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Edwin Drake

"father of the oil industry"

Edwin Laurentine Drake

Edwin Laurentine Drake was born in Greenville County, New York, on March 11, 1819, and grew up on family farms in New York and Vermont. He left home at the age of 19, and wandered the East and Midwest, working at various jobs. In 1850 he settled in New Haven, Connecticut, and became a railway conductor for the New York and New Haven Railroad. Ill health forced his retirement in 1857, but it also opened a new opportunity for him.

The opportunity came while Drake happened to be staying in the same hotel as George H. Bissell and Jonathan G. Edwards, founders of the Seneca Oil Company. The company needed someone to investigate suspected oil deposits in and around Titusville, Pennsylvania. Drake got the job because he had a free pass on the railway. Drake decided that the best way to find oil was to dig for it, but he was wrong. Although he had some success, he was only able to extract a maximum of 10 barrels a day -- not nearly enough to make a commercial yield sustainable. He next decided to try sinking huge shafts, but this method failed due to water seepage. Having studied the use of cable tools in salt-drilling, he eventually came to the conclusion that the same method could be used to drill for oil. By now, however, the Seneca Oil Company had decided that Drake's attempts were costing too much money and cut off his financing. Undeterred, Drake took out a personal line of credit in order to continue the quest.

Using an old steam engine to power the drill, Drake and his team made it to a depth of 16 feet, through several layers of gravel, before the sides of the hole began to collapse. Undeterred, Drake devised the idea of using a cast iron pipe to keep the bore hole from filling up. At 32 feet they hit bedrock. The drilling tools were now lowered through the pipe and steam was used to drill through the bedrock. The going was slow, with maximum progress being about three feet per day. By the time Drake reached bedrock crowds of people had begun to gather and jeer at the apparently unproductive operation. And, the longer it took to get through the rock, the louder and more raucous the jeers got. But Drake would finally get the last laugh.

On August 27, 1859, the drill bit reached a depth of 69.5 feet. At that point the bit hit a crevice, and the crew packed up for the day. The next morning, Drake's lead driller looked into the hole in preparation for another day's work, and was surprised to see crude oil rising up through the drill hole. Drake was summoned and the oil was brought to the surface with a hand pitcher pump and collected in a bathtub. He had just established the first commercially viable oil well in the world.

photograph showing Drake (in top hat) standing near his first well
photograph from ~1863 showing Drake (in top hat) standing near his first well

Within a day of Drake's success, other men were constructing their own oil wells nearby and imitating his drilling methods, and Drake set up a stock company to extract and market the oil from his well. Unfortunately, Drake did not possess the good business acumen that his "followers" did. He failed to patent his drilling invention, so he never collected royalties from future wells using it. Then he lost all of his savings in oil speculation in 1863. In 1872, the State of Pennsylvania granted him an annuity of $1,500.

Edwin Drake died in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on November 8, 1880.


Drake Well Museum
The Encyclopedia of Earth

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The Robinson Library >> Nonmetallic Minerals

This page was last updated on September 12, 2018.