Yellow Dog Inventor

Sep 29, 2008 | Posted in Essays, Technology

Reprint courtesy of:

The American Oil and Gas Historical Society, Volume 5, No.3, September, 2008 Editor: Bruce Wells


Rare is the community oil and gas museum that doesn't have a "yellow dog" in its collection. The two-wicked lamp is an oilfield icon. Some say that the unusual design originated with whaling ships — but neither the Nantucket nor New Bedford whaling museums can find any such evidence.

Railroad museums have collections of cast iron smudge pots, but nothing quite like the oilfields' yellow dogs. Although many companies manufactured the iron or steel lamps, the yellow dog's origins remain in the dark.
Oil patch lore says these lanterns were so named because their two burning wicks resembled a dog's glowing eyes at night. Others say the lamps cast a dog's head shadow on the derrick floor.

Inventor Jonathan Dillen of Petroleum Centre, Pa., was first to patent what became the yellow dog in 1870, "for illuminating places out of doors, especially in and about derricks, and machin¬ery in the oil regions, whereby explosions are more dangerous and destructive to life and property than in most other places."

Dillen's patent was improved and reissued in 1872 and again in 1877, when it was assigned to John Eaton and E. H. Cole. "My improved lamp is intended to burn crude petroleum as it comes from the wells fresh and gassy. It is to be used, mainly, around oil wells, and its construction is such as to make it very strong, so that it cannot be easily broken or exploded."

Eaton, Cole and Burnham Co. grew from John Eaton's 1861 business trip to the booming oil region of western Pennsylvania. Within a few years, he set up his own business with Edward Cole. With the addition of Edward Burnham the company grew to become a preeminent supplier of oilfield equipment. It became Oil Well Supply Co. in 1878.

At its 45-acre Imperial Works alongside the Allegheny River in Oil City, Pa., Oil Well Supply Co. produced oilfield engines and "cast and malleable iron goods" — including yellow dogs. The 1884 catalog listed yellow dog lamps at a price of $1.50 each.

Oil Well Supply Co. became part of United States Steel Corp. in 1929 and today, along with their shadowy origins, yellow dogs are relegated to museums, antique shops and collectors.


See the essay Siverly and Oil Well Supply for further information on the Oil Well Supply company.