A Brief History of Oil
Before Captain Drake, There Was Grok the Caveman
Captain Drake is credited with drilling the first-ever oil well in Titusville, PA in 1859.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
You see, this may come as a surprise to you, but cavemen were the first oil wildcatters.
That’s right: They extracted and used oil.
How can that be, you wonder?
Well archeologists have uncovered tools used by Neanderthals dating back some 40,000 years ago. Neanderthals used oil from naturally occurring oil seeps to adhere stones to sticks.
As human society developed, so did the use of oil and natural gas. Around 3000 BC, man was using oil for the construction of buildings and waterproofing canoes, baskets, baths and drains.
In ancient Mesopotamia, natural asphalt was used in the construction of the walls and towers of Babylon.
Around 1272, Marco Polo, while traveling through the city of Baku (Azerbaijan), witnessed oil seeps being worked in hand-dug wells.
Natural gas was being used too.
Around 1000 BC, a goat herdsman in Greece came across what looked like a burning stream at the top of Mount Parnassus. It was a flame rising from a crack in the rock. Most likely, a lightening strike ignited the natural gas.
The ancient Greeks, believing the flame to be of divine origin, built a temple around it. This temple housed a priestess who was known as the Oracle of Delphi, giving out prophecies she claimed were inspired by the flickering flame.
But it wasn’t until around 500 BC that natural gas was actually used as a valuable commodity. The Chinese would search to find were natural gas was naturally seeping out of the surface-ground.
Once they found a good seep spot, they built the first-known gas pipelines using bamboo shoots to transport the gas to a giant fire under massive pots where it was used to boil sea water, separating the salt and making it potable water for drinking.
Fast-forward 2,000 years to 1821, when the first natural gas well was drilled in the United States.
William Hart drilled a 27-foot well in Fredonia, New York. How did he know where to drill? He asked the Native Americans who worshipped the naturally occurring gas flowing out of “burning creek.”
Hart’s success lead to the first-ever utility company in America, called the Fredonia Gas Light Company.
And ever since, oil and gas companies have used the observation of naturally occurring seeps to find massive oilfields.
That’s because typically where you see a seep, you find a highly-pressurized reservoir below. The high quality oil is literally being pushed out of the ground.
Think about it. How did Captain Drake know where to drill in Titusville? Well it was actually quite easy for him. Since Drake didn’t have the technological advantages of satellite images or 3D seismic studies, he took the easiest path for discovering oil: He looked down at the ground.
You see, Titusville is a small town that sits near a creek. The name of the creek? Oil Creek.
For centuries, the Seneca tribe used the oil that seeped into the creek for many things, including cures for sickness.
For the next 40 years after Drake struck oil, Pennsylvania would supply the world one-third of its oil.
Then came Spindletop in 1901.
Before the legendary Spindletop field was drilled in 1901, Texas residents had for years witnessed thousands of "tar balls" and miles-long oil slicks right off shore in the Gulf of Mexico.
Spindletop quickly became the largest oilfield in America… larger than all of the previous oil fields in the U.S., combined.
And it occurs all around the world. The second-largest oilfield in the world – Kuwait's Burgan – was discovered by British geologists who observed hundreds of oil seeps at the surface in 1912.
To this day, oil seeps are spewing crude in deserts, mountains, rivers and oceans. In fact, it's estimated that at least 100,000 barrels of oil a year seep out of the ground, naturally.