Okay – Edwin Laurentine Drake was not a trained geoscientist, but he is the reason many people still choose geology as a profession.
Yet, in spite of his having had the great idea that made modern petroleum exploration possible, Drake still died broke.
Here’s what happened.
We live in the lap of luxury today, by mid-19th century standards, and those Victorian Americans wouldn’t understand our modern concern about the environment. They were all about overcoming hardships the environment threw at them and succeeding, big time. That took a lot of energy.
People generally heated buildings with wood or coal. They used muscle for most mechanical work, and coal fueled the new steam engine market.
Indoor and outdoor lighting was a problem, though. Candles just couldn’t cut it in the Industrial Age.
Coal gas was used for street lighting and sometimes indoors.
There was whale oil, but it was expensive. Most people used camphene in their lamps – it was cheaper but dangerous. There was also coal oil (an early version of kerosene), but it sputtered and was sooty.
Sure, there was rock oil (the English translation of its Medieval Latin name – petroleum), but it was only good for things like lubricating wagon axles and mixing medications, or so people thought until around 1856, when George Bissell wondered if he could use petroleum to make a cleaner, cheaper kerosene for lamps.
A lucky break
While Bissell, a New York City lawyer, was making all the right moves – getting samples of some Pennsylvania petroleum tested, incorporating as the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company and selling stock – Edwin L. Drake, a man with far less business acumen, was trying to make ends meet.
Up until 1857, the Industrial Revolution had been good to Drake. A former farm boy from upstate New York and Vermont, he had migrated to urban areas and spent his early life around the railroads of Connecticut, working as a clerk, agent and conductor.
Then, that summer, muscular neuralgia forced Drake to retire at age 38, with two young children and a new wife after his first wife’s death. His earlier work on the railroad entitled him to free transportation for life, and he ended up in Pennsylvania, looking for a break. He found one right there in his hotel, where representatives of Bissell’s Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company were also staying.
It’s unclear to me exactly how it happened, but Drake invested his entire life savings of $200 in the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company. Then, thanks to his free rail pass, he scouted out possible oil lands in Pennsylvania and secured title to them for the company, which then reconstituted itself as the Seneca Oil Company with Drake as its largest stockholder and president, as well as general manager!
In May 1858, he decided Titusville, Pennsylvania would be a good place to drill the company’s first well. The company provided equipment but it took time to find someone with drilling experience.
The candidate would have gotten his experience while looking for salt – salt drilling has a long history. Oil wells were in existence – indeed, James Miller Wilson up in Canada struck oil in 1858 – but these were either dug by hand or cribbed.
Most people thought Drake was crazy to want to drill for oil, but he finally found a blacksmith with a little drilling experience who would do it, and they got started in the summer of 1859 at the hole Drake’s men were digging near the auspiciously named Oil Creek.
It wasn’t easy. The well filled up with water that couldn’t be completely pumped out. At 16 feet, its walls began to collapse. Drake solved the problem with a revolutionary new technique. He drove a cast iron pipe down past the water into bedrock, and drilled through the pipe.
Still, they were only making 3 feet a day, with nothing to show for it. Crowds gathered around and jeered “Drake’s folly,” and the Seneca Oil Company actually told him to quit.
He kept on, personally borrowing enough money to keep the creditors at bay for a while, but it looked hopeless at the end of the work day on August 27, when they had only reached 69 feet.
On showing up for work the next morning, they found fluid at the top of the pipe.
It wasn’t water.
Whooo-hoo!!! They all got rich and lived happily ever after. Well, not so much actually.
Titusville and eventually the whole region boomed. Pennsylvania oil soon cornered the illumination market, but Drake didn’t profit from it at all.
He had no business sense, failing to patent his new drill pipe. Nor did he establish control over production as other people put down new wells all over the place, and it also turned out that he hadn’t secured title to very much land at all.
The Seneca Oil Company severed its connection with him in 1860, and Drake became a Justice of the Peace briefly, but had to quit because of the neuralgia. He and his family left Pennsylvania for a while, but then returned after many setbacks and with Drake very weakened and ill.
Here the story gets a little happier.
The grateful citizens of Titusville started a collection for him in 1870 and three years later convinced the Pennsylvania General Assembly to give the Drakes an annual pension of $1500. Drake died in 1880, and some two decades later, a Standard Oil executive built a monument for him at his grave. Today there also a Drake Well Museum in Titusville.