Drake’s oil drill is one of the stranger stories, in a collection of innovation origin stories where strange is common.
The oil drill vastly lowered the cost and increased the efficiency of collecting oil. Before the drill, oil was usually collected in naturally formed pools at the ground surface. Most early oil was distilled into kerosene for lamps or home heating.
Initially hired by Seneca Oil to look for an oil Drake invented a rod-like system, the modern oil drill. Before then oil exploration involved digging holes, similar to water wells.
He dug ever further. Finding nothing, Seneca eventually cut his funding.
People stopped by to laugh at him. He took a personal loan to continue operating his steam-engine driven drill, drilling deeper.
Drake eventually discovered oil but failed to patent his methods or exploit the oil.
Countless people earned a fortune drilling for oil. Drake, however, fixated on the mechanics of his drill, not the business. He would have died in poverty but the State of Pennsylvania awarded him a $1,500 annuity, a tribute to igniting a new industry. Oil barons also donated funds to support him.
Others claim to have invented oil drilling equipment before Drake. Their unverified claims were likely fabricated to obtain patents.