Crude oil—or petroleum—has been used since ancient times for several purposes, mostly for dimly lighting up buildings and streets. Only after inventing the fractional distillation of oil and discovering vast mineral oil fields under the ground and sea in the 19th and 20th centuries, petroleum became the most important material for the modern nations, who could fuel all their cars, airplanes, boats—and, of course, tanks, bombers, and warships that helped make the world safe for more oil consumption.

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Oil surely has changed our civilization forever, just like oil-drilling facilities changed nature and the landscape, even in the very hearts of our cities. These images from the beginning of the 20th century are shocking examples of how brutally the human race can transform natural scenery into something un-earthly and almost totally alien.

Oil wells of the Petroleum Production Company Nobel Brothers Ltd., a.k.a. Branobel, in Baku, Azerbaijan, c. 1875-1920. Branobel was one of the largest oil companies in the world at that time.

Photo: Unknown/Tekniska museet

Photo: Unknown/Tekniska museet

Photo: Unknown/Tekniska museet

Photo: A.W. Cronquist/Tekniska museet

Photo: A.W. Cronquist/Tekniska museet

Photo: Unknown/Tekniska museet

Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images


Oil wells, Spindletop Field, Beaumont, Texas, c. 1901.

Photo: Library Of Congress

Photo: Library Of Congress

A section of the Spindletop Field, c. 1901, when wells were drilled so close together above a huge underground oil pool that a man could walk a mile stepping from one derrick floor to another.

Photo: AP


Oil derricks in a Los Angeles oil field at Court Street and Toluca Street, 1904. These wells had been producing for over 40 years when this photo was taken (1904).

Photo: USC Libraries


Dozens of oil derricks rising out of the coastal Pacific Ocean at Summerland, Santa Barbara, California, as viewed from the north, c. 1904.

Photo: Charles C. Pierce/USC Libraries


Monte Cristo Oil Company, Kern County, California, c. 1910.

Photo: West Coast Art Co./Library Of Congress


California's great gusher, c. 1910.

Photo: West Coast Art Co./Library Of Congress


Petroleum Development Co., Kern River, c. 1910.

Photo: West Coast Art Co./Library Of Congress


Santa Fe Lease, c. 1910.

Photo: West Coast Art Co./Library Of Congress


"The world's wonder oil field" with over 850 producing wells. Burkburnett, Texas, c. 1919.

Photo: Almeron Newman Photographic Co./Library Of Congress

A panoramic view of Burkburnett, Texas, 1919, with amazing details.

Photo: W.H. Raymond/Library Of Congress


Goose Creek, Texas, 1917 and 1919.

Photo: Frank J. Schlueter/Library Of Congress

Photo: Frank J. Schlueter/Library Of Congress


Pumping oil out of the Pacific Ocean at Summerland, c. 1920.

Photo: Library Of Congress


Oilfield at Venice, California, c. 1920.

Photo: Keystone/Getty Images


1922: Panoramic view of a residential neighborhood in Long Beach, Los Angeles, facing north and east, with the Signal Hill oil field in the background.

Photo: WPA


Long Beach oil field, California, May 1923.

Photo: Mining Oil Bulletin/Library Of Congress


Oil wells in Signal Hill, at Long Beach, c. 1925.

Photo: USC Libraries


The former British owned Bibi Eibat oil wells, Azerbaijan, Aug. 10, 1927, by the Soviet Government at the time of the Revolution.

Photo: AP


View of Long Beach Boulevard passing through the Signal Hill oil district, Los Angeles, 1930.

Photo: USC Libraries


A view of oil wells in California, near Los Angeles, c. 1935.

Photo: Keystone/Getty Images


Oil well boilers with church and oil derricks in the background, Kilgore, Texas, 1939.

Photo: Russell Lee/Library Of Congress


A field of oil wells in Baicoi, Romania, c. 1945.

Photo: Three Lions/Getty Images


Undated photograph of Venice, California, oil wells.

Photo: USC Libraries


And a bonus GIF created from a stereo image of Spindletop, Beaumont, Texas, c. 1915.

Photo: Keystone View Company/NYPL