Daniel Yergin: The Prize Chapter 1 Synopsis

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The chapter 1 synopsis of Daniel Yergin's book The Prize.

In 1990, Daniel Yergin composed the epic work, “The Prize.” The most concise summary of this masterpiece would be to call it “The Oil Bible.” Indeed, with 784 pages of text and almost 100 more of source material, “The Prize” is easily as thick as a Bible. But with such a long, twisting tale of international, personal, and geopolitical will grappling for the control of a single commodity, Yergin has done an excellent job of summarizing the tale. This article provides a brief synopsis of Chapter 1.

With excellent style, Daniel Yergin begins the first chapter with the following phrase: “There was the matter of the missing $526.08.” (Yergin, 19) This missing money was regarding a for-pay research project undertaken by Benjamin Silliman, Jr. in the quest for supplemental income. Silliman Jr. was hard up for cash at a time when cash was not easy to get, and his professor’s pay was not meeting his needs. To fill the gap, he agreed to research a project from an investment group headed by George Bissell, the man who Yergin describes as the father of the oil industry.

Bissell’s investment group was trying to figure out if they could make a decent lighting fuel out of “rock oil,” the name for an oily black substance known to be found in springs in the hills of Pennsylvania. They hired Benjamin to provide a study explaining if the substance provided a feasible lighting fluid. The problem was, he hadn’t been paid, and he refused to release his study until he had been paid at least $100 in advance.

Silliman’s fee, though $5000 in 1990 dollars, was worth more than gold. Silliman reported that, by boiling rock oil, it can be separated into fractions, and one of these is useful as excellent illuminating oil. What Silliman discovered was the process of fractional distillation; it is this process that is used today (in a distillation tower) to isolate myriad petroleum products including tar, various types of gasoline, mineral oils, and other products. Basically, Silliman’s discovery was priceless.

The next question was whether rock oil could be gathered in sufficient quantity to form an adequate supply. Thus began a movement towards the modern oil industry of today, with companies searching for ways to find the resource and tap it from the ground. Yergin mentions that salt boring techniques had been developed in China more than a thousand years before (Yergin, 25), and it was to these ideas that Bissell and his associates turned in order to stake their claim in the oil industry.


Yergin, Daniel. The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.


Beverly Anne Sanchez
Posted on Feb 28, 2011
carol roach
Posted on Feb 28, 2011