Friday, September 18, 2015

"Bitumen: Its Varieties, Properties, and Uses" by Lieut. H. Wager Halleck

Henry W. Halleck
I am always delighted when my vocation and avocation cross paths. When I was researching some background information on General Henry Halleck, I discovered he had compiled information on bitumen. Halleck performed his research in 1841 under the direction of Colonel Joseph G. Totten, Chief Engineer of the Corps of Engineers.  Halleck described his report "Bitumen: Its Varieties, Properties, and Uses" as "an abstract of all the important publications, within the compiler's reach, on the properties and uses of bitumen."

Halleck began his paper by mentioning the ancient uses of bitumen and petroleum.  He divided bitumen into solids and liquids.  "When liquid, they are sometimes yellowish or brownish, and sometimes limpid and transparent: the more solid varieties are black or brown." Bitumens  "burn easily and with a bright flame, yielding a thick smoke."
Halleck listed the different "varieties" of bitumen including naphtha, which is used for illumination, curing rheumatism, preserving potassium, and in combination with caoutchouc (natural or India rubber) water proofing textiles. The next variety is petroleum, which Halleck said, is "much more abundant than naphtha." He said that it was found in "secondary rocks, particularly in coal strata, and in the vicinity of beds of coal." It was mined by digging deep pits and retrieving the liquids in buckets from the bottom. This may remind readers of a scene from "There Will Be Blood" in which the oil was recovered in the same fashion. Interestingly, Halleck notes that the surrounding soil contains clay, limestone, and sand. These are the types of rocks where geoscientists find crude oil today. Oil mined in very deep pits was found to contain gas, which we identify today as associated gas. Halleck cites a number of different uses including illumination, fuel, and lubrication.   The next variety identified by Halleck is mineral tar, which the author says, is really only a mixture of asphaltum and petroleum. Asphaltum is dry and solid and in biblical times it was referred to as Jews' pitch.  It was used to seal the bottom of ships, as a coal substitute, and to pave roads. Halleck then mentions pitch, which he describes as "intermediate between" mineral tar and asphaltum.
Joseph G. Totten
The report also describes  retinaphaltum, which is "a brownish yellow" color "of different shades, sometimes with a shade of red" that is  found "adhering to brown coal or lignite."  Other varieties identified by Halleck include fossil copal that was found in a "bed of blue clay" and hatchetine that has the "hardness of soft tallow."
The second chapter contains definitions of mastics (adhesives, cements, and pastes) and indicates how mineral tar and asphaltic stone were used to form bituminous or petroleum-based mastics. The next chapter contains "remarks on the geological character of the asphaltic rock and mineral tar of the Val-de Travers." The rest of the report is essentially a manual on the preparation and use of bituminous mastics in construction of roads, sidewalks, roofs, and other projects.

Please click on the link to read the complete report, "Bitumen: Its Varieties, Properties, and Uses." 
This paper was written in 1841, eighteen years before Edwin Drake drilled for and discovered oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania. 

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