August 27, 1859 - Today was the day that the first commercially viable oil well struck black gold. It all happened thanks an eccentric character known as Crazy Drake.
Oil had been bubbling up to the surface in Titusville, Pennsylvania for millions of years, but what good was it? Nobody had ever figured out an efficient way to extract it and package it for sale. Whale oil was the reigning fuel of the day and that's what powered practically every lamp in the world.
But in the summer of 1859 some shrewd entrepreneurs figured out that the oil seeping to the surface in Titusville, Pennsylvania was a viable option to use as a source of fuel for homes and businesses. If only they could figure out a way to get it out of the ground and into the marketplace. The men happened to be staying in the same hotel as a semi-retired train conductor named Edwin Drake. Drake overheard a conversation about the oil idea and he offered his services for a reasonable salary of $1000 a year.
Drake's first attempts failed miserably. He tried the old-fashioned method of digging trenches, but they all inevitably caved in or failed to yield enough oil to make it worth his while. Then he decided to approach it in the same way that men were drilling for salt water. He used every penny he had to buy a steam engine to power the operation. In addition, he was relying on the credit and kindness of many local businesses to keep his men fed and his machines running.
Progress was terribly slow, and after weeks of drilling the locals were starting to jeer at the noisy contraption. They nicknamed it "Drake's Folly," but Drake never gave up. He even pioneered the use of a drive pipe, which was basically a wider pipe that protected the drill bit from cave-ins as it worked its way down.
Finally, after winding its way 70 feet into the earth the drill hit a crevice. When workers returned the next day they were shocked to see oil rising up in the shaft. Drake used a hand pump to bring it to the surface where it was collected in an old bath tub. Soon the well would be producing 25 barrels of oil a day. The world's first oil boom was on, and within 13 years the area around Titusville would be producing 16,000 barrels of oil a day.
Alas, Edwin Drake was a terrible businessman and he failed to patent his innovative drilling method. He worked briefly as a stock broker on Wall Street but he wasn't a successful investor. Penniless and in failing health, he was spotted by an old friend from Titusville during a chance encounter in New York. The man took pity on Drake and gave him a little money to survive on. When the man returned to Titusville he rallied the locals to donate some funds. Eventually the Pennsylvania legislature stepped up and offered Drake a pension of $1500 a year.
He died in 1880.