200th birthday anniversary of Ignacy Łukasiewicz

The graphic shows a portrait of Ignacy Łukasiewicz, who is wearing an elegant tailcoat and sitting on a carved wooden chair. Next to him, there is a table with tools used for petroleum distillation and a fat notebook with handwritten notes.

Portrait of Ignacy Łukasiewicz. Photo retrieved from the public domain

200 years ago, in March 1822, Ignacy Łukasiewicz was born – a pioneer of the petrochemical industry and a prominent social activist and philanthropist. To commemorate the contribution of the inventor of the paraffin lamp to the development of Polish economy, as well as his strenuous efforts in fighting for independence, the Polish Sejm has adopted a resolution to make him the patron of 2022. The AGH UST also wishes to mark the achievements of Ignacy Łukasiewicz by shedding some light on some interesting bits of his life.

Łukasiewicz was born in Zaduszniki in the Podkarpackie Province, to a patriotic family the head of which was Józef – a veteran of the Kościuszko’s uprising. Already in his youth, Ignacy himself has been involved in activities revolving around regaining independence by Poland. His conspiratorial actions have brought the attention of the occupiers on him. Therefore, after finding Łukasiewicz a politically suspicious citizen, the authorities had him arrested and imprisoned in Lviv. After being released, he received police supervision and a ban on leaving the city, which he was eventually able to nullify with the help of Piotr Mikolasch, the owner of a famous chemist’s Pod Złotą Gwiazdą [Under a Gold Star], where he was employed as a chemist’s helper. The regained ability to travel did not come to naught. He made use of it to study at the Jagiellonian University and the University of Vienna, which resulted in the obtaining of the title of Master of Pharmacy. After many years of education, Ignacy returned to the chemist’s in Lviv and was promoted to the position of assistant.

Birth of the petroleum industry

Together with his colleague Jan Zeh, the young chemist with a newly obtained degree began intensive research into petroleum distillation, which they had initiated to find a remedy (the so-called oleum petroleum). These ambitious plans went up in flames, figuratively speaking; however, during the experiments, the scientists have managed to obtain purifed oil, that is, a fraction of petroleum devoid of heavy hydrocarbons. The greatness of Łukasiewicz’s idea relied on the use of the distilled substance to light rooms – to make it happen, he ordered a lamp from a famous Lviv tinsmith Adam Bratkowski, which, unlike contemporary oil lamps, provided strong light and did not produce smoke. The day when Ignacy’s invention lit the operating theater of a hospital in Lviv – June 31, 1853 – is the day the Polish petroleum industry was born. Soon after, the chemist moved near Gorlice, areas rich in oil reservoirs, where he and his partners started their first businesses.

The photo shows the statue of Ignacy Łukasiewicz in Lviv, who gazes out of a window of a tenement, looking at the statue of his colleague Jan Zeh.

The statue of Ignacy Łukasiewicz in Lviv. Photo by Dreamstime

Local businesses and global fame

After nearly a year since his ground-breaking discovery, Ignacy Łukasiewicz launched a mine in Bóbrka near Krosno, which continues to operate today. In the following years, he gradually expanded the mine with refineries and petroleum processing plants. Extracting oil and its dexterous applications have brought Łukasiewicz not only a fortune, but also fame that travelled far beyond the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Refiners from throughout Europe, as well as from across the pond, were coming in streams to Łukasiewicz with the urgent desire to get to know the ropes of obtaining paraffin or other distillates of such superb quality. A legend says that the employees of the one and only John Rockefeller have paid the Pole a visit one day, offering Łukasiewicz a king’s ransom for sharing his know-how. To their unspeakable surprise, Ignacy took them to his garden and thoroughly explained all stages of petroleum distillation, wanting nothing in return. He believed that this knowledge belongs to all humans and only asked the Americans to allocate a portion of their profits to charity.

The photo shows the Jan Zeh monument in Lviv. It consists of a table with a paraffin lamp on it and two chairs standing on two opposite sides. One of the chairs is occupied by a man in a long coat who is leaning on the table with his right hand.

The monument of Jan Zeh in Lviv. Photo by Dreamstime

Philanthropy and social activism

History remembers Łukasiewicz as a generous philanthropist and a social activist. The fortune he accumulated, he spent on building and maintaining road and river infrastructures, hospitals and schools – for example, he founded a school for future drillers. He was also involved in battling alcoholism among his workers, which was a major social issue in the neighbouring villages. To improve their material status, he established provident associations, which disbursed money in the event of crippling injuries and diseases, as well as other financial associations that introduced – given his times – a unique employee insurance system. The inventor was thus way ahead of his epoch, not only due to his innovative technological solutions, but also his activity in the socio-economic field. One might argue that he has actually been the first to promote today’s corporate social responsibility. Thanks to his attitude and pro-social activism, his neighbours have nicknamed him Father Ignacy; his funeral, in turn, was an event that gathered more than 4,000 people.

The picture shows a historical photograph of the first oil wells in Galicia. It presents tall towers, working men, and entrepreneurs.

First oil wells in Galicia. Photo retrieved from the public domain

Continuation of research and development work

The achievements of Ignacy Łukasiewicz should and do continue. The AGH UST and its Faculty of Drilling, Oil, and Gas, which has been educating students for so many years, contribute to developing and sharing this particular science and technology. Furthermore, in addition to intensive studies related to petroleum engineering and drilling, the faculty’s research profile also includes investigations on environmental issues. A modest chemist who started his own experiments in a small pharmacy laboratory in Lviv can be seen as a role model of an implementer who was able to transform his research results into practical applications serving humankind. His unparalleled involvement in the development of Polish science and economy has been recognised by naming streets, hospitals, and schools after him. He is also a patron of the AGH UST partner – the Łukasiewicz Research Network, which gathers institutes focused primarily on commercialisation of the results of research work.