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19731.  Wed May 11, 2005 4:53 am Reply with quote

I'm not sure what to do with this, but once upon a time I did wonder why 42 gallons a bbl.

barrel (of petroleum)
Convert petroleum barrels to other major units of volume

The barrel of petroleum, 1866 – present, a unit of capacity = 42 U. S. gallons (or about 5.61458 cubic feet, and though approximately 158.987 liters taken as = 159 liters, by, for example, the U.S. Census Bureau Harmonized System), measured at a temperature of 60° Fahrenheit.1 It is a unit of account; actual barrels containing 42 gallons of crude oil have not been used for more than a century, if ever.

A metric ton of average crude oil at standard temperature and pressure has a volume of about 7.33 barrels. A cubic meter of oil is about 6.29 barrels.

The barrel of petroleum originated in the Pennsylvania oil rush following Drake's discovery well (1859). Its exact origins are somewhat obscure.

The forty-two (wine or U.S.) gallon barrel, one-sixth of the 252-gallon tun, was a well-known size long before Drake's well. It is the size of the English tierce of wine prior to 1824, and of the American cran of herrings.

The earliest documentation from the oil fields,2 however, speaks mostly of 40-gallon barrels, not 42, and the report (February 1866) of a federal commission appointed to look into taxing oil gave all its statistics in 40-gallon barrels.3 In 1872,4

The oil producers were desperate for containers and would have used any liquid-tight barrel they could lay their hands on. Records and photographs show barrels in a variety of sizes. Where did they get so many 40-gallon barrels that it became a temporary standard?

The 40-gallon barrel had a long history in the state of Virginia. An act of 23 February, 1631-32, ordained that a barrel of corn should contain 5 bushels Winchester measure, which is 40 gallons.5 A Virginia act of 18 February, 1819 declared that a barrel of salt contained 5 bushels (or 40 wine gallons; the U.S. gallon is based on the English wine gallon).

Virginia had strong ties with southwestern Pennsylvania. It was there that George Washington did his surveying and land claiming as a youth, and there he personally suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion as President. Until West Virginia broke away in 1863, Virginia lay to the west and south of that corner of Pennsylvania.

One may speculate that a Virginian 40-gallon barrel, either as a standard or the barrels themselves, made it to western Pennsylvania and thus to the oil fields. The original purpose of the barrels may have been to contain whiskey. The main reason the 18th century western Pennsylvanian farmers converted grain to whiskey was to find an economic means of transporting grain over the Alleghenies to market, and there would have been an early and ready market for whiskey barrels. Another possibility lies in the salt connection, as salt was produced by drilling wells for brine. More research is needed on salt, whiskey and cooperage in Pennsylvania, but certainly whiskey barrels would have made excellent containers for crude oil.

Derrick's Hand Book has the following entry for 31 August 1866:

The Register says the oil producers have issued the following circular: Whereas, It is conceded by all producers of crude petroleum on Oil Creek that the present system of selling oil by the barrel, without regard to the size, is injurious to the oil trade, alike to the buyer and seller, as buyers with an ordinary size barrel cannot compete with those with large ones. We, therefore, mutually agree and bind ourselves that from this date we will sell no crude by the barrel or package, but by the gallon only. An allowance of two gallons will be made on the gauge of each and every 40 gallons in favor of the buyer.6

The probable origin of the 42-gallon petroleum barrel is that in 1866 the producers added an extra 2 gallons to a 40-gallon barrel when they switched to selling by the gallon. (When the basis on which a commodity is measured changes, it is not uncommon for sellers to give buyers a bit extra to allay the buyers' apprehensions, and sometimes these allowances become frozen into the value of a unit. Compare the addition of an extra 4 pounds to each 100 when London began to enforce exact weight in 1256. See sack.) Notice that even at its origin the petroleum barrel was a unit of account. By 1872, the 42-gallon barrel seems to have become firmly established:

At a session of the Council of Producers, the following resolution was passed: “Whereas, False reports have been circulating in the eastern markets to the effect that the producers intend starting their wells again at once; Resolved, ... that we will have $5 per bbl. of 42 gallons for our crude oil.”7

The size may have been influenced by the existing standard for barrels of lamp oil produced by the meat packers in Cincinnati, Ohio. Those barrels contained 43 gallons, according to Alexander (1850).

1. American Petroleum Institute, Petroleum Industry Data Exchange (PIDX).
Petroleum Industry Data Dictionary (PIDD). [back]

Reference downloaded 6 October 2003.

2. For example,
Thomas A. Gale.
The Wonder of the Nineteenth Century; Rock Oil in Pennsylvania and Elsewhere.
Erie, PA: Sloan and Griffeth, 1860. [back]

3. Special Report No. 7 of the United States Revenue Commission. [back]

4. R.S. 3308, (a1872). Authorized barrel of proof spirits.— Every distiller shall make a return of the number of barrels of spirits distilled by him, counting forty gallons of proof spirits to the barrel, whenever such return is demanded by the collector of the district. [back]

5. (Adams, 1821, pages 109, 111) [back]

6. Derrick's Hand Book of Petroleum. Volume 1.
Oil City, PA: Derrick Publishing Company, 1898. [back]

Page 77.

7. Derrick's Hand Book, as above, for 13 October 1872. [back]

Further Reading

Robert Etter Hardwicke.
The Oilman's Barrel.
Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958.

Well-researched standard work and about as conclusive as the evidence permitted. See especially his critique of the Van Syckle theory, advanced in the Oil and Gas Journal, 15 April 1921.

19732.  Wed May 11, 2005 4:59 am Reply with quote

Question: When was the first oil well drilled?
Answer: China in the 4th century
Forfeit: 1859 Edwin Drake in Pennsylvania

The first oil wells were drilled in China in the 4th century or earlier. The oil was burned to evaporate brine and produce salt. By the 10th century, extensive bamboo pipelines connected oil wells with salt springs.


19734.  Wed May 11, 2005 5:07 am Reply with quote

Question: To which of these do you not add sugar if you want to make it sweeter?

Castor oil
Crude oil
Coconut oil

A: Crude oil.

The oil industry classifies "crude" by the location of its origin (e.g., "West Texas Intermediate, WTI" or "Brent") and often by its relative weight or viscosity ("light", "intermediate" or "heavy"); refiners may also refer to it as "sweet", which means it contains relatively little sulfur, or as "sour", which means it contains substantial amounts of sulfur and requires more refining in order to meet current product specifications.


19735.  Wed May 11, 2005 5:17 am Reply with quote

For those of you wondering why crude oil is so important, here is a very good summary and chemistry lesson to boot.

In refining, the component chemicals of petroleum are separated by distillation. Products based on refined crude oil include kerosene, benzene, gasoline, paraffin wax, asphalt, etc. Subtler techniques, such as gas chromatography, HPLC, and GC-MS, can separate some fractions of petroleum into individual compounds.

Strictly speaking, petroleum consists of hydrocarbons: compounds of hydrogen and carbon; and non-hydrocarbon fractions: compounds which might also include nitrogen, sulfur, oxygen, or traces of metals such as vanadium or nickel.

The four lightest alkanes — CH4 (methane), C2H6 (ethane), C3H8 (propane) and C4H10 (butane) — are all gases, boiling at -161.6°C, -88.6°C, -42°C, and -0.5°C, respectively (-258.9°, -127.5°, -43.6°, and +31.1° F).

The chains in the C5-7 range are all light, easily vaporized, clear naphthas. They are used as solvents, dry cleaning fluids, and other quick-drying products. The chains from C6H14 through C12H26 are blended together and used for gasoline. Kerosene is made up of chains in the C10 to C15 range, followed by diesel fuel/heating oil (C10 to C20) and heavier fuel oils as the ones used in ship engines. These petroleum compounds are all liquid at room temperature.

Lubricating oils and semi-solid greases (including Vaseline®) range from C16 up to C20.

Chains above C20 form solids, starting with paraffin wax, then tar and asphaltic bitumen.

Boiling ranges of petroleum atmospheric pressure distillation fractions in degrees Celsius:

petrol ether: 40 - 70 °C (used as solvent)
light petrol: 60 - 100 °C (automobile fuel)
heavy petrol: 100 - 150 °C (automobile fuel)
light kerosene: 120 - 150 °C (household solvent and fuel)
kerosene: 150 - 300 °C (jet engine fuel)
gas oil: 250 - 350 °C (Diesel fuel/ heating)
lubrication oil: > 300 °C (engine oil)
remaining fractions: tar, asphalt, residual fuel


19737.  Wed May 11, 2005 5:35 am Reply with quote

And the most obvious question...

Question: From which country does the US, on average, import the most crude oil?
Saudi Arabia
F: Saudia Arabia
Answer: Canada


Saudi Arabia has only overtaken Canada as the chief exporter to the US since the beginning of the year. For most of the past two decades Canada has been the chief exporter of crude oil to the US.

19760.  Wed May 11, 2005 7:05 am Reply with quote

Great stuff. Thank you Icarus.

I've written it up as a question for the show.

19793.  Wed May 11, 2005 8:27 am Reply with quote

On the History of Crude oil, from the Chevron/Texaco website:

There were few takers of the 19th century elixir that came to be called "snake oil." It was one of the less successful uses of petroleum, but not the first to claim healing properties. Ancient Persians, 10th century Sumatrans and pre-Columbian Indians all believed that crude oil had medicinal benefits. Marco Polo found it used in the Caspian Sea region to treat camels for mange, and the first oil exported from Venezuela (in 1539) was intended as a gout treatment for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

The mysterious oil that sometimes seeped to the earth's surface had other uses as well. In Mesopotamia around 4000 B.C., bitumen - a tarry crude - was used as caulking for ships, a setting for jewels and mosaics, and an adhesive to secure weapon handles. Egyptians used it for embalming, and the walls of Babylon and the famed pyramids were held together with it. The Roman orator Cicero carried a crude-oil lamp. And, in North America, the Senecas and Iroquois used crude oil for body paint and for ceremonial fires.

Until the late 19th century, an oil find often was met with disinterest or dismay. Pioneers who settled the American West dug wells to find water or brine, a source of salt; they were disappointed when they struck oil.

19858.  Wed May 11, 2005 10:38 am Reply with quote

An even trickier question.

Q:What do these three things have in common?


A: they are all grades of crude oil.


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