Oil patch historian pens outstanding biography in Myth, Legend, Reality – Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry


The man who would create the American petroleum industry was down to his last few pennies in August 1859. A letter was on its way from the company that had hired him to drill a well in Titusville, Pennsylvania. The letter instructed him to close operations.

“As far as the company was concerned, the project was finished,” noted William Brice, PhD, in his detailed 2009 biography of Edwin L. Drake. “Fortunately that letter was not delivered until after they found oil.”

Cover of Edwin Drake biography by William Brice.On Saturday afternoon on August 27, at a depth of 69.5 feet, the drill bit had dropped into a crevice, Brice notes. Late the following afternoon Drake’s driller, “Uncle Billy” Smith, visited the site “and noticed a very dark liquid floating on top of the water in the hole, which, when sampled, turned out to be oil.” Drake’s Folly, as it was known to locals, was not such a folly after all, “for Drake had shown that large quantities of oil could be found by drilling into the earth. And so began the modern petroleum industry,” 

Commissioned in 2007 by the Oil Region Alliance in Oil City, Pa., to write a new Drake biography, Brice, professor emeritus in geology and planetary science at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, published his 661-page Myth, Legend, Reality – Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry.

The book, part of the 2009 celebration of the 150th anniversary of America’s first oil well, includes more than 200 pages of reference material and dozens of rare images. “Bill dug through the history related to Drake as no one has before, and the result is a much more complete picture of the man, his family and his accomplishments,” proclaimed geologist and editor of the Oilfield Journal Kathy J. Flaherty.

Myth, Legend, Reality – Edwin L. Drake and the Early Oil Industry is a well-written account of Drake and his times — and the history and significance of his 1859 discovery,” added Bruce Wells of the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. “Bill Brice provides the careful research needed to sort out the nonsense and brilliance of the man who established the American petroleum industry.”

A Johnstown resident, Pennsylvania, Brice was on the Pitt-Johnstown faculty from 1971 through 2005 and was a visiting professor in earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University from 1976 to 2002. Brice received the Distinguished Service Award from the History of Geology Division of the Geological Society of America in 2008. He has been president of the Petroleum History Institute and editor of its journal, Oil-Industry History.

“August 27, 1859, is one of those dates on which the world changed, Brice proclaimed in 2009. “Edwin Drake’s quest to find oil by drilling was a success, and the modern oil and gas industry took a giant leap forward. Even though the use of petroleum dates back to the first human civilizations, the events of that Saturday afternoon along the banks of Oil Creek near Titusville, Pennsylvania, provided the spark that propelled the petroleum industry toward the future.”

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Edwin Drake and his Oil Well.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/energy-education-resources/edwin-l-drake-oil-well. Last Updated: June 4, 2018. Original Published Date: August 1, 2009.


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