ACS to honor origins of Pennsylvania oil industry in two Chemical Landmark ceremonies

WASHINGTON, Aug. 13, 2009 — The development of the Pennsylvania oil industry will be designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society (ACS) in two ceremonies later this month.

On Aug. 26, the construction by Samuel Kier of the first still to refine oil into kerosene will be honored at the John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. On Aug. 27, a plaque commemorating the drilling by Col. Edwin Drake of the first successful oil well will be presented to the Drake Well Museum in Titusville, Penn. Thomas H. Lane, Ph.D., president of the Society, will present the plaque to each of the recipients.

“The construction of the first still and the drilling of the first oil were certainly transforming achievements for chemistry and chemical engineering,” Lane says. ”Our lives, our history and modern society as we know it were changed immeasurably, and in ways unimaginable 150 years ago. The ACS has recognized only 63 chemical landmarks since the beginning of the program in 1993. This dual award today is most appropriate.”

“Our community as well as the entire country should be proud of the legacy of invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship by the pioneers of the oil industry represented by Samuel Kier and Edwin Drake,” said Pennsylvania state Representative Scott Hutchinson (R-Venango/Butler). “Their visions of how a previously ignored, seeping black liquid could be chemically refined into so many useful products has changed modern life incalculably in the last 150 years.”

Oil seeps to the surface in many parts of the world, including western Pennsylvania, where the local indigenous people used it for medicinal purposes. It also contaminated salt wells, coming to the surface with salt brine. Samuel Kier, who with his father owned salt wells in Tarentum, about twenty miles north of Pittsburgh, started marketing oil from his wells as “Kier’s Petroleum, or Rock Oil,” claiming it cured burns, ulcers, cholera, asthma, indigestion, and rheumatism.

Kier could not sell his preparation fast enough, so he began looking for other uses for his petroleum. He sent a sample to Professor James Curtis Booth, later president of the ACS, who suggested distilling the oil for use in lighting. Armed with a drawing from Booth, Kier built a cast-iron, one-barrel still and began selling kerosene.

Demand rose, but supplies were limited because of the difficulty of getting oil out of the ground. Enter Col. Drake, whose title came not from military advancement but because one of his sponsors thought it lent prestige to the quest for oil.

Drake’s sponsors in the newly formed Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company dispatched him to Titusville, Penn., where he hired William “Uncle Billy” Smith, a blacksmith who had done some drilling. Because the drilling was done about 150 feet from Oil Creek and below the level of the stream, the hole kept filling with water.

Smith tried pumping out the water, with little success. Finally, Drake and Smith obtained cast iron pipe which they drove about 32 feet into the bedrock — past the water — using a white-oak battering ram. In mid-August Smith began drilling his well, through the pipe, with steam power, averaging about three feet a day.

On Saturday, Aug. 27, with the drill at a depth of 69 feet, work stopped. The next day, “Uncle Billy” inspected the well and saw fluid at the top of the pipe. Smith realized it was oil. News soon spread along Oil Creek and into Titusville, but Drake did not get the word until Monday morning when he arrived at the well and saw Smith surrounded by barrels, tubs, and jars of oil. No one realized it at the time, but Drake had drilled in the only spot in the region where oil could be found at such a shallow depth as 69 feet.

Pennsylvania Senator Bob Robbins, a Republican, said: “It is fitting that the American Chemical Society recognizes the Drake Well in Titusville as National Historic Chemical Landmark. The historic significance of the Drake Well cannot be overstated. The discovery of oil reshaped the Commonwealth, our young nation and ultimately the world. Clearly the transition of America from an agrarian nation to an industrial superpower was sparked and advanced by the availability, extraction and distribution of Pennsylvania sweet oil. Pennsylvania and the nation can be proud of that achievement and also the fact that historic site has been memorialized by the ACS.”

The ceremony in Titusville takes place in the 150th anniversary of Drake “discovering” oil and is part of a larger, public ceremony commemorating the event.

The American Chemical Society established the chemical landmarks program in 1992 to recognize seminal historic events in chemistry and to increase awareness of the contributions of chemistry to society. This will be the 10th Landmark designated in Pennsylvania. Some of the previous Pennsylvania Landmarks include the Pennsylvania home of Joseph Priestley in Northumberland, the development of Tagamet®, the ulcer medication, by what is now GlaxoSmithKline at its facilities in the United Kingdom and King of Prussia, Penn., the development of do-it-yourself paints by Philadelphia-based Rohm and Haas, and the synthesis of progesterone at Penn State University.

Other landmarks named through this prestigious program have included the invention of Bakelite®, the discovery of penicillin, the development of Tide laundry detergent, and the work of historical figures, including Joseph Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier, and George Washington Carver, among others. For more on the Landmark program, please visit


he development of the Pennsylvania oil industry