By: Scott RossPublished: August 27, 2022

Edwin Laurentine Drake

Depending on your overarching worldview, Edwin Laurentine Drake is either one of the godfather's of this glorious Modern Age or the man who pulled the trigger that sent a slow-moving but unstoppable bullet headed straight for the temporal lobe of civilization.

In the late 1850s, "big oil" in America meant whale oil. People knew there was oil underground, rock oil as it was known at the time, but it was a total ball-ache to get at it. In 1858, George Bissell and Jonathan Eveleth founded the Seneca Oil with an eye toward seeing if there might be some way to get at larger quantities of the rock oil that had recently been collected from an oil spring in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

As luck would have it, 1858 was the same year that Drake moved to Titusville, looking for a new career after having spent years on railroads, and he just so happened to be staying in the same hotel as Bissell and Eveleth. Drake bought shares in the newly formed company and was subsequently offered a job to start looking for oil on the land Seneca had purchased.

Drake eventually decided to try drilling on an island on the appropriately named Oil Creek. Up to this point, the problem with rock oil was that the juice wasn't worth the squeeze, you could only collect the small amounts that had seeped to the surface. And the trouble with drilling was that the walls of the wells always collapsed before getting deep enough. Drake's innovation was to lower the drilling equipment through pipes driven into the ground. Still, it was slow going, he was burning through cash, and locals began to make sport of Drake.

By August 27, 1859, Drake and his team had gotten nearly 70 feet deep before they hit a crevice and decided to call it a day. But the following morning, they went to the site only to find that up from the well came a-bubblin' crude. Black gold. Texas tea. Oil, that is. And with that, petroleum was commercial viable. The world would never be the same.


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