A few weeks ago I received an unsolicited copy of Peter Doran’s new book, Breaking Rockefeller. I flicked it open and read the first few pages at my local watering hole, expecting it to be a narrow academic treatise covering the well-worn track of the breakup of Standard Oil.
How wrong I was. And gladly so. Doran’s book turns out to be an expansive and engaging overview of the first tumultuous decades of the oil industry. His vigorous prose and persuasive narrative manage to capture all of the major players and events of that industry’s first 50 years (long before Middle Eastern oil came to dominate the conversation).
All of the key characters are brought to life, men of great ambition and drive — Rockefeller of Standard Oil, Samuel of Shell, Deterding of Royal Dutch, and the Rothschilds with their Russian oil. Doran also provides the context for the numerous technological firsts of the energy industry — the first gusher, the first pipeline, the first oil tanker, the first global oil commodity price — and several more.
He also paints some vivid pictures of what went on in that Wild West that was the 19th-century oil industry, such as when oil producers (in that preautomobile age) would simply burn off that noxious and bothersome petroleum by-product called gasoline, as they focused on kerosene production to fuel the world’s lamps.
Throughout Breaking Rockefeller, Doran never strays from the two central forces that drove the industry’s narrative, and do to this day — technology and greed.
In conclusion, in my blog-post bio I used to tell readers who want to understand the history of the oil industry to read famed oil historian Daniel Yergin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Prize. I still do. But now I say that they should read Doran’s Breaking Rockefeller too.
It really is a ripping nonfiction yarn that illuminates the oil industry’s formative years.
British editorial veteran Stuart Hampton has been covering oil and gas companies for Hoover’s since the Neogene-Quaternary period. Well, actually, since the early 1990s. For the best overview of the oil industry and its history, he recommends Peter Doran’s “Breaking Rockefeller” and Daniel Yergin’s “The Prize.” You can also follow Stuart on Twitter.
Photo courtesy Orange County Archives.