When Did We Start Using Fossil Fuels?

According to historical records and archaeological finds, people have started using fossil fuels long before the industrial revolution. In fact, the history of the use of fossil fuels may be as old as is the history of human civilization.


Derived from the Greek word “petra” (which means stone, rock) and the Latin word “oleum” (which means oil), petroleum literally translates to “rock oil”.

Archaeologists first encountered the petroleum industry in Hit in what is now Iraq. In ancient times, this town was known for its bitumen wells. During that time, they used bitumen to construct the wall of Babylon in ancient Mesopotamia. Mesopotamians also used bitumen to caulk boats. The Sumerian civilization would use bitumen to glue their mosaic works on floors and walls.

In addition, there was evidence that Egyptians during the Graeco-Roman period would also use bitumen for embalming mummies, even though it wasn’t the typical substance to use for embalming mummies, according to the Spurlock Museum of World Cultures at Illinois. Also, the ancient Persians, pre-Columbian Indians, and Sumatrans in the 10th century believed that crude oil had medicinal benefits, and they used petroleum as a form of skin treatment.

For some time in the mid-18th century, well owners would find it a nuisance when they encountered crude oil in a well dug up to mine for salt. Because they didn’t entirely understand what use they could make of crude oil, they saw oil as an unnecessary by-product of their primary target.

However, with the advance of drilling technology and a greater understanding of the potential uses of oil, people in the middle of the 19th century began to target crude oil when drilling a well.

In the here and now, petroleum is used as transportation fuel, fuel oils for heating and electricity generation, and produces asphalt and road oil. We also use petroleum to make the chemicals, plastics, and synthetic materials in nearly everything we use.


When dead plant matter submerged in swamp environments is subjected to the geological forces of heat and pressure over time, it eventually transforms into coal, a carbon-dense black or brownish-black sedimentary rock.

It is believed that people have been using and mining coal for more than 1,000 years. Archaeological relics found in Britain suggest that coal was used during the Roman rule on the British Isles in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. In the 13th century, Marco Polo described the use of coal in China. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Europeans used coal to heat their homes after the invention of chimneys.

Fast forward to the mid-18th century, the Industrial Revolution saw the invention of the coal-powered steam engine. Soon, steamships and steam-powered trains became the means of transportation. In the first half of the 19th century, coal began to replace wood as a source for heating because coal gave off much more energy than wood and was easier to transport. Later in the 1880s, coal was first used for electricity generation in the United States. Half a century later, by the early 1960s, coal had already become the predominant energy source of U.S. electricity generation.

Now, coal is essential for electricity generation, steel production, cement manufacturing, chemical production, and many other industries.

Natural gas

Like oil, natural gas is also formed when layers of decomposing plant and animal matter are exposed to intense heat and pressure under the surface of the Earth over many years.

However, early civilizations might have been puzzled by natural gas. Sometimes, lightning strikes might ignite natural gas escaping from under the Earth’s crust and create a fire. Due to the lack of understanding of natural gas, these fires became the root of myth and superstition.

Nevertheless, the ancient Chinese civilizations and the Persians are thought to have used natural gas to heat homes. Around 500 B.C., the Chinese discovered the potential to use natural gas to their advantage. Finding places where natural gas was seeping to the surface, the Chinese formed crude pipelines out of bamboo shoots to transport the gas. By the 19th century, the predominant usage of natural gas was for lighting lamps, including streetlamps.

At the present, natural gas is used mainly for space heating, water heating and sometimes for air conditioning. Besides being an ingredient used to make fertilizer, antifreeze, plastics, pharmaceuticals and fabrics, it is also used to manufacture a wide range of chemicals such as ammonia, methanol, butane, ethane, propane, and acetic acid. On top of that, natural gas is used as a heat source in making glass, steel, cement, bricks, ceramics, tile, paper, food products and many other commodities.

As we all know, oil, coal and natural gas are now the principal energy sources in the world. Unfortunately, these fossil fuels are non-renewable energy sources. Their carbon emissions have also brought a significantly negative impact on our environment. No wonder it is best that we ‘leave it in the ground’! Nevertheless, we are blessed to have the alternative of renewable energy sources such as solar energy, wind energy, hydropower, biomass and others.