Forget JR or Bobby Ewing from Dallas – forget JD Rockerfeller even, because the oil industry has its humble beginnings way back in 1859 by way of the dogged determination and chance success of an ex-railroad conductor called Edwin Drake.
Drake was responsible for drilling the first oil well for commercial use in Titus, Pennsylvania, USA. Before then, oil had been gathered for centuries around, ‘seeps,’ which were places where oil rose naturally from the ground. The main problem with this type of oil extraction method was that it didn’t yield anywhere near the required amounts for oil’s growing use at the time.
Drake’s success precipitated the birth of the oil industry and men like JD Rockerfeller went on to monopolise the business and become some of the wealthiest individuals in the history of mankind.
Edwin Drake was born in 1819 in New York State and after working various odd jobs in his early life, he landed a job as a railway conductor in 1850.
After a seven year stint on the tracks, he became ill and left due to his failing health.
It was a chance encounter with two men in a hotel who were forming the world’s first oil company, that led to Drake becoming employed by them for no reason other than the fact that he was looking for work and was able to travel for free on the railways due to his previous job.
Drake’s role was to travel to-and-fro across rural Pennsylvania inspecting the seeps where George H. Bissell and Jonathan G. Eveleth were collecting their oil from the ground.
As Drake became embroiled ever deeper in the oil game, he devoted himself to finding a way to increase production at oil seeps by digging into the ground to get the oil – an early attempt ended in failure as his mine shaft flooded.
He then hit upon the idea of using techniques employed by people who drilled into the ground looking for salt. After much experimentation, he found that iron, ‘drive pipes,’ could be forced into the shale through to where the oil deposits likely existed.
The well that Drake constructed became known as, ‘Drake’s Folly,’ by an amused local population who doubted his methods had a chance of succeeding, but with persistence and a bit of help from a Blacksmith named William “Uncle Billy” Smith, Drake persevered.
On August 27th 1859, Drake’s well finally hit a depth of 69 feet, at which point they stopped digging and retired for the day. Upon his return to work the next morning, Uncle Billy noticed that oil had risen up through the well and shortly afterwards Drake’s well was regularly producing a steady flow. The idea had worked!
Drake’s well was soon producing 400 gallons of pure oil every 24 hours, thus making it the largest producer in the world at the time.
The problem for Drake however, was that he never patented his idea. Other people were therefore free to use the methods that he had invented and within a couple of years, the Pennsylvania oil boom led to some wells producing several thousand gallons per day.
The massive increase in production served to depress the price of oil to such an extent that Drake and his employers were eventually put out of business.
Drake left the oil business and lived out most of the rest of his life in poverty, whereas others like JD Rockerfeller went on to enjoy unimaginable wealth off the back of Drake’s humble inventiveness.
One can only speculate on how different life would have been for Edwin Drake if he had patented his drill bit design back in the 19th century, but every time you get into your car and start the engine up, take a second to think about the man that made every journey you take possible.
Edwin Drake, a retired railway conductor with no knowledge of Engineering or Geology who found a way to extract oil from the ground. It’s a shame he wasn’t as determined about his patent applications as he was with his digging.