Birthplace: Pennsylvania? US Oil Turns 150 Today

Today’s guest blogger is Julian Lamborn. He is a volunteer at the museum and has been leading tours as a docent since March of 2004. He is an engineer, and loves to study and talk about energy. Today, Julian gives us a history lesson about the start of the oil industry in the United States – 150 years ago today.

On today’s date in 1859, oil was first extracted from the ground in this country by a drilling process. The place where this occurred was NOT in Texas but in the small Pennsylvania town of Titusville. The man who made it all happen was “Colonel” Edwin Drake, a New York-born inventor whose business career had begun as a conductor on a brand new, sometimes dangerous, conveyance known as the railroad.

In the late 1850s, a New Haven speculator hired Drake to investigate Titusville for oil deposits. He had seen a Yale chemistry professor’s report that the “rock oil” that seeped from the ground could be refined and employed for illumination, lubrication, and other uses. When Drake arrived in Titusville, the locals laughed at his futile methods, particularly his initial efforts to find oil by digging trenches at seepage sites.

Although the modern oil industry began in the mid 1800s, what we know as “crude” oil has been around since the dawn of history. Great pressures that exist under sedimentary rock systems containing oil continuously drive some of the oil to the surface through strata faults. This oil seeps out of the earth’s surface and has been used for a variety of purposes for thousands of years. One of the earliest uses for heavy oil seepages is spoken of in the book of Genesis (Genesis 11:3) where it mentions using bitumen (sometimes known as pitch or asphalt) for mortar in building the Tower of Babel.

Bamboo Detail
Creative Commons License photo credit: geishaboy500

There were many early attempts to hasten the flow of these oil seeps by drilling holes into the seepage zones. The earliest known oil wells were drilled in China around the middle of the 4th century. These wells had depths of up to 800 feet (240 m) and were drilled using bits attached to bamboo poles. The oil that came to the surface, known as “burning water” in China and Japan, was burned to evaporate brine to produce crystalline salt. By the 10th century, extensive bamboo pipelines connected oil wells with salt springs to facilitate the business.

The Middle East’s petroleum industry was well established by the 8th century, when the streets of Baghdad were paved with tar derived from petroleum from natural seepage in the region. Petroleum was distilled in Persian (Iran) in the 9th century, producing flammable products for military purposes. After Spain was conquered by Moors in the 8th century, the Islamic world’s oil distillation technologies became known and available in Western Europe.

Some sources claim that, beginning in the 9th century, oil fields were exploited in the area around modern Baku, Azerbaijan, to produce naphtha for heating. When Marco Polo visited Baku, which is on the shores of the Caspian Sea, in 1264, he saw oil being collected from seeps. He wrote that “there is a fountain from which oil springs in great abundance, inasmuch as a hundred shiploads might be taken from it a one time.”

At Baku seeps, shallow pits were dug to facilitate the collection of the oil. By 1594, hand-dud holes up to 115 feet (35 meters) deep were in use. Essentially oil wells, 116 of the holes produced about 28,000 barrels of oil, about 80 barrels/day (a barrel of contains 42 U.S. or 35 Imperial gallons) by 1830.  In 1849, Russian engineer F.N. Semyenov used a cable tool to drill an oil well on the Apsheron Peninsula near Baku, ten years before Drakes famous well in Pennsylvania.

There is much discussion as to exactly when and how the oil industry itself started; however, Polish pharmacist, Ignacy Lukasiewicz (1822-1882), is generally credited with developing the first industrial-scale process for refining seepage oil in 1853, distilling it to create kerosene. He intended his process to supplement the rapidly diminishing (and therefore, increasingly expensive) supply of whale oil, which was burned for illumination.

Lantern shadow
Creative Commons License photo credit: Valerie Everett

Besides kerosene, early refineries produced asphalt, machine oil and lubricants while products not needed (such as gasoline) were burned in open pits. At this time, there was a growing demand for better lighting in homes, factories, and streets; kerosene was seen as the answer to this need. Additionally, a thriving industry developed where early oil finds and distillates were put to some rather unusual uses for both internal and external purposes in the medial field. By the mid 19th century in the U.S., crude oil was bottled and sold unabashedly, promising a cure for just about everything from rheumatism, gout, and blindness to the common cold!

In 1854, Benjamin Silliman, Sr., father of the science professor at Yale whose report on oil seepage launched Drake’s investigation, was the first to fractionate petroleum by distillation. This discovery, together with that of Ignacy Lukasiewicz’s, ignited the petroleum industry. By the early1860s, when Baku was producing about 90% of the world’s oil, refineries began springing up in many other parts of the globe, particularly in the U.S. where crude oil from drilled wells had been available since August 27, 1859, when Edwin Drake finally found oil at 69 feet into the ground on Oil Creek near Titusville (see picture below).

Drake’s well was drilled for Seneca Oil Company, and it originally yielded 25 barrels/day. By the end of 1859, output was down to only 15 barrels/day, but by then, many other wells had been established in the area. To utilize this oil, the U.S. refining industry grew rapidly with the first refinery in the area being commissioned in 1862, driven initially by the demand for kerosene lighting.

By 1865, in Cleveland, Ohio, where a great deal of the crude from Titusvillewas taken, 30 simple-batch still refineries operated witha total capacity of 1,500/barrels/day. This capacity far eclipsed the size of the Baku oil industry. Standard oil built the largest refinery in Cleveland in 1870 witha capacity of 1,500/barrels/day. At the end of late 19th century, both crude oil and refined products were major exports of the U.S.  In the early part of the 20th century, with the introduction of the internal combustion engine, the demand for refined products, which still sustains the industry, was created. Early oil finds like those in Pennsylvania and Ohio were quickly outpaced by demand, and this led to oil booms and refinery construction in Texas, Oklahoma, and California as well as in other parts of the world such as Russia and Saudi Arabia.

From the early, heady, Edwin Drake days, the oil industry has grown to the point where, worldwide, up to 84 million barrels/oil are produced and refined every day in some 717 refineries. Of these, 132 are in the U.S., where 17.6 million barrels/day of crude oil are refined.  In 150 years, the U.S. has swung from being the world’s largest exporter of crude oil to being the world’s largest importer of crude oil. The world’s largest refining complex exists not in the U.S. but in Venezuela, where more than 956,000 barrels/day of crude oil are refined by PDVSA on one site—a far cry from Standard’s 1,500 barrels/day Cleveland refinery in 1870!

Drilling rig
Creative Commons License photo credit: eMaringolo

The Greek roots of the word “petroleum” are simple: petra, meaning “rock” and olemum, meaning “oil,” but there the simplicity ends. Edwin Drake, on August 27, 1859, had no idea that he was in on the birth of the world’s new energy era. He never patented his drilling techniques and died a poor man in 1880, having lost his money on Wall Street. For the last seven years of his life, he lived on a $1500/year annuity granted to him by the State of Pennsylvania for services rendered to the oil industry. Yet, as a successful entrepreneurial wildcatter, he paved the way for many others to make the oil industry what it is today—a complex potpourri of applied science, ingenuity, engineering design, unit operations, and marketing systems that have become a political forced throughout the entire world.