Robert McHenry: The First Oil Well (150th Anniversary of the Birth of the Oil Industry)

Roundup: Talking About History

[Robert McHenry is a former editor-in-chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica and author of How to Know.]

Tomorrow, August 27, will see a gala celebration in the little town of Titusville, Pennsylvania. Titusville is in the northwest part of the state, just southeast of Erie. There, 150 years ago, occurred one of those epochal events whose significance far exceeded anything imagined by those immediately involved.

First, there was George Bissell. He was a New Hampshire lad and, like so many ambitious and energetic lads of the day, he made his way through a succession of careers. He taught school, worked as a reporter in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, and then took up law. In 1854, with his law partner, he started a business, the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company, to capture surface oil in the area around Oil Creek, Pa. At the time rock oil was used primarily in medical applications, and for a time the new company was a money-losing enterprise. But there seemed to be a future in refining this stuff; the distinguished Yale chemist Benjamin Silliman, Jr., foresaw industrial uses and encouraged the partners to continue.

Then there was Edwin L. Drake. He grew up near Albany, New York, and in Vermont. He left the family farm at 19 and worked in sundry minor jobs until joining the New York & New Haven Railroad as a conductor. Around 1856 or ’57 he bought some stock in George Bissell’s company, and in the latter year he traveled out to Oil Creek to have a look at the operation. On the way he paused to study the drilling of salt-water artesian wells near Syracuse and then near Pittsburgh.

In Titusville he and Bissell hit it off, and they agreed that it would be worth trying to drill for oil rather than waiting for it to seep up naturally. The Seneca Oil Company was organized with Drake as president. Seneca leased some of the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Co.’s land and began work. A great many technical difficulties had to be overcome. Drake’s chief technical contribution to the project was the introduction of a pipe lining in the drill hole. After a year and a half of effort, on August 27, 1859, at a depth of 69 feet, the drillers struck a pool of oil, and the world’s first oil well came into existence...

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