Contents and Arrangement Expanded View

Collection Overview

Roberts, Walter Brooke, 1823-1889.
Walter B. Roberts and Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company Correspondence
Manuscripts Division
Permanent URL:
1850-1902 (mostly 1865-1867)
1 box and 0.4 linear feet
Storage Note:
  • ReCAP (scarcpxm): Box 1


U.S. Civil War veteran Colonel E.A.L. (Edward Augustus Leonard) Roberts (1829-1881), of New York, revolutionized the nation's burgeoning oil industry with his invention of an explosive device, or "torpedo," which greatly increased oil wells' production. Upon the first successful explosion of one of his torpedoes in Titusville, Pennsylvania on January 21, 1865, Roberts and his brother, Walter B. Roberts (1823-1889), established the Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company. For almost two decades, the company controlled oil well production as Roberts was awarded sole rights to the highly contested torpedo patent in the fall of 1866. This collection consists primarily of incoming letters to Walter B. Roberts, mostly from E.A.L. Roberts, about the Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company and to a lesser degree one of its affiliated companies, Houghton, Roberts, & Company. Other correspondents include L.L. Houghton, various business associates, and patent attorneys. Also included are some financial and legal papers relating to the two companies.

Collection Description & Creator Information

Scope and Contents

This collection consists primarily of incoming letters to Walter B. Roberts of New York about the Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company and to a lesser degree one of its affiliated businesses, Houghton, Roberts, & Company. At the same time the Roberts Torpedo Company was founded, Walter and his brother Colonel E.A.L. Roberts also formed Houghton, Roberts, & Co. in Titusville with their brother-in-law, L.L. (Lucius Lycurgus) Houghton (1819-1905), the husband of Catharina Maria Roberts (1814-1869). A lumber yard and planing mill, Houghton, Roberts, & Co. produced oil barrels and oil tanks. Houghton sold his share and left the company a little over a year after its founding due to his contentious relationship with E.A.L.

Most of the letters to Walter are from E.A.L. Roberts with a significant amount from L.L. Houghton, both of whom were living in Titusville, Pa. Other correspondents include various affiliates of the Torpedo Company such as customers, clients, suppliers, investors and shareholders; and attorneys who represented the Roberts, especially Mason, Fenwick, & Lawrence, American and Foreign Patent Attorneys, D.C., in matters of the Roberts Torpedo patent and related lawsuits. Scattered throughout the collection are a few letters to E.A.L. Roberts and outgoing letters from Walter Roberts.

The letters, which begin with Colonel Robert's arrival in Titusville in January 1865, provide a significant amount of information about the experimentation with and development of his torpedoes, including the transition from gunpowder to nitroglycerin. They also document Roberts Torpedo Company and Houghton, Roberts, & Company's day-to-day operations and growth, as well as the challenges the brothers' enterprises faced; and provide some financial information about the companies. Enclosed with a few letters are receipt and expenditure reports for the Torpedo Company.

Other financial papers, primarily in the form of receipts, and legal papers of the two companies are also part of the collection. Included is the court transcript of a lawsuit involving E.A.L. Roberts and Professor Alexander Hamar, one of Roberts' main competitors in the Titusville area (November 1866). There are also some personal receipts and court papers relating to Walter B. and E.A.L. Roberts.

Collection Creator Biography:

Roberts, Walter Brooke, 1823-1889.

U.S. Civil War veteran Colonel E.A.L. (Edward Augustus Leonard) Roberts (1829-1881) of New York revolutionized the nation's burgeoning oil industry with his invention of an explosive device, or "torpedo," which greatly increased oil wells' production. In November 1864, Roberts applied for a patent to use a torpedo, or tin tube, black powder (gunpowder), and a "super incumbent water tamp" for shooting wells. The water cushioned the torpedo as it was lowered into the oil well and provided weight to hold the explosive force down in the well so the oil-bearing sandstone would crack and release the oil. One would then "shoot" the well by dropping a pointed weight to detonate the torpedo.

In early January 1865, Roberts arrived in Titusville, Pennsylvania, considered the birthplace of the U.S. oil industry, with several torpedoes of his own construction, and on January 21, successfully detonated one of the devices in the Ladies Well along Oil Creek. Shortly thereafter, he and his brother, Dr. Walter Brooke Roberts (1823-1889), established the Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company. A prominent dentist and merchant in New York, Walter B. Roberts served as the company's Secretary and Business Manager, initially managing the company from New York while his brother, as General Superintendent, ran operations in Titusville.

During the company's early years, E.A.L. Roberts continued to hone and aggressively market his torpedoes. Most importantly, in the summer of 1866, he began using nitroglycerin instead of gunpowder. Nitroglycerin detonations came to be used for oil well production for the next hundred years. The Roberts also confronted a good deal of competition from others who had experimented with gunpowder shots and began to file for patents. The company gained the upper hand when the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed Colonel Roberts' sole right to the patent in November 1866.

The decision to allow Roberts a monopoly on all types of torpedoes used in the oil industry caused great strife and led to numerous lawsuits and arrests. In order to circumvent Roberts Torpedo Company's control over oil well production, particularly its excessive fees, "moonlighters" as they came to be known, began illegally shooting wells at night with their own batches of nitroglycerin and crude equipment. E.A.L. Roberts sued countless individuals and companies, and hired Pinkerton National Detective Agency spies to protect his patent interests. He is believed to have been responsible for more civil litigation in defense of a patent than anyone in U.S. history. When the Roberts Torpedo patent expired in 1883, Congress refused to renew it due to the dissension it caused.

As the Roberts Torpedo Company prospered, the brothers established several affiliate companies, including W.B. Roberts & Son in Bradford, Pa. and the banking firm of Roberts and Company, Titusville, which they founded in 1872. After E.A.L. Roberts' death in 1881, the company continued to operate under the management of Walter and his son, Erastus Titus Roberts (1859-1947). In 1884, the Roberts Torpedo Company became the Cupler Torpedo Company when Walter sold the business to Adam Cupler Jr., a former employee. In 1937, the Otto Torpedo Company purchased the Cupler Torpedo Company, and the firm became the Otto Cupler Torpedo Company. It continues to operate out of Titusville as of 2014.

Collection History


Gift of Walter Roberts, 1965 (AM 18491).

This accession was separated from the Samuel Comfort Family Papers (C0407) during 2014 processing.


No material was separated during 2014 processing.

Processing Information

This collection was processed by Faith Charlton in January 2014. Finding aid written by Faith Charlton in January 2014.

Access & Use

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Single copies may be made for research purposes. To cite or publish quotations that fall within Fair Use, as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission is required. For instances beyond Fair Use, it is the responsibility of the researcher to determine whether any permissions related to copyright, privacy, publicity, or any other rights are necessary for their intended use of the Library's materials, and to obtain all required permissions from any existing rights holders, if they have not already done so. Princeton University Library's Special Collections does not charge any permission or use fees for the publication of images of materials from our collections, nor does it require researchers to obtain its permission for said use. The department does request that its collections be properly cited and images credited. More detailed information can be found on the Copyright, Credit and Citations Guidelines page on our website. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us through the Ask Us! form.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

For preservation reasons, original analog and digital media may not be read or played back in the reading room. Users may visually inspect physical media but may not remove it from its enclosure. All analog audiovisual media must be digitized to preservation-quality standards prior to use. Audiovisual digitization requests are processed by an approved third-party vendor. Please note, the transfer time required can be as little as several weeks to as long as several months and there may be financial costs associated with the process. Requests should be directed through the Ask Us Form.

Credit this material:

Walter B. Roberts and Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company Correspondence; Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Permanent URL:
Firestone Library
One Washington Road
Princeton, NJ 08544, USA
(609) 258-3184
Storage Note:
  • ReCAP (scarcpxm): Box 1

Find More

Related Materials

Drake Well Museum, Titusville, Pennsylvania: Roberts Family Business Records, 1896-1945.


American Oil and Gas Historical Society. "Shooter- A "Fracking" History." Petroleum History. April 20, 2013. Accessed January 18, 2014. Pees, Samuel T. Oil History. 2004. Accessed January 18, 2014. Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. "The Shooting Stars of Drake Well." Accessed January 15, 2014.

Subject Terms:
Inventions -- United States -- History -- 19th century -- Sources.
Inventors -- United States -- 19th century -- Sources.
Oil well drilling -- History -- 19th century -- Sources.
Oil well shooting -- History -- 19th century -- Sources.
Patents -- United States -- History -- 19th century -- Sources.
Petroleum industry and trade -- Pennsylvania -- History -- 19th century -- Sources.
Petroleum industry and trade -- United States -- History -- 19th century -- Sources.
Titusville (Pa.) -- History -- 19th century -- Sources.
Genre Terms:
Correspondence -- 19th century
Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company.
Houghton, Roberts, & Company
Houghton, Lucius Lycurgus, 1819-1905
Roberts, E.A.L. (Edward Augustus Leonard), 1829-1881