ASME-Landmark:Drake Oil Well


In 1849, petroleum was primarily a nuisance—a greasy substance that salt well owners ran into the ground and into the canal, much to the disgust of canal boat owners. Samuel Kier's father's Pennsylvania salt wells produced two or three barrels of petroleum a day, prompting Kier to seek out a lucrative purpose for the substance.

Professor James C. Booth of the American Chemical Society determined that by distilling petroleum, a good illuminant could be produced. Following drawings made by the professor, Kier erected a one-barrel still in Pittsburgh and began to distill petroleum, selling it for $1.50 a gallon as foul-smelling "carbon oil" in 1850. Nearly ten years elapsed before A.C. Ferris, a New York coffee and spice dealer, developed a method of treating the oil with sulphuric acid and caustic soda, which produced an oil of light lemon color, nearly odor-free.

In 1858, the Seneca Oil Company formed with the intent of drilling for oil in the style of Kier's salt-well derricks. Edwin L. Drake, a stockholder, served as the General Agent for this company. His oil well, built in 1859, yielded an average of 1,000 gallons daily for three years. By 1864, Pennsylvania's Oil Creek had become celebrated as the site of the richest oil-producing region on Earth.

The drilling of Drake's oil well marks the modern phase of the petroleum industry. Drake demonstrated practical oil recovery by applying salt-well drilling techniques, including the use of the derrick, and invented the modern method of driving iron pipe. See ASME website for more information