History of Drilling

This is a timeline that outlines some of the major developments in the technology and methods of the drilling industry.

100 BC - Chinese Han Dynasty

The technique of oil drilling through percussion or rotary drilling has its origins dating back to the ancient Chinese Han Dynasty approximately 100 BC. Percussion drilling was used at this time to extract natural gas in the Sichuan province. The equipment was crafted from available materials, heavy iron drill bits and long bamboo poles. Han Dynasty oil wells made by percussion drilling reached a depth of 30 feet (10 meters). This depth increased with the technology to reach 300 feet (100 meters) by the 10th century. By the 16th century depths of more than 2,000 feet (600 meters) were achieved.

The Chinese drilling technology was introduced to Europe in 1828. A modernized variant of the Chinese drilling technique was used by American businessman Edwin Drake to drill Pennsylvania's first oil well.



1806 - First American Spring-Pole well

The first properly documented spring-pole well was drilled by David and Joseph Ruffner in 1806 on the Kanawha River, West Virginia. A depth of 58 feet - 17.5 meters was achieved, and this was a precursor to spring-pole drilling in the oil industry.


1821 - First Gas well in America

In 1821, the first well specifically intended to obtain natural gas was dug in Fredonia, New York, by William Hart. Hart dug a 27 foot - 9 meter well to obtain a larger flow of gas to the surface. Hart is regarded by many as the 'father of natural gas' in America.


1825 - First 4-legged derrick

A patent for the first four-legged derrick was given to L. Disbrow, originally in 1825 and then elaborated on in 1830. The structure consisted of legs made of square timber wood. The girts were mortised and inserted into the wooden legs with keys so the structure could be dismantled.


1829 - America's first Oil Well

Kentucky drillers were drilling an exploratory well for salt brine. They hit an oil well instead. The pressure of the gas and oil underneath the surface forced an enormous geyser into the air. This was noted to be America’s first oil well.


1833-1841 - Grenelle Well

The Grenelle well in France was reached by a dry rotary auger method. It was drilled to 1,771 feet and took eight years.


1841 - Drilling Jars Patented

William Morris, a spring pole driller in West Virginia, patented drilling jars.


1845 - Water Circulation used in Drilling

The French engineer Pierre-Pascal Fauvelle was the first to utilize water circulation in drilling. Using the new method, he drilled 560 feet in 23 days.


1845 -  Invention of the Rotary Drill

The first rotary drill was invented by Englishman Robert Beart.


1849 - Mechanical Percussion Drill Invented

J.J. Couch invented the first mechanical percussion drill, which he later perfected with the help of fellow inventor J.W. Fowle. Steam was admitted alternately to each end of a cylinder. The drill was thrown like a lance at the rock on the forward stroke, caught and then drawn back on the reverse stroke, and then thrown again. It was the first drill that did not depend on gravity. It went to work on the Hoosac Tunnel project, which bored a passage for trains through hills near North Adams, Massachusetts.


1857- Reverse Circulation Drilling Patented

Bowles patented reverse circulation drilling.


1859 - Drake Well

Edwin Drake and George Bissell successfully use a drilling rig on a commercial well drilled specifically to produce oil in Pennsylvania. The reached a depth of 69 feet - 23 meters.


1860 - Steam-powered Oil Derrick

J.C. Rathbone drilled a discovery well to 140 feet using a steam engine on the banks of the Great Kanawha River in the Charleston, W.Va., area. The well produced about 100 barrels of oil a day.


1863 - Diamond Core Drill Invented

The diamond core drill was invented by Rodolphe Leschot, a French engineer. Leschot patented the device in the United States.


1866 - Sweeny's Rotary Rig

On January 2, 1866, Peter Sweeney of New York City was granted a U.S. patent for a drilling system with many innovative technologies. Sweeny’s 1866 rotary rig design, which improved upon an 1844 British patent by Robert Beart, applied rotary drilling’s “peculiar construction particularly adapted for boring deep wells.”


1866 - Compressed air Burleigh Drill

Charles Burleigh, John W. Brooks, and Stephen F. Gates patented a mechanical drill meant to be used on the Hoosac tunnel: the compressed air Burleigh drill. The tunnel spurred several innovations in drilling technology, including the earlier Couch/Fowle drill.


1866 - Roberts Torpedo Invented

Edward A. L. Roberts developed the first torpedo and submitted a patent application in November 1864. Roberts, an American Civil War veteran, came up with the concept of using water to "tamp" the resulting explosion, after watching Confederate artillery rounds explode in a canal at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Roberts developed his first torpedoes in 1865 and 1866.


1871 - Ingersoll Rock Drill

Simon Ingersoll received a patent for a rock drill on a tripod mount. The drill was designed for mining and tunneling. It enabled the operator to drill at virtually any angle. He formed Ingersoll Rock Drill to capitalize on this invention, a company that is a precursor to Ingersoll-Rand.


1876 - Diamond Drill Patented

John Vivian was given the first U.S. patent for a diamond drill. While other drills before its time bored holes through a succession of blows, this invention allowed the core to remain intact. This made it very valuable for prospectors.


1880 - Bucyrus-Erie Company Founded

Founded in Bucyrus, Ohio. The company later became famous in the drilling industry as Bucyrus-Erie, a maker of cable-tool rigs.


1882 - First well drilled with rotary equipment

Brothers M.C. and C.E. Baker drilled the first well with rotary equipment. They pumped water with a windmill.


1884 - Sargeant Drill Company Founded

Henry C. Sergeant started the Sergeant Drill Company to manufacture a rock drill he had invented, which included using compressed air to move the drill’s piston onto the steel in a hammering motion. Sergeant Drill Company later merged with Ingersoll Rock Drill to form Ingersoll-Sergeant Drill Company.


1889 - First Electric Drill Patented

Arthur James Arnot patented the world's first electric drill on Aug. 20. The new device was designed for rock drilling, primarily in coal mines.


1890 - First Diamond Core Hole

Edmund J. Longyear drilled the first diamond core hole in the Mesabi Iron Range in northern Minnesota. He formed a contract diamond drilling company to serve the rapidly growing U.S. iron ore mining and steel industry.


1891 - Flexible Shafts for Drilling Bits

John Smalley Campbell issued the first U.S. patent for the use of flexible shafts to rotate drilling bits. The patent was for dental applications, but was broad enough to cover larger scales, such as those used now in horizontal oil wells.


1893 - Invention of the Calyx Drill

The Calyx Drill was developed by Australian, Francis Davis, around 1893. This tool, used for drilling large holes in rock, was adopted in many countries around the world as it reduced waste and was highly economical.


1895 - Rotary method used in Oil Well Drilling

By 1895 the Baker brothers were using their rotary method for oilwell drilling, in the Corsicana field of Navarro County, Texas.


1897 - Invention of water-cooled Drill

John G. Leyner invented a water-cooled drill that helped dampen dust raised in drilling.

1900 - Present day

1900 - Mud Drilling is Born

Drillers at Spindletop, including brothers Curt and Al Hamill and Peck Byrd, noticed that muddied-up freshwater could help stabilize a formation and prevent borehole collapse.


1901 - Spindletop Oil Gusher

Captain Anthony F. Lucas at Spindletop began drilling with a steam-driven rotary rig and a double-pronged fishtail bit. The gusher at Spindletop lasted nine days and ushered in the first Texas oil boom.


1902 - Sharp-Hughes Tool Co.

Howard Hughes Sr. and Walter Sharp founded the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company. The Hughes name lives on today in the name of the company Baker-Hughes.


1903 - Beginnings of Boart Longyear

Edmund J. Longyear and John E. Hodge formed Longyear & Hodge, the manufacturing partnership that would eventually evolve into Boart Longyear. The company's early drills were steam powered.


1909 - Rock Eater Created

Howard Hughes Sr. and Walter Sharp introduced the Sharp-Hughes Rock Bit, which was nicknamed the "rock eater." It was suited for deep boring through medium and hard rock.


1911 - Standard Oil ordered to Break up

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Standard Oil, which at the time controlled more than 90 percent of U.S. production, was a monopoly and that the company must be broken up to create competition in the market.


1912 - Steel Derrick Patented

Lee C. Moore patented a system that clamped and secured bracing to steel pipe legs to build a steel derrick.


1915 - Rotary Table and Kelly

The rotary table and kelly were first used. The primary function of the rotary table was to transmit torque to the drill string via the kelly, a section of pipe with a square cross-section that slotted through a similar shape on the rotating table.


1915 - Core Splitter

Hugh Roberts, working as a geologist for Edmund Longyear, designed a new form of technology called a core splitter, which divided cores into 3 – 5 inch lengths for better analysis. Drilling firms used Roberts's core splitter as standard equipment.


1917 - Invention of the Sub

Hughes Tool Company (formerly the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company) introduced the sub, a large-diameter reamer placed above the bit designed to keep boreholes straight.


1918 - Rotary table Innovations

Victor York and Walter G. Black of Standard Oil Company of California were granted a patent for driving the rotary table with a shaft. This innovation guaranteed the ongoing success of the rotary drilling method.


1920 - Portable seismic rig development

Portable percussion-type seismic rigs were invented.


1921 - First Geothermal Power Plant

John D. Grant drilled a geothermal well to power the world's first geothermal power plant in California. The plant provided electricity to light a resort called The Geysers.


1922 - Detachable Drill Bit developed

Arthur L. Hawkesworth of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company developed the first extensively-used detachable rock drill bit.


1925 - Diesel Power

The rotary drilling method was improved with the use of diesel power.


1929 - First horizontal Oil well

The first true horizontal oil well was drilled near Texon, Texas.


1930 - First portable Rotary Rig

George E. Failing introduced the first portable rotary rig to the industry. The idea first came after he mounted an existing rig on a 1927 Ford farm truck, adding a power take-off assembly to transfer power from the truck engine to the drill.


1931 - Marsh Funnel invented

Harlen Marsh of General Petroleum Company invented the Marsh Funnel which measures relative viscosity of drilling fluid. He donated the concept for the device to the drilling industry.


1933 - Tricone drilling bit patented

The Hughes Tool company was granted a U.S. patent for the tricone drilling bit.


1937 - Cantilever Drilling Mask

Lee C. Moore, known for the standard derrick, introduced a cantilever-type drilling mast.


1946 - Increased capacity in irrigation wells

Reverse circulation was adapted for use in drilling large-diameter irrigation wells. These higher capacity wells allowed farms to thrive.


1949 - Portable Continuous Flight Auger drill

Mobile Drilling produced its first portable continuous flight auger (CFA) drill.


1951 - Tricone drilling bits entered general market

The Hughes Tool Company's patent on the tricone drilling bit expired, setting off a flurry of activity as competitors entered the market.


1953 - Deepest cable-tool well

In June 1953, the New York State Natural Gas Corporation abandoned a project after having drilled the world's deepest cable-tool well to a depth of 11,145 feet - 3396 m. The well was located in Van Etten, N.Y. The project started five years earlier.


1953 - Wireline core retrieval system patented

Longyear applied for a patent for the first wireline core retrieval system.


1958 - First downhole drilling motors

The first downhole drilling motors, or mud motors, were designed and manufactured by Dyna-Drill. The motor was based on the 1930 Moineau design for progressive cavity pumps.


1960 - OPEC Founded

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was founded.


1977 - Compax, PDC bits

General Electric Research Lab (GE) introduced a new synthetic material made of diamond grains sintered together with cobalt. This new material, Compax, could be made into various shapes and retained diamond’s natural property of extreme hardness. Bits with this kind of cutter are generically called PDC bits.


1978 - Mud pulse telemetry

Teleco Oilfield Services Inc., together with the U.S. Department of Energy, introduced mud pulse telemetry, now a widely used method of transmitting measurement while drilling data to the surface.


1980 - Hydraulic fracturing

George P. Mitchell of Mitchell Energy & Development Corp. began experimenting with hydraulic fracturing in horizontal wells in the Barnett Shale near Fort Worth.


1997 - Sonic Drilling

The Versa-Sonic drill rig was put into operation. Versa-Drill International Inc. and Bowser-Morner built this rig that incorporated Ray Roussy’s new sonic drill head.


2012 - Zipper fracking

Professors at Texas Tech University developed “zipper fracking,” which is when operators drill two wells side by side. The process allowed both wells to produce more oil and gas.