Innovation

Slick timing

How long did it take for the first commercially drilled oil well to noticeably produce oil?


We asked how long it took the first commercially drilled oil well to noticeably produce oil.

Put away those notorious images of thick black crude gushing from a high-pressure well. It took an overnight break in drilling for the original Titusville well to trickle out a noticeable amount of crude.

On Aug. 27, 1859, workers for the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company broke off drilling in the well when the drill bit slipped into an underground crevice. The next day, workers examining the water-filled drilling pipe noticed a film of oil on top. The well had indeed struck oil the day before, but so little of it that no one could tell at first. When the original well was expanded to production levels, it still produced only a few barrels of oil per day during its entire service life.

But the petroleum industry was born that day. The Titusville well demonstrated that drilling for oil, rather than using pit excavation, could legitimately access and extract underground reserves. Ironically, the project lead, "Colonel" Edwin Drake, drilled the well in technical violation of his investors' instructions. Drake received written instructions to abandon his debt-ridden and widely panned enterprise, but the letter didn't reach him until after the well struck oil. Had the letter arrived sooner, commercial petroleum production might have been delayed by years.

Drake's success set off an "oil rush" to Pennsylvania that was comparable to—but far more restrained than—the California gold rush. Petroleum soon arrived on the scene as a cheap fuel oil and lubricant, paving the way for increased mechanical industrialization across the United States and the world. And we owe it all to a tiny well in Pennsylvania that produced just enough oil, just in time.

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