Edwin Drake and his Oil Well
Myth, Legend, Reality – Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry
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 a well in Titusville, Pennsylvania. The letter instructed him to close operations.
“As far as the company was concerned, the project was finished,” writes William Brice, PhD, in his detailed biography of Edwin L. Drake. “Fortunately that letter was not delivered until after they found oil.”
On Saturday afternoon on August 27, at a depth of 69.5 feet, the drill bit had dropped into a crevice, Brice notes. Late the following afternoon Drake’s 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 the local population, 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, Pa., to write a new Drake biography, Brice, professor emeritus in geology and planetary science at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, published his 661-page Myth, Legend, Reality – Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry.
The book, part of the 2009 celebration of the 150th anniversary of America’s first oil well, 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,” proclaims geologist and editor of the Oilfield Journal Kathy J. Flaherty.
“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,” adds Bruce Wells of the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. “Bill Brice provides the careful research needed to sort out the nonsense and brilliance of the man who established the American petroleum industry.”
A Johnstown resident, Pa., Brice was on the Pitt-Johnstown faculty from 1971 through 2005 and 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. He currently is editor of the Petroleum History Institute journal Oil-Industry History.
“August 27, 1859, is one of those dates on which the world changed, Brice explains. “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.”
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