Looking for the lamp or the tale about Ukrainian Aladdin

When Aladdin was searching for his magic lamp, he couldn't imagine what he would take out from the heart of the earth. As each tale, this one also has a reference to reality, because not a single fairy tale appears from nothing. And no light could burn from nothing but after long and exhausting searching and trials... 

The history of getting (as well as refinement, treatment and application) 'the earth blood' – the oil – from the ground, and creating the first kerosene lamp is as exciting and interesting, as mythical Aladdin's 'pilgrimage' is.

The roots

The 'rock oil, running out of stone' and its power was first mentioned in 1534 in the chronicles of Stephan Falimir. At that time oil was used to smear the wheels or in medical purposes, and no doubt, its meaning hardly could be compared with the current one. We can’t speak about the level of industry till 18th century.

The official date of oil birth (just as the oil) is considered to be 1771, when people were digging out a salt mine and suddenly instead of salt they found an oil spring at the depth of 25 m. But according to modern standards, it could be called industry very nominally: besides imagining new possibilities, it was also crucial to learn special methods of treatment, refinement and spreading it to every house. And it would take a long time and much research.

The time for this came only at the end of the 19th century and it's connected with Jan Zeh's name, Lviv's former pharmacist. Ukrainian Aladdin, a living legend, who took the light out from the underground. The basis of Zeh’s technology is used even today, rated the director of Oil and Gas Research Institute, Professor J. R. Zarubin.

Discoveries and research

As Jan Zeh was a searcher so he was an inventor: in 1853 he applied to the Lviv's government for a patent for the oil chemical filtering, and the record show, that it was not his first invention. Documents of the Austrian and Lviv records inform: 'Invention on the basis of the mountain oil on chemical basis, which could be used for technical needs'.

At the same time, another name is mentioned  Gnat Lukashevych. Some researchers state that he is connected with the invention of the gas lamp – so, they remind, documents inform… But if someone learn this fact in details, he would see the deficiency of this theory: first of all, he was 5 years younger than Jan Zeh; secondly, contemporaries say he was only an assistant in a drugstore of Mykoljash, where he 'in off-hours devoted himself to the Galichina’s (a region in the west of Ukraine) oil and helped Jan Zeh' (The editor of "Chasopys" Dr. Dundin Vasovich). Some time after Jan Zeh and Gnat Lukashevych had obtained a few barrels of oil and conducted a successful experiment on its refinement and distillation.

At the same time, the first gas lamp appeared and lighted not one victory on the surgical table in the battle for human life. The company of 'Mykoljash, Lukashevych and Zeh' signs an agreement with the community hospital in Lviv on lighting it with gas lamps. The lamps were made by famous Lviv's lamp master Adam Bratkovsky. July 31st, 1853, at night the first surgical operation has been lighted up with the newly-made lamp…

Actually the essence of Jan Zeh’s discovery is a rather simple chemical process, as a result of which the oil is refined from impurities: at first, it should be distilled to a special substance, and then is mixed with sulfuric acid. After settling the upper part of substances should be separated and refined with calcium hydroxide and water. The other part of the distillate could be used for lighting lamps, greasing the skin etc.

So, such a rather simple chain of interactions had caused actually revolutionary results. Everything genius is simple, and often the most important things could be found quit nearby. So it’s logical that such method of quality oil refinement got the deserved acknowledgement on an international level. A confirmation of that fact is a diploma from the exhibition in Munich, which Zeh received in the middle of the 19th century. The researcher told that as the result of it “gas lamps had appeared like mushrooms after the rain and they lighted every second”. Almost each window in the Boryslav lighted at night with the distilled substance and “there were only a few farmers in the countryside, who were indifferent to the new gas house holding”.

The other side of the medal

Jan Zeh went on with the producing gas and selling it in Lviv. But as his discovery presented him an acknowledgement, the situation was quite different from his finance wellness: similar manufactures appeared soon in Lviv, Boryslav and in other cities. Perhaps it is natural, that one person is talented in management, the other one in inventing the light. Zeh hadn’t become a successful businessman… “…it’s not a wonder that, speaking in general, I couldn’t use the privilege I’ve got. I couldn’t get any capital for a big concern or people to work, but I was glad that lots of my compatriots got the profits from my work and mind. After getting the privilege I supposed just to secure my freedom of choice of the place of distillation and of selling the distilled gas. But I never thought about a monopoly in this sphere of the local industry… Someone got happiness with the work another had made, the other one knew nothing but hard work and should get over different troubles in life”.

But financial problems were not the greatest in Zeh’s life. Fire not only gives light and warmness. On the 12th of February 1858, a great fire happened in Jan Zeh’s store. It took the life of his wife and her younger sister. After the accident, the researcher left inventions and gas activity and turned back to pharmaceutics.

But life must go on despite everything. Some time passed and Jan tried to arrange his gas business again and renew the family life. The next year his store and yard moved to another street, and the marriage with Miss Oblochynska gave him two daughters… In 1875 Jan Zeh won a competition for concession of making a drugstore in a Boryslav, which he did it in March 1876.

The last records mentioned about Galichina’s Aladdin, is the necrology of “Lviv’s courier” on 29th January 1879: “J. Zeh the owner of the drugstore in Boryslav had ascended to heaven at the age of 80. The late man had been the first who started the rational distillation of gas and got for this a letter of commendation at the exhibition in Munich in 1852. He was also the only person who had given the start to the creation of local gas distillations concerns”.

His colleges and the successors of his business Gnat Lukashevych and Adam Bratkovsky had been luckier in their business. Lukashevych provided the same method of oil distillation as Jan Zeh did (but recognising the leadership of his companion in this field). But during the life of Zeh he organised his own business and he stayed close to Krosenskiy pull and provided the oil from his own mines. Gnat had gotten the image of noble and disinterested person, he “…improved the conditions of the workers without any special laws”, – the necrology informs. Bratkovsky, as was told before, made all his best for the gas light, and Jan Zeh noted it. The first gas lamp he made was intended for Mikoljash’s drugstore, some time later the lamps for household needs had appeared. The main “spice” of it was the instrument for regulation of the wick. Not one student and professor provided their research at night with the help of these lamps. But as Bratkovsky hadn’t got a patent for his lamps, so we don’t know what they looked like…


Millions of years the fire has been a god. After Prometheus’s feat, the clearest heads went on to tame it and to reincarnate its energy for serving people. The “king of nature” drives in the comfortable cars, flies in the Space, warms up or refreshes his house, casts metal and makes a coffee… And at the same time in some lost regions of Africa and Australia, someone went on with offerings and worships of the element. Today the oil is not only energy and progress but also a great power and a cart Blanche, power close to god’s one…

And so we can say that the evolutional process had changed just its form. It the same time the meaning of fire and fuel hadn’t changed since the age in which the first strings of smoke ran under primordial man’s hands after rubbing of the sticks…

Olena Maksymenko

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