The history of man’s endeavors to obtain oil by one means or another dates back years before the advent of internal combustion engines. The first “oil field engine” would have to be the one used to drill and pump the Drake well in Titusville, Pa. – it being the first well drilled with the intent to extract oil. John Eaton, president of The Oil Well Supply Co., wrote a history of oil well machinery in 1907. This fascinating history traces the earliest attempts to extract oil up to the “modern” drilling rigs of his day. This article was first published by the Oil Men’s Assn. of Butler County in their Oil Region Reminisces printed in 1907. This issue includes excerpts of the article up to the Drake well, and in a later issue I will submit the second half of Eaton’s history:
“The Evolution of Oil Well Machinery”
By John Eaton, President, The Oil Well Supply Co.
Webster defines the word machinery as: “Means and appliances by which anything is kept in action or a desired result is obtained.”
It would seem, therefore, that the crude methods adopted in the early history of petroleum or rock oil may very properly take their place in considering the “Evolution of Oil Well Machinery.”
Oil dipped out of pools where it had settled. Woolen blankets were thrown into pools and after becoming saturated, the oil was wrung out of them. Boards were placed in pools, the oil accumulated on the boards and then was scraped off.
Records show that for centuries in the region of the Caucasus Mountains in Russia, petroleum has been collected by skimming it from the surface of springs. On the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea there were 20,000 such springs in 1868.
Petroleum was gathered upon the Watson Flats near Titusville (the location of the Drake well) and McClintockville, just above Oil City, as early as 1840.
Where exudes of oil would show, pits were dug and the oil dipped out. Round or square holes were dug by men to various depths, sometimes more than 200 feet, air being supplied to workers in the well by a bellows. When oil was obtained it was dipped out with buckets by hand or by a windlass. This process for obtaining oil has been practiced for centuries in Romania, Russia, India, Japan and other countries.
B. S. Lyman, in his Reports on the Geology of Japan (1877) says, in relation to the manner of working these wells: “The present mode of working is very simple, a method that has probably grown into its present form in the course of centuries of experience and is now apparently practiced in all the oil regions with little or no variation. The digging is all done by two men, one of whom digs in the morning from nine o’clock until noon, and the other from noon until three. The one who is not digging works the large blowing machine or bellows that continually sends fresh air to the bottom of the well. The well is timbered with larger pieces at the corners and light cross pieces, which serve also as a ladder for going up and down. The oil is skimmed from the surface of the water and drawn up in buckets.”
The first well drilled or bored in the United States, of which we have any record, was started in 1806 and completed in January 1808.
Apparently a spring pole was used at this well for the first time to supply power for drilling. It is also the first record of the use of drive pipe and tubing, both having been made of wood. The Ruffner Brothers drilled the well.
Many wells were drilled in West Virginia and Pennsylvania (principally near Tarentum) from 1808 to 1859 for the purpose of obtaining brine from which to make salt. Frequently natural gas and petroleum were encountered, but they were considered a nuisance and often wells were abandoned because the oil destroyed the brine. How little was known of the value of petroleum in those early days!
It was not until 1859 that the first well was drilled expressly for the purpose of obtaining petroleum, and from the time of drilling the first or Drake well dates the beginning of the oil industry in which millions have been invested, colossal fortunes made, and which, in respect to lighting and other purpose for which petroleum is used, brought about a revolution. If Colonel Drake had not succeeded in obtaining oil, what would have been the status of the oil business today?
The many exudes of oil in the valley near the location of the Drake well (Watson’s flats) led some of the people living in Titusville to believe that oil in paying quantities could be obtained below the surface, and a company was formed for the purpose of developing the territory. Colonel E. L. Drake of New Haven Connecticut was employed to have charge of the work.
It has been generally understood that the Drake well was drilled by means of a spring pole, but this is a mistake. An engine called “Long John” and a boiler both made by W.M. Faber & company of Pittsburg, costing about $2,000 were used. They were shipped by canal from Pittsburg to Erie and from Erie were hauled overland to the location. The railroad had not yet been built.
The boiler was a one flue stationary type, the flue being near the bottom. The boiler was about thirty inches in diameter, twelve to fourteen feet long and was walled up with stone. Wood was used for firing.
The engine was of 6-horsepower capacity and was of the type used at the time. It is still in use in the steamboats plying on the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio rivers. To reverse the engine, the eccentric rod was disconnected from the lower end of the rocker arm, which was provided with a pin for that purpose, and by means of a lever at the upper end on the rocker arm the valves were manually operated to admit steam at proper intervals to run the engine in a reverse direction. A bell was hung in the engine room, attached to a cord running to the derrick, and signals were agreed upon for operating the engine: that is for running it fast or slow, or stopping it.
The tools with which the Drake well was drilled were made by the contractor William Smith, at Tarentum and weighed between 100 and 200 pounds. They were hauled from Tarentum to Titusville.
The well was completed on Saturday, the 27th day of August 1859 at a depth of 69-1/2 feet. It was not customary to work on Sundays. When the men left the well on Saturday night they did not know that oil had been struck. The contractor, William Smith, or “Billy” as he was familiarly known, visited the well on Sunday, when he discovered the hole full of oil. The news spread rapidly and caused great excitement.