Review of Peter B. Doran's “Breaking Rockefeller: The Incredible Story of the Ambitious Rivals Who Toppled an Oil Empire”

tags: book review, Peter B Doran, Breaking Rockefeller

Robert Parmet is professor of history at York College of the City University of NY.

This book is a special delight for an entrepreneur and a great read for everyone else. It has a readily recognizable villain, John D. Rockefeller, whose Standard Oil Trust controlled 90 percent of the oil industry in the late nineteenth century. Creating their own empires, independent of Rockefeller, were a handful of entrepreneurial heroes. Through amazing resourcefulness their efforts brought about a major rival, Royal Dutch/Shell, and the dissolution of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. The leaders of the challenge included first and foremost an Englishman, Marcus Samuel, Jr. Known as “The Merchant of Houndsmith,” which was a not quite respectable East London neighborhood, Samuel turned his family’s business of importing and dealing shells into what was initially the Shell Transportation and Trading Company. In the Netherlands, Henri Deterding transformed what had begun as the East Sumatra Petroleum Company into the Royal Dutch Oil Company. In 1908 Royal Dutch and Shell combined forces to pose significant competition for the Standard Oil Trust. In 1911 the United States Supreme Court broke up that monopoly.

Following the death of Marcus Samuel in 1927, Doran sadly notes, his family acted on instructions he had left beforehand and “promptly burned his archive.” It was “an egregious blow to history,” depriving future biographers of potentially invaluable primary source material. However, working largely with contemporary newspapers and numerous secondary accounts, Doran was able to produce a remarkably detailed story.

He begins with the birth of the oil industry in the United States and John D. Rockefeller’s subsequent dominance of it by eliminating competition. Then he recounts the rise of the European entrepreneurs and their operations. With special pleasure, it seems, he traces the global side of the industry, from England to the Caspian and Black Seas, devoting a chapter to Samuel’s achievement in building a bulk tanker, the Murex, to take petroleum through the Suez Canal. Doran identifies far-flung drilling sites and trade routes. He also offers eight pages of photographs, but sadly no maps.

At his best Doran demonstrates a firm command of oil technology. For example, in addition to overcoming distance, the entrepreneurs often had to contend with salt water in the oil fields. Entertainingly he also tells of America’s early twentieth century attraction to petroleum, especially its application to airplanes and automobiles. With great delight Doran describes Glenn M. Curtiss’s 1910 Albany to New York flight in an "aeroplane.” That trip earned the aviator a prize of $10,000 from Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

Doran also devotes several pages to Ida M. Tarbell, whose History of Standard Oil, critical of Rockefeller,appeared in 1903. His discussion of her personal background and the means by which she gained access to information on Standard Oil is fascinating, and he even mentions her prowess as a popular biographer of figures other than Rockefeller, such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln. Surprisingly, however, he neglects to identify her as a leading “muckraker” who helped define the ‘Progressive Era” at the turn of the twentieth century.” Furthermore, her critique of Rockefeller was preceded in 1894 by another major attack, Henry Demarest Lloyd’s Wealth Against Commonwealth, which also goes unmentioned.

Similarly curious is Doran’s treatment of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. This “sweeping piece of legislation," which outlawed devices “in restraint on [sic] trade,” was notable for the vagueness of its language and required reinforcement via the Clayton Act of 1914. Moreover, the law was also used against organized labor, as early as 1908 in the Danbury Hatters’ Case. The 1914 legislation granted labor exemption from such prosecution. As for the 1911 decision against Standard Oil, the Supreme Court ruled only against “unreasonable” restraint of trade, thereby attaching a restrictive “rule of reason” to prosecutions. In other words, the Sherman Act did not devastate big business.

In his concluding chapter, Doran abandons the world of Rockefeller and scans the “twenty-first-century energy horizon.” His solution to the problem of securing sufficient future energy is essentially twofold, governmental deregulation and shale gas. He sees the latter as standing “at the threshold of a new, revolutionary change in transportation and power generation.” It is, he claims, the energy future. He may be correct, but is perhaps also premature. “Fracking,” the breaking of ground to obtain shale gas, is environmentally controversial, and other energy alternatives, such as solar and wind power, also exist.

In sum, Breaking Rockefeller offers more than the title suggests. At its center are the oil entrepreneurs who created huge companies. The competition to produce and market oil that John D. Rockefeller strove to extinguish eventually dissolved Standard Oil. With a keen knowledge of the oil industry and a sharp pen, Peter B. Doran tells the story of the personalities and issues involved.

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