The market for oil remained confined to lighting and lubricants until, in 1886, the internal combustion engine and demand for gasoline arrived with Karl Benz and the first Mercedes. By now the Samuel business had passed to Marcus Samuel junior and his brother Sam. They exported British machinery, textiles and tools to newly industrialising Japan and the Far East and on return imported rice, silk, china and copperware to the Middle East and Europe. In London, they traded in commodities such as sugar, flour and wheat worldwide.
It was during a trip to Japan that Marcus became interested in the oil exporting business based in Baku, Azerbaijan, which was part of Russia at that time. The Rothschilds had invested heavily in the 1880s in rail and tunnels to overcome the transport difficulties of getting oil from this landlocked base to the Black Sea and from there to overseas markets. Shipping still posed a problem as the oil was carried in barrels, which could leak and took up much space in the ship’s hold.
During World War I Shell became the main fuel supplier of the British Expeditionary Force and benefitted from increased motor car use after the war. By the end of the 1920s Shell was the world’s leading oil company and founded Shell Chemicals. The 1930s Depression forced Shell to reduce its staff, and World War II led to the destruction of many of its properties.