100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Oil Well
Year of Invention: 1859

What Is It? A drilling system to pump buried pools of petroleum to the surface.

Who Invented It? Edwin Drake (in Titusville, Pennsylvania)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Gasoline, jet fuel, kerosene, tar, asphalt, grease and other lubricants, and several synthetic fabrics all come from petroleum. Oil and natural gas power many of our nation’s electrical plants. Without a massive petroleum industry, the twentieth century could not have developed as it did. The entire industry depends on oil wells, starting with a single well drilled in 1859.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Tars and oil have been known for thousands of years. Natural surface seeps of oil, gas, and tars occur around the world. The famed La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles are a natural surface oil seep. Traditionally, oil was used as it naturally appeared at the surface—mostly for waterproofing, some for lamp oil. The word “petroleum” derives from Latin words meaning rock oil. People assumed that oil was somehow squeezed out of rocks.


How Was the Petroleum Industry Invented?

In 1857, 38-year-old Edwin Drake arrived in the impoverished village of Titusville, Pennsylvania, riding on the back of the twice-a-week mail wagon. Drake, born in Greenville, New York, was an ex-railroad construction worker and railway conductor and had invested in a small Pennsylvania firm that gathered oil for medicinal purposes from oil seeps in eastern Pennsylvania.

Drake was impatient with the slow pace at which his company collected and sold medicinal oil. Drake wondered if he couldn’t find a way to speed production. He had read of places where miners drilled for saltwater brines trapped beneath the surface, and he wondered if he could similarly drill for oil and have a bigger supply than was being provided by slow surface seeps.

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