Ignacy Łukasiewicz - how the world oil industry came into being in Gorlice

Kapliczka z Chrystusem Frasobliwym
Ignacy Łukasiewicz, the inventor and creator of the oil industry, without which it is not easy to imagine today's civilisation, also lived and worked in the Małopolska region. A journey in his footsteps is a fascinating expedition into the history and the most beautiful places of the region. The Polish Sejm has designated 2022 as the Year of Ignacy Łukasiewicz. "He belongs to the honourable group of Poles whose activities have had a great and positive impact on the development of our homeland, as well as on the whole world," reads an excerpt from the Sejm's resolution. Ignacy Łukasiewicz was honoured in this unique way on the 200th anniversary of his birth and 140th anniversary of his death.

Born on the 8th of March 1822 in Zaduszniki near Mielec, he began his great adventure with Galician oil in ... a pharmacy … as Ignacy Łukasiewicz was a pharmacist by profession. Between 1832 and 1836, he attended a post-piarist secondary school in Rzeszów. When his father died in 1836 in difficult financial conditions, young Ignacy started working as an apprentice in a pharmacy in Łańcut. He then worked as an assistant pharmacist at Edward Hübel's pharmacy in Rzeszów, where he further trained as a pharmacist. During this period, he also began working towards the independence of Poland. In 1845, he made the acquaintance of Edward Dęmbowski and was sworn in as an agent of the Centralisation of the Polish Democratic Society in Rzeszów. In 1846, he was arrested on a charge of illegal activity against the Austrian occupiers  during the Kraków Uprising. When he was released in 1848, he found employment in Piotr Mikołasch's renowned Lviv pharmacy "Pod Złotą Gwiazdą". However, he remained under police surveillance.

Studies at the Jagiellonian University

In 1850, thanks to his employer's guarantee, Łukasiewicz received permission from the Austrian occupiers to study at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Jagiellonian University. The qualification course for the master's examination in pharmacy included zoology, botany, petrology, mineralogy, petrography, experimental physics, some branches of general physics (electricity and magnetism), general chemistry, organic and inorganic pharmaceutical chemistry, forensic chemistry and pharmacognosy. During his first year at university, Ignacy passed most of the subjects in the entire curriculum. At the same time, he worked in the alum factory of Baron Fryderyk Wertenholz near Kraków. Łukasiewicz studied in Kraków for three semesters, the last at the University of Vienna. On 30 July 1852, he received a diploma as Master of Pharmacy. During one of his expeditions to the Wieliczka region, he recognised the flammable properties of crude oil, which was then called rock oil.

A pharmacist experiments with oil

In the same year, he returned to Lviv to the pharmacy of Piotr Mikolash "Pod Złotą Gwiazdą". Between 1852 and 1853, he and Jan Zeh conducted research and experiments on oil. Initially, they were convinced that they were looking for a specific substance to be used in pharmaceutical production. By heating oil to 200-250 degrees Celsius, they obtained a liquid and then refined it with concentrated sulphuric acid and a sodium solution. This is how they obtained paraffin. Łukasiewicz decided to use the new liquid for lighting purposes. This was one of the turning points in his life.

…And there was light

The paraffin obtained in this manner turned out to have a unique advantage. When burned, it gave off a bright fire, did not smoke and was cheaper than other raw materials for lighting, such as oil or camphine. There was only one problem: the lamps filled with it exploded, as the devices available on the market were not suitable for burning this liquid distilled from oil. At that time, Łukasiewicz and Adam Bratkowski, a Lviv tinsmith, constructed a particular lamp model. It was made by hand from thicker steel sheets, coated with brass. It had a regular cylindrical shape and consisted of two structural parts and a banded ear. The tubular burner was covered by a perforated screen, allowing proper airflow. On the other hand, a special chimney shielded the suction and porous wick, ensuring that the paraffin burned economically. Thereby, in 1853, the world's first paraffin lamp was created, which was lit for the first time in Mikolash's Lviv pharmacy in March 1853. At first, it was not very popular. The breakthrough came on 31 July 1853. A seriously ill patient, Władysław Cholecki, was brought to the hospital in Łyczaków. An urgent operation was necessary. The problem was that it was already after dark, and candles could not illuminate the room sufficiently for the operation to be performed safely. At that time, on Dr Zaorski's orders, a staff member ran directly to Lukasiewicz's pharmacy. The Polish constructor often stayed overnight in the laboratory, conducting further experiments on crude oil. Having learnt about the situation, Łukasiewicz packed his lamps into a bag, brought them to the hospital and immediately illuminated the operating theatre. Doctor Zaorski performed a complicated operation, and the patient was saved. It was the first operation in the world using artificial light from a paraffin lamp. The pharmacist's invention passed the test, and the date of its application became the symbolic beginning of the Polish oil industry.

Łukasiewicz moves to Małopolska

Ignacy Łukasiewicz and Jan Zeh patented their invention in Vienna, and the Austrian railway began to take profound interest in Łukasiewicz's paraffin. At the end of 1853, Łukasiewicz moved to Gorlice, which today is called the City of Light, to look for areas rich in oil deposits. Initially, he worked at Jan Tomaniewicz's pharmacy on the Market Square, continuing and developing his research into the oil. At the end of 1854, he leased a pharmacy in Gorlice. At the back of the pharmacy, he installed a primitive boiler and conducted experiments on the distillation of oil, and finally, he developed a method for distillation on an industrial scale. At the turn of 1853 and 1854, the world's first street oil lamp was lit in Gorlice. It illuminated the Chapel of the Sorrowful Christ, placed at the crossroads to Sękowa and Wysowa, currently at the junction of Węgierska and Kościuszki Streets. It still stands today as a reminder of this historic event. Łukasiewicz lived and worked in Gorlice between 1853 and 1858.

Rockefeller in Galicia

In 1859, when Edwin Drake and William Smith took their first steps in the oil industry and drilled their first wells in Pennsylvania in the United States, Łukasiewicz's mine in Bóbrka already employed over 100 workers, and it had an annual turnover of 20,000 Rhine zlotys. In petrochemistry, Łukasiewicz was a respected authority of international renown. His mines were visited by entrepreneurs from Germany, Romania and the United States, where they learned the secrets of his knowledge. A legend is associated with one of the Americans' visits to Łukasiewicz. The Polish inventor showed the Americans all the secrets of his enterprise, the entire process from extraction to distillation. The Americans reportedly wanted to pay him for this, but Łukasiewicz refused. The American who, together with his co-workers, visited Łukasiewicz's enterprise was supposed to be ... John Rockefeller himself. The American entrepreneur called the Pole a "madman" who possesses valuable knowledge and shares it for nothing. In 1883, a year after Ignacy Łukasiewicz's death, 51,000 tonnes of oil were produced on Polish soil annually. At that time, Poland was the third oil power in the world after the United States and Russia.

Not only paraffin

Ignacy Łukasiewicz was a multidimensional figure. He cannot be seen only through the prism of paraffin. However, this Polish pharmacist and entrepreneur is a character whose biography could encompass many other biographies: a pioneer of the world oil industry, a man who was the first to distil crude oil using scientific methods, a founder of the world's first oil mine and refinery, a great social activist, a philanthropist, a positivist, a skilful politician, a man of great reason and an even greater heart. Between 1877 and 1881, he was a member of the Galician Diet. In 1880, upon his suggestion, the Diet allocated the first substantial subsidies for mining drillings in the region of Gorlice. It was also thanks to his initiative that the Diet adopted subsidies for scholarships in mining and petroleum technology, as well as for the establishment of the first petroleum faculty at the Kraków Academy of Technology. He also lowered taxes for native Galician entrepreneurs and imposed a customs duty on oil from Romania and the United States. Immediately after his company started making more profits, Łukasiewicz began financing the construction of schools, roads, bridges and hospitals on a large scale. In Chorkówka and Bóbrka, he opened schools for girls, paid for teachers and enabled the rural population to educate their children to a high standard. He organised communal funds that gave interest-free, short-term loans to peasants, repayable in small instalments to prevent the usury rampant in villages. Łukasiewicz also took great care of his employees. He organised for them the first workers' fraternal fund in Galicia. Membership was obligatory, and the 3 per cent tax deducted from each salary guaranteed his workers access to free medicine, medical care, sick pay, disability pensions and allowances for the family of a deceased worker. Ignacy Łukasiewicz's life was a biography of "the truest positivist, whose strength is work and realistic pragmatism in achieving even the most romantic goals" and can be read about in the book "Ignacy Łukasiewicz. Prometeusz na ludzką miarę" (Ignacy Łukasiewicz. Prometheus to the Human Measure) by Piotr Franaszek, Paweł Grata, Anna Kozicka-Kołaczkowska, Mariusz Ruszel and Grzegorz Zamoyski, which was published by Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy on 29 November 2021.

Małopolska’s remembrance of Łukasiewicz


  • Among the items on display in the Saltworks Castle (Zamek Żupny), one can see a reconstruction of the prototype of an oil lamp.

The City of Light

  • The building of the Town Hall on the Market Square in Gorlice housed a pharmacy, where Ignacy Łukasiewicz conducted his work on oil distillation. To commemorate this fact, in the main hall of the Town Hall, there is a commemorative portal, and on the front wall of the building, there is a plaque and a reconstruction of the first street oil lamp in the world made by Łukasiewicz. A fresco from a pharmacy depicting the goddess Hygieia, the goddess of health, has been preserved to this day on a wall in the Town Hall.
  • In the PTTK Regional Museum (7-9 Wąska Street), one of the rooms is devoted to Lukasiewicz and the old oil industry. Among the memorabilia of Ignacy Łukasiewicz, the most noteworthy are: a pharmacist's alembic (a device for distilling crude oil) and a prototype of the world's first oil lamp. One should also see the exhibition on oil making.
  • The Magdalena Open Air Museum of Oil Industry. In the open-air museum, one can see not only the tools and equipment used more than 100 years ago to extract oil from the ground, but also try to light a fire in the forge with a bellows, forge a horseshoe on the anvil "for luck", bow to St. Barbara,  see a beautiful panorama of the Lower Beskid from a drilling tower and extract "black gold" from the reconstructed quarry "Ćwiartka" from before 1880, which is carefully guarded by a Gorlice łebak (an oil worker). One can also visit a reconstruction of a self-excavation of rock oil, which was collected in so-called bęsiorach or łapacz and gathered by a łebak. In the drilling part, there is a shaft with a wooden drilling and viewing tower and a forge necessary for drilling in which augers for impact drilling were sharpened (hammered). Between 1931-2000, there were about 112 boreholes drilled in the Gorlice mines.
  • The world's first street paraffin lamp was lit in 1854 in Gorlice.  It was placed within an original chapel with a barrel-shaped base, with the Sorrowful Christ under the canopy. The chapel at the crossroads of Węgierska Street and Kościuszki Street is still standing today as a reminder of this historic event. The Chapel of the Sorrowful Christ dates from around 1850, while the statue itself kept a secret for a long time - almost a century and a half. Only conservation work at the beginning of the 1990s revealed the date 1573. The original statue can be seen in the PTTK Regional Museum.
  • The bust of Ignacy Łukasiewicz was placed on a small square next to the crossroads, opposite the Chapel of the Sorrowful Jesus - the place where the world's first street oil lamp was lit.
  • "Łukasiewicz's bench", by the Town Hall on the Gorlice Market Square, designed by Zdzisław Tohl.

Siary, a village near Gorlice

  • This "rock-oil" was already being mined in the 17th century, which was mainly used for lubrication. In 1852, the world's first crude oil mine was established in the village.  This is where the oil that Ignacy Lukasiewicz used for his research and experiments came from.
  • The Długosz Palace - once the property of Władysław Długosz, the pioneer of the development of the oil industry. This Art Nouveau mansion, rich in architecture, stands on the site of two previous palaces that burned down in fires in 1916 and 1923. It is situated on a steep slope descending towards the Sękówka River. It is surrounded by a charming park with sculptures by the famous Lviv artist Piotr Wojtowicz.

Łosie, a village near Gorlice

  • The regions of Małopolska have been famous for centuries for grease-making, i.e. the production of lubricants used to grease the axles of wooden carts. Initially, they were made from pine resin, but when oil was discovered, it was used to produce the slurry. Grease-makers from Łoś were known throughout Poland. "For decades, every spring, specially adapted carts filled with slurry, grease and oil left from Łoś. They travelled deep into Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary and even as far as Transylvania. The range and routes of the journeys changed with the political situation. In 1934, 335 carts set off. After World War II, due to displacements during Operation Vistula, the trade collapsed. In the post-war years, there were still a dozen or so smear-makers from Łoś. The last grease maker left in the 1970s." - from the website of Zagroda Maziarska w Łosiu, which is part of the PTTK Regional Museum in Gorlice.


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