Edwin L. Drake Strikes Oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania

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Edwin L. Drake Strikes Oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania


By: Anonymous

Date: 1861

Source: Corbis

About the Photographer: The black-and-white photograph accompanying this article was taken by a photographer whose identity is unknown. The photographic tech-nique employed in the subject work is similar to that used by noted American Civil War photographer Matthew Brady between 1861 and 1865.


Edwin L. Drake, the "Colonel" of the early Pennsylvania oil industry, did not discover oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania in August of 1859, so much as he proved a point—oil could be extracted from the ground in large, commercially viable quantities by drilling for it beneath the earth.

Drake was born in Greenville, New York in 1819, and his early career gave no indication that at age forty he would revolutionize the world petroleum industry. As a young man, Drake worked in a succession of railroading and sales jobs before becoming a minority shareholder in the newly formed Seneca Oil company of Pennsylvania in 1857.

Oil, in its crude and undistilled form, had been gathered by the native Seneca tribes in the vicinity of what was known as Oil Creek, in west central Pennsylvania, since the 1400s. The native people used the oil that they skimmed from the water surface by canoe as medicine and as a tar patch to repair their crafts. A significant trade in this oil had developed through the New York and Pennsylvania regions into the early nineteenth century, where the oil was used both as a liniment and as a lubricant for wagon wheels. The native practice of skimming oil from Oil Creek had grown by 1810 to a full-fledged small industry, with the raw product shipped to Pittsburgh for processing.

Oil was also an all-too-frequent contaminant in the salt wells of the regions; various entrepreneurs began to collect such oil. By 1850, crude distillation methods that processed only 5 gallons (19 liters) at a time were converting the crude oil to a refined substance variously marketed as "carbon oil" and "rock oil." This purer form was used primarily as lamp fuel, a cost-effective alternative to increasing rare whale oil that had been a staple lamp fuel for decades. Lamps were an essential aspect of American life, and it was clear that crude oil could play a much larger commercial role if there was a better way to obtain it.

Drake had observed throughout his life the operation of both salt wells and the artesian water wells employed in New York and Pennsylvania. He concluded that oil could be extracted from below the surface of the earth in the vicinity of Oil Creek using similar drilling methods. It is a remarkable aspect of Drake's efforts that he was not highly educated, nor had he any particular training or experience in geology or oil exploration.

In the spring of 1859, Drake assembled a crew to assist him, secured his equipment, and set to work to confirm his oil extraction theory. Using a 6-horse-power (4,500-watt) steam engine, a custom built drill, and a stationary boiler, Drake and his men began to drill into the earth at a rate of 3 feet (0.9 meter) per day. There was widespread incredulity regarding what was perceived as Drake's folly—the notion that oil could be extracted by drill seemed impossible.

Problems with seeping groundwater and quick-sand impeded the progress of the drilling, as the drill hole would become flooded, causing the edge of the drilling pit to collapse. Drake hit upon an ingenious solution—a cast iron pipe which was driven 32 feet (9.8 meters) into the earth, with the drill bit inserted inside the pipe so as to be unaffected by flooding water or sand.

On August 26, 1859, Drake's crew completed their work for that day—the drill had passed 69 feet (21 meters) into the ground. When work commenced on August 27, oil was found near the top of the drilling tube, and Drake was proven right—he was then the first person to successfully drill for oil. The original Drake well is believed to have produced crude oil at a rate of between 8 to 10 barrels (320 to 400 gallons, or 1,200 to 1,500 liters) per day, and it continued in production for approximately two years.

The discovery of oil in large quantities in Pennsylvania spurred the creation of a hugely profitable industry. It is one of the ironies of nineteenth-century American capitalism that Drake never profited to any great degree from his revolutionary discovery—he had failed to patent his drilling mechanism, and he was bankrupted a few years after his oil strike at Titusville. Drake died a poor man in 1880.



See primary source image.


The oil well established by Drake at Titusville in 1859 sparked a revolution, the echoes of which continue to sound across the world to this day. In the short term, western Pennsylvania became a magnet for other, more ambitious, and commercially minded men who sought to push this nascent industry forward.

By the 1880s, the commercial viability of oil exploration first proven by Edwin Drake had grown inexorably into the development of the forerunner of the modern petroleum industry. Greater quantities of oil through drilled wells led to both research into refinery techniques as well as a seeking out of other equally viable oil fields. As crude oil began to be recognized as being capable of having a multitude of useful commercial products contained within it—including gasoline—oil refining became a sophisticated, multifaceted process. It was the creation of the tremendous variety of petroleum products that was poised to alter the entire commercial structure of the world, primarily through the development of an efficient, gasoline-powered internal combustion engine. The early American petroleum industry, rooted in the sale of lamp oil and Drake's first well in Titusville, had become a world Colossus by the end of the century.

Drake's drilling techniques, revolutionary in 1859, remain the base standard for underground oil extraction today. Oil drilling has evolved from Drake's crude structure pictured here into an industry with the capability to drill many miles below the earth's surface, on land and by sea-anchored platforms—Drake's idea to drive a watertight housing into the earth in which the protected drill would operate is the essential principle at play in modern oil drilling operations.

As the Pennsylvania oil fields were the subject of an oil rush following Drake's discovery, other early oil drillers sought other fertile ground. Oil was discovered in California in Kern County in 1861, and the first great Texas oil find was identified in 1901.

It has been hypothesized by naturalists that the Drake oil well may have been a factor in saving the sperm whale from extinction. The whaling industry, based in the northeastern United States, sent its ships around the globe, seeking sperm whales to kill for their oil, which was primarily used as lamp fuel. It is believed that by the 1850s the sperm whale had been hunted close to extinction; Melville's "Moby Dick," the classic whaling saga written in 1851, is a stirring testament to the whale hunt and its utter relentlessness. Sperm oil was very expensive by the standards of Drake's time, and the availability of cheaper petroleum products with the commercialization of the oil industry helped to bring an end to commercial whaling.


Web sites

Drake Well Museum. 〈http://www.drakewell.org〉 (accessed March 8, 2006).

"Drilling Hall of Fame Directory." Drilshop.com. 〈http://www.drilshop.com/hallfame/〉 (accessed March 8, 2006).

"Pennsylvania State Archives." Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. 〈http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/bah/dam/overview.htm?secid=31〉 (accessed March 8, 2006).