottled the oil in eight-ounce containers and began selling them for 50 cents each as “Kier’s Petroleum or Rock Oil.” He hired agents to travel the area in wagons, proclaiming its various medicinal purposes. Signs on the wagons proclaimed that the Rock Oil could cure many different ailments, including blindness, burns, asthma, cholera, rheumatism, ulcers, and indigestion. The product was very popular, but by 1852, the cost of operating the wagons exceeded the profits. From then on, “Rock Oil” was only sold in drugstores.
Convinced that the oil from his wells could be used for other purposes, Kier brought a sample of petroleum to a commercial chemical lab in Philadelphia in 1850. There, chemist James C. Booth recommended that Kier distill the substance and use it as an illuminant. That same year, Kier took his advice and established an oil distilling operation in downtown Pittsburgh. Using a one-barrel distiller, Kier refined the petroleum and produced “carbon oil,” an illuminant that burned more safely, cleanly, and cheaply than other, unrefined oil illuminants on the market. He sold the oil for $1.50 a gallon, and his business began to thrive as he erected a new five-barrel still. He also created a new type of lamp burner, which he manufactured and sold with the carbon oil. Within a year, the City Council of Pittsburgh forced him to move his refinery to a less-populated area, given the dangers of fire or explosion. He moved the entire operation to Lawrenceville, where he remained for the duration of his life. Kier is credited with founding the petroleum refining industry, and historians have dubbed him as the “Grandfather of the American Oil Industry.”
Although Kier’s oil refining process, distilling equipment, and lamp design were all original and innovative inventions, he never took out a patent on any of these ideas. As a result, other industrialists were able to cash in on improvements of his designs, and his name is sometimes overlooked in the history of U.S. oil. Nevertheless, Kier enjoyed great wealth and success in his lifetime as a result of his business. Kier operated his refinery in Lawrenceville until he became ill and passed away in 1874.
Cadman, W. K., “Kier’s 5-Barrel Still—‘A Venerable Relic.’” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine Dec. 1959: 351-362.
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