Biography explores father of U.S. oil industry to total depth.


The man who would create the American petroleum industry was down to his last few pennies in August 1859. A letter was on its way from the company that had hired him to drill for oil near in remote Titusville, Pennsylvania. The letter instructed “Colonel” Edwin L. Drake to close operations.

“As far as the company was concerned, the project was finished,” noted William Brice, PhD, in his 2009 biography of the former railroad conductor. “Fortunately that letter was not delivered until after they found oil.”

Seneca Oil Company executives, determined to find oil for refining into kerosene for lamps, wanted to impress stockholders and local businessmen, so they often referred to Drake as “Colonel” in company correspondence.

Cover of Edwin Drake biography by William Brice.On Saturday afternoon on August 27, at a depth of 69.5 feet, Drake’s cable-tool drill bit dropped into a crevice. The following afternoon, driller “Uncle Billy” Smith visited the site, “and noticed a very dark liquid floating on top of the water in the hole, which, when sampled, turned out to be oil.” 

Drake’s Folly, as it was known to locals, was not such a folly after all. “for Drake had shown that large quantities of oil could be found by drilling into the earth. And so began the modern petroleum industry.” 

Commissioned in 2007 by the Oil Region Alliance in Oil City, Pennsylvania, to write a new Drake biography, the professor emeritus in geology and planetary science at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, in 2009 published his 661-page biography of Edwin Laurentine Drake.

The book was part of “Oil 150,” the 2009 sesquicentennial of the petroleum industry pioneer who successfully drilled a well specifically to find oil. It includes more than 200 pages of reference material and dozens of rare images. “Bill dug through the history related to Drake as no one has before, and the result is a much more complete picture of the man, his family and his accomplishments,” proclaimed geologist and editor of the Oilfield Journal Kathy J. Flaherty.

Asked by the publisher for commentary, Bruce Wells of the American Oil & Gas Historical Society (AOGHS) praised Brice’s extensive research, oilfield technical knowledge, and skill at providing an historical context.

Myth, Legend, Reality – Edwin L. Drake and the Early Oil Industry is a well-written account of Drake and his times — and the history and significance of his 1859 discovery,” Wells noted. The book includes little-known details about Drake, a share holder of the Seneca Oil Company of New Haven, Connecticut, which acquired the Titusville leases of the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company before the drilling attempt along Oil Creek.

“Bill Brice provides the careful research needed to sort out the nonsense and brilliance of the man who established the American petroleum industry,” the AOGHS executive director added.

2022 AOGHS Membership Ad

A longtime resident of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, geologist Brice was a member of the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown from 1971 through 2005. He also was a visiting professor in earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University from 1976 to 2002.

Brice received the Distinguished Service Award from the History of Geology Division of the Geological Society of America in 2008.

Stock certificate of Seneca Oil Company, first oil company to drill for oil.

Seneca Oil Company of New Haven, Connecticut, drilled the first U.S. oil well after being reorganized from the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company. Image courtesy William Brice/Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Collection.

A past president and longtime advocate of the Petroleum History Institute. Brice has repeatedly edited the PHI peer-reviewed journal, Oil-Industry History, and managed the group’s popular annual oil history symposiums and field trips. He frequently has lectured about Drake and the early U.S. petroleum industry.

“August 27, 1859, is one of those dates on which the world changed, Brice proclaimed in 2009. “Edwin Drake’s quest to find oil by drilling was a success, and the modern oil and gas industry took a giant leap forward.”

Even though the use of petroleum dates back to the first human civilizations, the events of that Saturday afternoon along the banks of Oil Creek near Titusville, Pennsylvania, provided the spark that propelled the petroleum industry toward the future.”


Recommended ReadingMyth, Legend, Reality – Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry (2009); The Birth of the Oil Industry (1936). Your Amazon purchases benefit the American Oil & Gas Historical Society.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Edwin Drake and his Oil Well.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: August 2, 2022. Original Published Date: August 1, 2009.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This