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200th Anniversary of the Birth of Ignacy Łukasiewicz

On 31 July 1853, an operating theatre of a Lviv hospital was illuminated by the light of a paraffin lamp that was invented by pharmacist Ignacy Łukasiewicz and made by tinsmith Adam Bratkowski. It marked the first attempt to use the invention in a public space. What was revolutionary was not the lamp itself, but the use of paraffin to fuel it, which was obtained from crude oil by fractional distillation. The achievement was confirmed on 2 December 1853 by a patent granted by the Austrian Patent Office. It was issued in the two names of Ignacy Łukasiewicz and his associate Jan Zeh.

In addition to devising a method for obtaining paraffin and inventing the paraffin lamp, while still working at the “Pod Złotą Gwiazdą” [Under the Golden Star] pharmacy in Lviv, Łukasiewicz also developed a method for producing the Oleum Petrae album pharmaceutical preparation, which was refined crude oil used for therapeutic purposes. However, the medicine failed to face up to foreign competition and Łukasiewicz and his associate Zeh were thus forced to explore new uses of crude oil. Its refinement and obtaining paraffin triggered the development of the oil industry.

Łukasiewicz’s actions were not driven by profit maximisation. He believed oil to be “the future wealth of the country, (…) the well-being and prosperity of its inhabitants, (...) a new source of income for the poor, and a new branch of industry which shall bear plentiful fruit.”

As an ardent patriot, he took part in planning the insurrection in 1846, for which he was imprisoned and repressed. To the end of his life, he remained faithful to his pro-independence views in the spheres of both national patriotism and social activity. His attitude was manifested in his political and economic thinking, and in his social views. Łukasiewicz supported the January Insurrection. He also founded the National Oil Society. He pioneered the then innovative social insurance as well as fraternal, self-help and loan funds, and medical care. He established schools and treated his work with the people as fostering national consciousness among the peasantry.

Łukasiewicz’s inventions, the organisation of oil extraction and processing, his work and his personality earned him the recognition of posterity and place him among the leading Polish inventors and social activists of the period of the partitions.

The reverse of the coin features the image of Ignacy Łukasiewicz, the presumed prototype of the paraffin lamp, and a view of the world’s oldest oil well established by Łukasiewicz in Bóbrka.

Wojciech Kalwat