Walter Benona Sharp, oil producer, son of James R. and Amanda (Forrest) Sharp, was born in Tipton County, Tennessee, on December 12, 1870. At the age of eight, following his mother's death, he was brought by his father to Texas. At sixteen he was self-supporting, and two years later he became interested in well drilling. He began contracting for the drilling of water wells in and around Dallas, using a crude early model of the rotary drilling rig. In 1893 he began oil prospecting; with his savings of $3,000 he went to Beaumont and drilled for the Gladys City Oil and Gas Manufacturing Company its first test for oil, on Spindletop Hill, only thirty yards from the spot where, eight years later, the first gusher of the Spindletop oilfield came in. Because of quicksand Sharp was forced to abandon the well at 418 feet. His capital had been completely exhausted, and with characteristic independence, rather than write for money to return home, he walked the 300 miles from Beaumont to Dallas. In 1895 Sharp drilled some shallow wells at Sour Lake; he found oil in limited quantities, and in 1896 he built a small refinery there. The following year he was one of the pioneer drillers at Corsicana, when the state's first commercial oilfield was developed in that area. While there he took his younger brother, James R. Sharp, into business with him and met J. S. Cullinan, who became a lifelong friend and associate in the development of the Texas Company (see TEXACO).
While drilling at Corsicana, Sharp originated the method of drilling with fluid mud to plaster and hold up the soft formation. He continued his experiments with mud for several years and eventually perfected this innovation, without which rotary drilling would have been largely impractical in soft soil. By using this method drillers who had worked for Sharp were able to penetrate the quicksands at Spindletop in 1901. Sharp had anticipated the success of the test, but a short illness prevented his being at Spindletop when the gusher came in. He shortly arrived on the scene, however. Having only a few thousand dollars available, he wired his friend, Ed Prather, to come from Dallas with all the cash he had or could borrow. Sharp began trading in leases and did a large drilling-contracting business. From that time on he ranked as one of the state's outstanding oil men. In 1902 W. B. and J. R. Sharp, Ed Prather, and Howard R. Hughes formed a partnership, the Moonshine Company. In 1905 Sharp organized and was president of the Producers Company, which later became a production subsidiary of the Texas Company. He drilled the Texas Company's first tests at Sour Lake Springs; the result was a 10,000-barrel gusher. The property made millions of dollars for the Texas Company, giving it the impetus that made it a world leader. Sharp's ability to locate oil-producing land was extraordinary. He developed for the Texas Company many thousands of barrels of daily production and thousands of acres of oil leases of incalculable value. In 1907 Sharp and Hughes were associated in drilling test wells at Goose Creek and Pierce Junction. When both wells had to be abandoned because of the hard rock encountered, the two men began to consider the possibility of developing a roller rock bit. It was eventually arranged for Hughes to proceed with the designing and construction of a bit, with capital provided equally by Sharp and Cullinan. The epochal result was the Sharp-Hughes Rock Bit, now in use throughout the world. The Sharp-Hughes Tool Company, formed to manufacture the bit, built a factory at Houston. Hughes received 50 percent of the stock for his development of the bit; the other 50 percent was divided between Sharp and Cullinan. At the time of Sharp's death in 1912, Hughes was given controlling interest at Sharp's request, and not long afterwards the company name was changed to Hughes Tool Company.
Sharp had a talent for mastering unusual difficulties. When a big gusher at Shreveport, Louisiana, caught fire, he developed a machine with which he tunneled diagonally from a safe distance, tapped the well, and drew off the oil, thus extinguishing one of the largest oil fires in history. The overtaxing of his strength at this time probably resulted in his death, which occurred on November 28, 1912. Sharp had the capacity for making and holding large numbers of friends. He possessed an extremely buoyant sense of humor and a philosophical outlook on life. His generosity was proverbial and his charities extensive, though usually unknown even to his immediate family. On January 28, 1897, he married Estelle L. Boughton, of Vassar, Michigan. They had three children. At the time of Sharp's death he ranked as one of the outstanding citizens of Texas and one of the most prominent figures in the Texas oil industry.