Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.

Nearly a century and a half ago, on August 27, 1859, Edwin L. Drake struck oil near Titusville, Venango County, recognized as the world’s first commercially drilled oil well. Shortly afterwards, Joshua M. Merrill (1828–1904), a chemist in Corry, Erie County, made important discoveries in the refining of oil.

Merrill pioneered the redistillation of oil, a process known as “cracking,” to produce relatively safe and odorless petroleum-based illuminating and lubricating oils. Before the development of Merrill’s lamp oil, kerosene was the primary source for lighting. Kerosene is highly explosive, and an early alternative was sperm whale oil. Lamp oil distillate proved to be safe and it burned more efficiently; in addition, long term storage resulted in little, if any, deterioration of its quality.

Born October 6, 1828, in Duxbury, Massachusetts, Merrill was the sixth child of Abraham Dow Merrill and Nancy Morrison Merrill. After leaving school at age fifteen and working with his brother in the manufacture of paper hangings, he worked with Luther Atwood of Coup Oil to help build a coal oil plant in Glasgow, Scotland. In 1852, Atwood produced the first coal oil for sale in the United States. Merrill learned from Atwood that adding chemical additives, such as sulfuric acid and alkali, to coal oil neutralized its naturally foul odor, making it appealing for illumination. It also lowered the cost of production by reducing the number of necessary distillations.

In 1854, oil merchant Samuel Downer purchased Atwood’s patent interests and established the Downer Kerosene Oil Company in Boston. Downer named Merrill superintendent of the plant while he established other plants around the country, or leased the patent technology to other companies. Despite lacking advanced education, Merrill led the company’s chemical research. Downer and Merrill further reduced the cost of producing coal oil by switching from soda ash to caustic soda. After Drake discovered oil, Downer built the Downer Oil Works in northwestern Pennsylvania at Corry, where Merrill made some of his most significant discoveries. He successfully applied the same distillate techniques to refine crude oil that had been applied to coal oil. His development of “kerosene,” a highly volatile form of kerosene, led other inventors to apply the cracking process to develop gasoline. By 1863, the Downer Kerosene Oil Company was producing gasoline at its Boston plant under Merrill’s management.

In 1871, Downer relinquished his interest in the company, leaving Merrill to take ownership. Five years later, Merrill received an award for his refined oils and a special merit citation for excellence and quality of lubricating oils at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. He died on January 15, 1904, at his home in Boston.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) installed a state historical marker near the site of the former Downer Oil Works at Corry, dedicated on July 24, 2008. Through 2009, PHMC will observe “Energy: Innovation and Impact” as its annual theme.