Offshore Drilling Units allow drilling for oil underwater.
Early patents describe over-water drilling wells that never worked. Thomas Rowland filed an 1869 patent for a “submarine drilling apparatus.” There are limited records showing submerged oil wells in 1891, in Grand Lake in Ohio.
However, it wasn’t until 1894 that offshore exploration started in earnest. Henry Williams started exploring for oil around the Santa Barbara coastline. Early wells were promising but Williams theorized more oil is offshore. In 1896, he built a long pier and mounted an oil pump on top, the first offshore drilling unit. The well was productive and soon almost two dozen oil companies were pumping for oil off 14 piers along the California coast.
By 1911, Gulf Refining Company switched from piers to tugboats and barges in Louisiana. When they found a productive well, they’d build a floating platform anchored to the underlying seabed. Water Pyron noticed bubbles in a Texas lake. He and his associates realized the bubbles were flammable. In 1911, they drilled to a depth of 2,185 feet (666 meters) and struck oil. Their well produced 450 barrels of oil per day.
Offshore production stalled during WWI as the country focused on the war effort. However, by 1938 Pure Oil and Superior Oil built freestanding drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, predecessors of the modern rig. The oil field contained four million barrels. In 1947, Kerr-McGee built a platform 10 miles (16 km.) out to sea. Despite the distance, the sea was only 20 feet (6 meters) deep. That well produced 40 barrels per hour, setting off a boom of offshore drilling.
Ever larger rigs were built in ever deeper water. The thirst for oil was unquenchable. However, the rigs are dangerous and there have been a relatively large number of fatalities. Additionally, offshore rigs can cause catastrophic environmental damage. The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill leaked 4.9 million barrels of oil, polluting hundreds of miles of otherwise pristine coastline. Among other sea-life, infant dolphin deaths increased six-fold. As of 2019, the spill cost BP $65 billion USD.
A drill bit sounds relatively petty compared to the other inventions on this list. Granted, it’s not Watt’s condensing steam engine, Edison’s long-lasting lightbulb, Tesla’s induction motor or the Wright Brothers airplane. But Hughes drill bit dramatically lowered the cost of drilling for oil. It also opened previously unavailable oil fields where oil reserves lay beneath rock. This enabled low-cost fuel for the burgeoning auto industry.
Howard Hughes, Sr. partnered with Walter Sharp in 1902 to drill for oil in Texas. Like everybody else, they became frustrated that their drill bits kept breaking. They worked on innovating a better bit in 1906, achieved a dramatically better one in 1908, patented it in 1909. Eventually, they quit drilling to start their drill bit company, Sharp-Hughes Tool Company. Sharp died in 2012 and Hughes bought out his interest. Howard Sr. died in 1924 and his son bought out the interest he didn’t own.
Hughes Jr., the billionaire, never showed an interest in the drill bit company. He used the cash flow to focus on movies, aircraft, and developing Las Vegas. Hughes tool dominated the oil bit market in its heyday. Even today, it continues to hold a strong market share (after merging with Baker International to become Baker Hughes International in 1987).
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.