Drake’s Oil Well: A Unit Study

Drake’s Oil Well: A Unit Study
Drake’s Oil Well: A Unit Study

Oil has long been used as a lubricant and a simple light source. It was originally obtained for such purposes by skimming it off the surface of ponds, well water, and also by collecting it from oil seeps. Since the usage at that time required very little oil, such tiny quantities sufficed. As people began to realize the value of oil, however, the demand increased. With the increase of demand, the question arose: How do we obtain oil in larger quantities?

Who Was Edwin Drake?

Enter Edwin Laurentine Drake, born March 29, 1819. He had absolutely no knowledge in the field of oil, having been a railroad conductor before, but had that mind that seizes upon ideas and carries them out. He was hired by the Seneca oil company to examine better ways to obtain more oil from the seeps in Pennsylvania, and was soon headed on his way by train from Connecticut to Titusville, Pennsylvania. On his way, he observed how salt mines pumped salt water deep out of the ground with a derrick. This little observation, although quite simple, would prove to change the history of the world.

Drake’s Folly

Drake’s Oil Well: A Unit Study
Edwin Drake

Upon arriving at the site of the seeps, he decided to try to dig a trench to retrieve more oil. However, he retrieved a lot more than just oil; he also obtained water — so much in fact, that the trench idea had to be abandoned. He then recalled the salt mine method of obtaining salt water, and resolved upon that idea. He obtained a second-hand steam engine to operate a drill bit, and set to work. “Drake’s Folly,” as his well was nicknamed by the bystanders, certainly seemed destined for failure at first.

Upon the earth caving back into his hole, Drake decided to hire a blacksmith to drive iron pipes down behind the drill bit to keep the hole clear. With the addition of the iron pipes, collapse ceased to be a problem, and it became clear that drilling, although only at a rate of one yard a day, had become quite possible. By the evening of August 26 of 1859, Drake had reached 69 feet, and the blacksmith who did the drilling headed home, planning to continue the drilling on the morrow. The next morning, when the blacksmith went to resume work, he saw that the well had filled with oil. Drake pumped it up with a hand pump into a bathtub. Thus, “Drake’s Folly” became the first producing oil well with a rate of twenty-five barrels a day.

Oil Drilling Today

Drake’s Oil Well: A Unit Study
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Even today, Drake’s idea of a drive pipe and a drill bit to bore through bedrock is utilized. Modern oil wells, of course, don’t use hand pumps or bathtubs; they use an electric motor to drive a large rising and falling pump that operates on principles similar to the hand pump. Drilling techniques have also been improved by adding “mud,” — a complicated chemical mixture designed to lubricate the bit and fluid-proof the well walls. Myriads of different types of drilling are used. By drilling underground sideways rather than vertically, horizontal drilling, for example, allows access to oil under areas not accessible by standard drilling techniques.

Oil has been used since ancient times, but was only available in limited quantities until Edwin Drake pioneered modern drilling techniques. His simple ideas for oil attainment sparked a massive worldwide industry, where oil is used for everything from fuels to lubricants and even plastics. Such massive utilization could not have been dreamed of in Drake’s time; and we can only imagine how he would feel if he knew what revolution his simple drilling techniques sparked.

Further Investigation

The Drake Family History Brochure
Biography from the Drake Well Museum in Titusville, PA.

Who Made America?: Edwin Drake
Bio from PBS.

Oil History by Samuel T. Pees
The history of oil exploration beginning with Drake’s well.

How Does Oil Drilling Work?
A quick primer.

How Does Well Completion Work?
Will the well produce or be plugged?

How Does Well Fracturing Work to Stimulate Production?
An explanation of a process very much in the news.


Looking Down an Oil Well
Great interactive from the U.S. Department of Energy that explains the oil drilling process.

Explore a Fracking Operation…Virtually
Very interesting interactive.

The Drilling Process
The ordered sequence from planning the well to drilling at Penn State.


Petroleum by Albert Lidgett
Public domain work mostly focusing on English petroleum, but that mentions Drake’s well along with providing details about how petroleum is processed and used.

Printables & Notebooking Pages

Anatomy of an Oil Rig
Graphic for notebook.

InDepth Shale Fracking Poster
From the U. S. Department of Energy.

Drake’s Oil Well Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narration, or wrapping up.