For many experts, the beginning of the modern offshore petroleum industry can be traced to an 1869 offshore rig patent by New York engineer Thomas Rowland, who had helped build the USS Monitor during the Civil War.

first offshore rig

In 1861, inventor John Ericsson hired Thomas Rowland (1831-1907) to build an “iron-clad battery” for the Union.

offshore rig patent

Although it will never be constructed as originally designed, Thomas Rowland’s offshore platform with its four telescoping legs is an 1869 technological marvel.

On May 4, 1869, Thomas Fitch Rowland, owner of Continental Iron Works in Greenpoint, New York, received a patent for his “submarine drilling apparatus.”

Rowland’s patent (No. 89,794) for a fixed, working platform for drilling offshore to a depth of almost 50 feet – just ten years after Edwin Drake made the nation’s first commercial oil discovery in Titusville, Pennsylvania – pioneers modern offshore drilling technology.

Although his rig is designed to operate in shallow water, the anchored, four-legged tower resembles modern offshore rigs. It has telescoping legs.

My invention consists – First, in novel construction of drill frame, or stand, or, as it may be termed, working-platform, by providing or forming it with telescopic legs made up of tubes and plungers.

The platform’s legs are connected with suitable hydraulic attachments or devices for forcing water into the legs for the proper support of the platform at different elevations, according to the depth of the water, and to adjust the legs or their plungers to a firm bearing on the rock to be drilled.

Rowland and his Continental Iron Works also will become a leader in petroleum storage tank design and construction.

In October 1861, Rowland’s Continental Iron Works began construction of the Monitor. In recognition of his many achievements, the “Thomas Fitch Rowland Prize” was instituted by the American Society of Civil Engineers at its 1882 meeting. It has been annually awarded ever since.

The earliest true offshore wells – completely out of sight from land – will not be drilled until 1947 in the Gulf of Mexico, as technologies advance after Rowland’s patent.

Read more in Offshore Petroleum History.

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offshore rig patent

Modern offshore petroleum platforms include (left to right): 1 and 2 are conventional fixed platforms; 3 is a compliant tower; 4 and 5 are vertically moored tension leg and mini-tension leg platforms; 6 is a spar platform; 7 and 8 are semi-submersibles; 9 is a floating production, storage, and offloading facility; 10) sub-sea completion and tie-back to host facility. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The first submerged oil wells in salt water are drilled in 1896 from piers in a part of the Summerland oilfield that extends under the Santa Barbara Channel in California.

As early as 1891, the first submerged oil wells are drilled from platforms built on piles in Grand Lake St. Marys in Ohio, notes historian Judith L. Sneed in “The First Over Water Drilling: The Lost History Of Ohio’s Grand Reservoir Oil Boom.”

Read more in Ohio Offshore Wells.

Oil wells also are drilled from platforms built on Caddo Lake, Louisiana, in 1911.

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