October 12, 2022
Much of my gear career has involved the oil patch, so it was a treat to tour the Drake Oil Well Museum near Titusville Pennsylvania recently. Colonel (Edwin Laurentine) Drake — popularly known as Colonel Drake — is widely credited with “starting” the oil extraction industry, although the story is far more nuanced than that. Drake was hired by investors to see if, after years of speculation and reliance on naturally occurring oil “puddles,” this new wonder substance could be produced on a more reliable basis. He succeeded well enough to launch an industry, but did not become rich as a result. Ill health and other problems left him broke; only the state legislature voting him an annual pension of $1,000 saved him from ruin. For once a “good deed” was recognized and rewarded during the person’s lifetime. The museum covers many areas of the oil business with displays of artifacts that show how technological advances came about. Early wells, for example, were dug like water wells or “pounded” by repeatedly dropping a sharp metal rod into the ground. The invention of the “rotary” drill bit came quickly, and even the first examples are recognizable kin to current high-tech versions. Simple things like barrels and tanks that did not leak had to be developed — one iteration at a time. The wooden barrels that were fine for whiskey and wine left a great deal to be desired when filled with petroleum; a high percentage of precious production leaked in transit, fouling roads and waterways. Even the volume of a standard “barrel” changed over the years. What remained constant was the belief by many inventors that their next idea would make them rich. This area boasted more millionaires than Pittsburgh in the 1870s, and many of them never got a drop of oil on their hands. And just as Levi’s jeans are among the results of California’s gold rush, companies that supplied the oil pioneers survive to this day. They may not be located in Western Pennsylvania anymore, but they continue to improve upon the ideas their founders. To what products does your company owe its success?