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Special Collections: Environmental History

A guide to resources related to environmental history that are housed in the Eberly Family Special Collections Library.

Energy History

Collections focused on nuclear energy history primarily relate to Penn State's role as a hub for nuclear engineering research, which began in 1953 when Penn State President, Milton Eisenhower (the U.S. President's brother) approved funding for a research reactor on campus. Many of our collections are the research papers of faculty in engineering, who often held prominent national roles related to nuclear energy research and policy. Some of our collections speak to the environmental health impacts of nuclear energy. The partial reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island, located a approximately 100 miles from Penn State, raised concern and awareness about the potential dangers of commercial nuclear energy production.


Penn State Special Collections Library has several archival collections related to the history of solar energy technology and development, most prominent among them being the records of the American Solar Energy Society.

Image from brochure for Veedol Motor Oil describes the history of Tide Water Oil Company and the construction of the Tidewater pipeline, 1879, which transported crude oil from the northeast Pennsylvania oilfields.


The modern commercial petroleum industry can be traced to Titusville, Pennsylvania, where Edwin Drake successfully drilled his first oil well in 1859. By 1865, the United States produced seven thousand barrels of crude oil per day, most of it in Pennsylvania, where each barrel would sell for over six dollars. In the decade after Drake launched the industry, the United States became the first and largest producer of petroleum, accounting for 85 percent of the world’s crude oil by the 1880’s.

Since its first commercial production of oil in 1859, Pennsylvania has hosted many “firsts” in oil and gas innovation. Pittsburgh was home to one of the world’s first oil refineries in 1853. Hydraulic fracturing methods have been a central component to Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale natural gas boom in the early 2000’s, but well fracturing is a technique that began in the early Pennsylvania oil fields, with the use of nitroglycerin torpedoes. The first oil pipelines are believed to have been constructed to bust labor unions (crude oil being previously loaded into whiskey barrels and transported via barge or rail). 

Our collections mainly focus on this Pennsylvania history.

The Special Collections Library also holds numerous rare publications from and about the early Pennsylvania oil industry. These items can be found by searching in the Library catalog, and narrowing the search results to "Special Collections Library."

For more information see: Special Collections catalog search results for OIL (excluding the word "painting")