Water wells and basins have existed since the time of the Phoenicians and Abyssinians. However, water wells were dug by hand until the beginning of the 19th century. Beginning in the 1800s, water wells began to be mechanically drilled for the first time, originating in the United States in 1808. Since that time, innovations in power sources have served as the principal mover of water well drilling history.
The first successfully drilled well in the United States occurred in 1808 by the Ruffner Brothers at Great Buffalo Lick near Charleston, West Virginia. It was drilled for the brine water that existed below the mire and quicksand that sat on the surface. The well was created by using a 4-foot in diameter hollow sycamore tree, which was sawn off squarely and placed in the mire. This tree was set upright and braced. A platform was built and buckets used to acquire the water from where it lay. Although water was involved, the principal goal of the well was salt.
The first professional water driller was Levi Disbrow. In 1823, he came from the salt industry in the areas surrounding West Virginia and Ohio to move to the north of the Potomac River to become the first professional water well driller. Another important figure is Edwin L. Drake. In 1859, Edwin L. Drake became the first American to use a pipe to separate water from other materials being drilled for to stop contamination. Drake was searching for oil and eventually became the first American to drill successfully for oil.
The power sources of well drilling changed greatly over time. Initially, all wells were manually dug or drilled. The first wells to be powered by an outside source were powered by horses that walked on a circular track. In the 1890s, steam power began being used in all water well drilling platforms and remained the primary power source for the next 50 years until the invention of the internal combustion engine. When the internal combustion engine was applied to water well drilling, it made tools portable and more energy efficient in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Developed in the 1820s and 1830s, augur boring machines began to be patented. These machines are used to cut through soil and rock. They allowed for wells to be drilled deeper and to provide water without the risk of contaminants into basic pipes made out of early forms of steel or wood. In 1870, cable tool rigs came to the forefront of well drilling technology. These used an 8-to-10-foot Samson post connected to a walking beam and a centre pivot, which moved freely to drill. In 1884, a standardisation occurred in cable tool rigs, specifying their exact dimensions. 1908 saw the introduction of the roller cone bit for rotary drilling. Well drilling was platform-based until the advent of portable tools in the 1940s, with the introduction of internalised power sources, giving water well drilling the tools it currently uses.
Water well drilling was invented in the United States. Ruffner's first well was drilled in West Virginia. This led to further drilling of water wells with the intention for salt in the Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio region throughout the early 1800s. The first freshwater well was drilled in New Jersey in the mid 1800s. From there, water well drilling practices spread outward, primarily focusing on areas that became hotbeds of new oil drilling, such as Texas and Louisiana, until water well drilling technology became ubiquitous across the United States and the world.