Ida Tarbell is practically the only female character in the book, and she was born in an oil-rich area in Pennsylvania. In 1904, she published The History of the Standard Oil Company. Her book decried John D. Rockefeller's business practices and monopolies. Tarbell's father, an oil producer, had almost gone bankrupt because of Rockefeller's ruthless price-fixing schemes. Nevertheless, she praised Rockefeller's patience and acumen in business. Tarbell's book helped lead to more anti-trust legislation and enforcement in the United States.
John D. Rockefeller
Born in 1839 in New York, Rockefeller was a giant in the oil industry. An outstanding business man, he was prescient enough to foresee opportunities in the oil business. By the 1860s, he had decided to specialize in oil. By 1882, he had a virtual monopoly on the commodity. He tried to avoid anti-trust measures by splitting his company into smaller parts while maintaining control of them.
This Dutch businessman was known as "the Napoleon of Oil." He served as general manager of Royal Dutch Petroleum Company from 1900 until 1936. He supplied the Allies with oil during World War I.
The influential Rothschild family established oil fields in Russia in the late 1870s and 1880s. Their Caspian and Black Sea Oil Company exported kerosene from Russia. The brothers fought for control of the world oil market.
Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, had two brothers who were active in the oil industry. The Nobels set up oilfields in Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea. Their company, Branobel, produced 50% of the world's oil at its peak. (Alfred Nobel established the Nobel Prize upon his death in 1896.)
Gulbenkian found Turkish Petroleum—later Iraq Petroleum. One of the world's most affluent men, he played an instrumental role in negotiating American concessions in Saudi Arabia.
Ahmed Zaki Yamani
One Saudi whose role is thoroughly covered is Ahmed Zaki Yamani. He was Minister of Oil for Saudi Arabia from 1962 to 1986. He was the face of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and was the author of the 1973 oil embargo.
Strongmen of the Middle East feature prominently in the work. The two who played the biggest role in the oil industry and world affairs were Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Both used oil as a weapon to threaten the West and solidify their regimes, leading to the oil embargo. The embargo helped cause an economic crisis in the West. Jimmy Carter, president form 1977 to 1981, governed at a difficult time. He emphasized energy policy and conservation.
Yergin covers other American presidents, too, especially Richard Nixon and George Bush Sr. Overwhelmed by the Vietnam War and Watergate, Nixon was not able to handle the myriad challenges of the oil embargo and the Yom Kippur War. Bush was an oil man, and his perspective on the oil industry differed from that of other policymakers.