Patented two-wicked safety lamp prevented “destructive conflagrations” on oil derricks.
Oil patch lore says the yellow dog lantern was so named because its two burning wicks resembled a dog’s glowing eyes at night. Others believed the lamp projected a strange and eerie dog’s head shadow on the derrick floor.
Rare is the community oil and natural gas museum that doesn’t have a “yellow dog” in its collection. The two-wicked lamp is an oilfield icon. Some say the unusual spout design originated with whaling ships – but neither the Nantucket nor New Bedford whaling museums could find any such evidence.
Many railroad museums have collections of cast iron smudge pots, but nothing quite like the heavy, odd shaped, crude-oil burning lanterns once prevalent on petroleum fields from Pennsylvania to California.
Although many companies manufactured the iron or steel lamps, the yellow dog’s origins remain in the dark. Some historical references claim the lanterns were so named because their two burning wicks resembled a dog’s glowing eyes at night. Other oil patch lore says the lamps cast a dog’s head shadow on the derrick floor.
Inventor Jonathan Dillen of Petroleum Centre, Pennsylvania, was first to patent what became the “yellow dog” of the U.S. petroleum industry’s early years. The U.S. patent was awarded on May 3, 1870. Dillen’s lamp joined other safety innovations as drilling technologies evolved.
The lamp was designed “for illuminating places out of doors, especially in and about derricks, and machinery in the oil regions, whereby explosions are more dangerous and destructive to life and property than in most other places.”
“My improved lamp is intended to burn crude petroleum as it comes from the wells fresh and gassy,” Dillen proclaimed. “It is to be used, mainly, around oil wells, and its construction is such as to make it very strong, so that it cannot be easily broken or exploded.”
Dillen’s patent was improved and reissued in 1872 and again in 1877, when it was assigned to leading oilfield equipment suppliers John Eaton and E.H. Cole.
Eaton, Cole & Burnham Company grew from John Eaton’s 1861 business trip to the booming oil region of western Pennsylvania. Within a few years, he set up his own business with Edward Cole. With the addition of Edward Burnham, the company grew to become a preeminent supplier of oilfield equipment.
By 1877, the company included outlets in the oil region and in Pittsburgh and Bradford. It became Oil Well Supply Company in 1878. According to a 2009 biography by his great-grandson, “The first goods manufactured by the Oil Well Supply Company were made on a foot lathe,” John Eaton recalled. The oilfield equipment supply company was operating 75 manufacturing plants by the turn of the 20 century.
The biography, John Eaton, by journalist Louis B. Fleming, cited the 1898 book Sketches in Crude Oil, which proclaimed Oil Well Supply’s founder and president, “may fairly claim to be the father of the well supply trade.”
At its 45-acre Imperial Works on the Allegheny River in Oil City, Oil Well Supply manufactured oilfield engines and “cast and malleable iron goods.” Among the products was a popular two-wicked derrick lamp. The 1884 Oil Well Supply catalog listed yellow dog lamps at a price of $1.50 each.
Oil Well Supply became part of United States Steel Corporation in 1929. Today, along with their shadowy origins, yellow dogs are relegated to museums, antique shops and collectors.
History of Forest Oil Company Logo
The Pennsylvania company Forest Oil adopted an image of the yellow dog derrick lantern as its corporate logo in 1916, when Forest Dorn and Clayton Dorn established their oilfield service company in northern Pennsylvania. The keystone shape in the center of the lantern symbolized the state of Pennsylvania – where the first commercial U.S. oil well was drilled in Titusville in 1859.
The Dorn brothers and Forest Oil would developed an extremely efficient technique for “secondary recovery” of trapped petroleum reservoirs. Their use of injecting water (called water-flooding) in the early 20th century was revolutionary. The technological leap began at the nation’s first giant field, discovered in 1871 in Bradford, about 70 miles east of Titusville .
By 1916, oil production in the Bradford field had declined to just under 40 barrels a day. The reserve was considered by many to be dry. Undeterred, Dorn applied his new water-flooding technique to initiate secondary recovery of oil.
The success of Dorn’s method prompted him to create his own water-flooding company. Within five years, Forest Oil was recognized as a leader in secondary oil recovery systems. This enhanced recovery technology was soon being applied throughout the industry — aiding in the extension of oil wells’ lives by as much as 10 years.
The water-flooding method boosted oil production at a time of rapidly growing demand for automobiles (learn more in Cantankerous Combustion – First U.S. Auto Show). The technology would later improve already considerable production from the largest petroleum field in the lower-48 states, the East Texas oilfield, discovered in 1930.
Local Oil Museums
Visit the Penn-Brad Historical Oil Park and Museum near Bradford, Pennsylvania — where a modern natural gas shale boom has renewed the historic oil patch economy. Located in Custer City, three miles south of Bradford, the museum (maintained by many dedicated volunteers) “preserves the philosophy, the spirit, and the accomplishments of an oil country community – taking visitors back to early oil boom days of the first billion dollar oilfield.”
A main attraction at the Penn-Brad museum is its 72-foot standard cable-tool derrick, a replica of the technology that in the 1880s helped Bradford once produce an incredible 74 percent of all the oil in America. Another noteworthy stop among several other excellent Pennsylvania oil museums is just a few hours west of Bradford at the Drake Well Museum in Titusville.
Recommended Reading: Early Days of Oil: A Pictorial History of the Beginnings of the Industry in Pennsylvania (2000).
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2021 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Yellow Dog – Oilfield Lantern.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/technology/yellow-dog-oil-field-lantern. Last Updated: May 1, 2021. Original Published Date: September 1, 2008.