Drake had been hired to investigate the oil seeps on the ground near Titusville. There was plenty of oil -- the problem was how to get it out of the ground. At the time, ground collection consisted of gathering it from where it occurred naturally, which often failed to produce economically viable amounts of oil.
Drake's breakthrough occured when he drove a 32-foot iron pipe through the ground into the bedrock below, allowing him to drill inside the pipe without the hole collapsing from the water seepage. Within a day, his methods were being imitated by others in the immediate area. By 1871, the region was producing 5.8 million barrels a year.
Drake set up a stock company to extract and market the oil, but he failed to patent his drilling invention. After losing all of his savings in oil speculation, in 1871, Pennsylvania voted an annuity of $1,500 to the "crazy man" whose determination founded the oil industry.
He died on November 9, 1880, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and he and his wife were buried at Titusville, near the oil fields that he helped create.