At first glance, Pattillo Higgins was not the kind of man who made an impression on you. Nor would you think him the kind of man who would change an industry, let alone the whole world. But that was what he was destined to do.
Born in the small town of Sabine Pass, Texas to James and Sarah (Raye) Higgins on December 5, 1863, Pattillo had all the earmarks of a lifelong failure. At the age of 6 his family moved to Beaumont, Texas, where he proceeded to drop out of school after fourth grade. His ended up apprenticing with his father, a gunsmith. As a teenager, he was a loudmouth and a troublemaker. At age seventeen, he got into serious trouble with the law when he began harassing a local black preacher, apparently a regular activity of his.
In this case, a local deputy tried to stop him. He pulled out his gun and began to shoot at the deputy. The deputy returned fire, and when it was all over, the deputy was dead; Pattillo had been shot in the arm.
An investigation followed, and Pattillo was cleared on the grounds of self-defense. The wound to his arm, however, grew septic and the arm had to be amputated. That put an end to his short lived career as a gunsmith, so he headed off to various logging camps in Texas and Louisiana. Remarkably, he seemed to have found some success as a one-armed logger, and it seemed not to have put a dent into his wild ways.
However, in 1885, his life took a dramatic turn following a Baptist revival meeting. He accepted Jesus into his life, gave up the logging world and returned to settle down in his native Beaumont, Texas and take up the life of a respectable businessman. As he explained, “I used to put my trust in pistols… now I put my trust in God.” The conversion was so complete, that Higgins began teaching Sunday School classes.
He took the money he had saved in the logging business and founded the Higgins Manufacturing Company – a brick-making and glass-making firm. He also became something of an amateur geologist.
Brick and glass manufacturing required the even-burning heat provided by either gas or oil. At that time, almost all the fuel burned in the United States, and indeed in the world, was coal. Oil, when you could find it, was both a rarity, and as such, expensive. Much of the world’s oil came, in fact, from whales. A difficult, dangerous and inherently limited source of supply. In 1859, Edwin Drake had successfully drilled for oil in the ground, what was then called rock oil, in Pennsylvania, with some success.
But Drake’s oil supplies, and subsequent other eastern oil fields were also small and limited. It seemed that rock oil would soon run out while coal supplies seemed absolutely limitless.
Just outside of Beaumont, there was a grassy hill called Spindletop. It was a favorite place for Church gatherings, and Higgins had been there many times with his Church group.
Higgins’ amateur study of geology led him to believe that there might be oil underneath the Spindletop hill. In geological terms, the structure was called a salt dome – an upwhelling of underground salt pushing through sedimentary rock.
No one else believed him or even thought it possible. The conventional wisdom of the time said that Texas, and in fact the entire Gulf Coast region had no potential for bearing any oil. Higgins believed otherwise, and with financial backing from George W. Carroll, who he knew from his Church, (and later a few other investors), Higgins proceeded to set up an oil drill and drill down into Spindletop.
After a year of stop and start drilling, Higgins had come up dry and was nearly out of money. Industry ‘experts’ believed Higgins to be a fool. His investors doubted that they would ever see a dime of their money back. But Higgins found new investors and pressed on.
Then, on January 10, 1901, Higgins struck oil.
He struck oil in a way that no one until then ever had.
At 1,139 feet, his drill bit tapped into a massive reserve of underground oil and gas. The pressure of the gas immediately blew a geyser of oil 150 feet into the air and continued to spew oil out for nine days until it was capped. Spindletop flowed at an estimated rate of 100,000 barrels of oil a day.
Nothing like this had ever been experienced before. A new age had been born. The petroleum age.
It was the event that gave birth to Exxon, Mobile, Texaco and Gulf Oil. It also gave birth to the automobile, the airplane, the world of plastics, pharmaceuticals, fertilizer, mechanized farm equipment, and pretty much everything we take for granted today.
Pattillo Higgins and Spindletop opened the door to a virtually limitless supply of cheap and dependable oil, the fluid that would become the lifeblood of the 20th Century and beyond. Prior to Spindletop, oil was expensive, complicated and difficult to come by. Spindletop changed everything.
On January 9, 2007, almost exactly 106 years to the day that Higgins hit oil in Texas, Steve Jobs struck his own kind of Spindletop at the Macworld conference in San Francisco.
Jobs was releasing the first iPhone.
Made largely of molded plastic, which is a petroleum product, the iPhone was very much yet another child of Spindletop. But here, the analogy goes far deeper, for what Higgins was to oil and the 20thCentury, Jobs would be to information and content and the 21stCentury.
Pattillo Higgins had tapped into an almost limitless supply of cheap and dependable oil at Spindletop, and that transformed the economy of the world in very fundamental ways. By releasing his incredibly popular iPhones (and setting off an explosion of competitors who also built and sold their own smartphones), Jobs created as massive a pool of content as Higgins had tapped in petroleum.
The lifeblood of the 20thCentury was oil. Almost everthing we did in the 20thCentury, from cars, to planes, to plastics to World Wars was based almost entirely on oil.
The lifeblood of the 21stCentury, however, is destined to be content. Between Facebook and Instagram and Amazon and Google and the Internet and cable TV and broadcast and broadband we consume content at a pace that was simply unimaginable even a decade ago. Our desire for content is limitless and so is our need for it.
Today, there are an estimated 3.5 billion iPhones and smartphones in use in the world today. Each of them is capable of producing vast amounts of content for virtually no cost. As the vast reserves of petroleum lay underneath the ground of Texas, untapped until Pattillo Higgins drilled into them and set them to work, so too is there a vast and almost unimaginable reservoir of potential content laying beneath the surface, all in the hands of the 3.5 billion smartphone and iPhone users. It awaits only its digital Higgins to tap into it.
A limitless supply of cheap and easy to use content waiting to be refined and put to work.
Cheap and plentiful content can change the world just the way cheap and plentiful oil did. All you need to do is build the refinery, so to speak.