Thomas Rowland’s Continental Iron Works produced a famous ironclad, gas fittings, and welded oil tanks.
The origins of the modern offshore oil exploration and production industry must include the 1869 offshore “Rock Drill” patent of a skilled New York engineer.
On May 4, 1869, Thomas Fitch Rowland, owner of Continental Iron Works in Greenpoint, New York, received a U.S. patent for his “submarine drilling apparatus.” The patent (No. 89,794) for a fixed, working platform for drilling offshore to a depth of almost 50 feet came just 10 years after America’s first commercial oil discovery in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
Although the Rowland offshore rig was designed to operate in shallow water, its anchored, four-legged (telescoping platform legs) tower resembled early platform approaches, including those drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1947, the first offshore rig drilled out of sight of land, the Kermac Rig No. 16 in in the Gulf of Mexico, stood in just 20 feet of water. (see Offshore Petroleum Exploration History).
Rowland noted in his offshore drilling patent application:
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.
In October 1861, Rowland’s Continental Iron Works had began construction of the soon famous turreted Union vessel, USS Monitor. Following the Civil War, Continental Iron Works would become a leader in petroleum storage tank design and construction (also see Horace Horton’s Spheres).
Experience with John Ericsson’s ironclad, led Rowland to invent special tools, including a “double planer” machine for manufacturing iron turrets, which later led to development of reliable, large-capacity oil storage tanks.
According to the October 1862 issue of Scientific American, “A double planer designed and patented by Thomas F. Rowland, proprietor of New York’s Continental Iron Works, where the machine was installed. The planer was built during the American Civil War for planing the armored hull and turret plates of United States Navy ironclads, and could plane two edges of a plate simultaneously at any desired bevel, at a rate of 17 feet per minute.”
Following the Civil War, Rowland’s company became a pioneer in industrial construction technologies, including gasworks fittings and welding of corrugated boiler furnaces. Continental Iron Works also would manufacture large-diameter gas mains and water pipes.
In recognition of Rowland’s many achievements, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in 1882 instituted the “Thomas Fitch Rowland Prize.” The engineering honor has been annually awarded ever since.
Drilling on a Ohio Lake
The U.S. petroleum industry’s earliest offshore wells produced oil from Caddo Lake, Louisiana, as early as 1911, but Ohioans earlier offshore drilling over water.
Ohio petroleum historian Joyce L. Alig, president of the Mercer County Historical Society, in 2020 she published Oil & Gas Boom, Mercer County and Midwest Ohio, an investigation of the very first U.S. offshore wells — on Grand Lake St. Marys in Mercer and Auglaize counties. Her research about the Ohio’s lake history also appeared in a 2005 peer-reviewed article by Judith Sneed of Mooringsport, Louisiana (see Ohio Offshore Wells).
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. The earliest true offshore wells — completely out of sight from land — would not be drilled until 1947 in the Gulf of Mexico, as technologies advanced after Thomas Rowland’s 1869 offshore “Rock Drill” patent.
Recommended Reading: Offshore Pioneers: Brown & Root and the History of Offshore Oil and Gas (1997); The Offshore Imperative: Shell Oil’s Search for Petroleum in Postwar America (2009); Breaking the Gas Ceiling: Women in the Offshore Oil and Gas Industry (2019). Oil & Gas Boom, Mercer County and Midwest Ohio (2020).* Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
* Joyce L. Alig’s limited edition book is available from the Mercer County Historical Society for $45. Learn more at Lakefront Improvement Association.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact email@example.com. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Offshore Rig Patent of 1869.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/offshore-history/offshore-rig-patent. Last Updated: May 3, 2021. Original Published Date: April 28, 2014.