The first commercial well drilled specifically to recover petroleum released crude oil on August 27, 1859. This event eventually transformed the future of numerous industries around the world. Three men deserve much of the credit for this accomplishment: George Bissell (1821-1884), Jonathan Greenleaf Eveleth (1821-1861), and “Colonel” Edwin Laurentine Drake (1819-1880).


Law Partners Invest in Rock Oil


George Bissell from New Hampshire had worked as a school teacher and principal. He left a position in New Orleans to start a second career as an attorney in New York City in 1853. He soon formed a law practice with John Greenleaf Eveleth.


During this period, Americans illuminated their homes after dark using fireplaces, candles, and oil lamps. After Abraham Gesner patented kerosene extracted from coal, the pair appreciated the potential petroleum held to supply affordable illumination. It offered an alternative to whale oil as a source of lamp fuel.


The attorneys formed the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company in 1854 and began recruiting investors. In 1858, some investors from Connecticut reorganized this enterprise as the Seneca Oil Company of New Haven, while continuing a business relationship with the Bissel and Eveleth. George Bissell had learned of an area where petroleum sometimes seeped from the soil near Titusville, Pennsylvania. He persuaded the company to actively drill for petroleum at a site about three miles outside of the town.


A Drilling Innovator


The company hired Edwin Laurentine Drake, a former dry goods salesman and railroad conductor, to oversee the drilling project. Previously, drillers had sought to reach water or salt brine, but not petroleum (an occasional drilling byproduct). Edwin Drake recruited employees to construct an engine house and an attached derrick. The men used a wood-fired boiler and a steam engine to bore into shale.


“Colonel” Drake contributed an important innovation by inserting a pipe around the drill to prevent borehole collapse. Drilling progressed at rates of three feet per day. At 69.5 feet, the well-produced crude oil. It continued generating barrels of petroleum for use in lamps until 1861.


Petroleum eventually served a variety of essential industrial purposes as a lubricant and a fuel. Today, a museum stands at the Titusville well site.