Gilbert: Big oil birthday

Print More

(HOST) Commentator and executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council Peter Gilbert tells us about the 150th anniversary of an historic event in which he’s always had a special interest.

(GILBERT) I think most of us take special notice if we happen to share our birthday with a famous person or big event. In my case, the famous person was President Lyndon Johnson. Born in 1908, he would have been 101 today. When I was a boy, I sent him a mutual birthday card, hoping in vain, for an autograph.  I’ve also long been aware that on that date, the modern oil industry was born – exactly one hundred and fifty years ago this year.

People had long known there was oil in the ground around the tiny, impoverished town of Titusville, in western Pennsylvania.  Oil seeps were numerous and the surface oil was used mostly for medicine, but there was no practical way to extract it from the ground.

Then in the summer of 1859, "Colonel" Edwin Drake (who wasn’t colonel of anything, just a self-promoter) drilled, something that people had done for water, but not for oil. Many people, including the drillers he hired, thought he was crazy.

Progress was slow and expensive. When the initial group of investors ran out of money – and confidence, just one of them continued to pay the bills out of his own pocket. But there comes a point, and on August 27th, that last investor sent Drake an order to stop drilling, pay any remaining bills, and shut down.

But the very next morning, before Drake could receive the letter telling him to throw in the towel, the drillers noticed oil that had accumulated in the drill hole, which was by then 69 feet deep. There was no geyser of oil showering the wooden derrick’s scaffolding, but there was enough for a hand-pump to suck out of the hole and into a barrel.  It would be two years before anyone struck the first flowing well – a gusher – that produced 3,000 barrels a day.  Nonetheless, the oil industry had been born.

Overnight Titusville grew from 125 people to more than 10,000. Ten miles away, another boom town, Pithole, exploded to 15,000 inhabitants. But four years later, when the oil there ran out, Pithole became the pits and was deserted.

This was a technological development of gargantuan significance. Before Titusville, people had burned coal, of course, but not petroleum. And until the East Texas oil boom of 1901, Pennsylvania produced half of the entire world’s oil. Mass oil production made billions of internal combustion engines possible.

I’d like to think that soon – maybe in a decade or so – people will be amused to know that they were born on the same date that scientists or engineers achieved some great accomplishment that will make for sustainable energy consumption and a better world – a key breakthrough in wind or solar power, perhaps, or a quantum leap in
fuel-efficiency – something that will diminish the importance of what happened in Titusville, Pennsylvania, 150 years ago.

Comments are closed.