Your source for energy education. Petroleum history offers a context

for teaching the modern business of meeting America's energy needs.

Oil and Natural Gas History, Education Resources, Museum News, Exhibits and Events

Archive for the 'Petroleum Technology' Category


Project Gasbuggy was the first in a series of Atomic Energy Commission downhole nuclear detonations to release natural gas trapped in shale. This was “fracking” late 1960s style.

Scientists lower a 13-foot by 18-inches diameter nuclear warhead into a well in New Mexico. The experimental 29-kiloton Project Gasbuggy device will be detonated at a depth of 4,240 feet. Los Alamos Lab photo.

The underground detonation was part of a bigger program begun in the late 1950s to explore peaceful uses of nuclear explosions.

In December 1967, government scientists – exploring the peacetime use of controlled atomic explosions – detonated Gasbuggy, a 29 kiloton nuclear device they had lowered into a natural gas well in rural New Mexico. The Hiroshima bomb was about 15 kilotons.

Project Gasbuggy included experts from the Atomic Energy Commission, the U.S. Bureau of Mines and El Paso Natural Gas Company.

Near three low-production natural gas wells, the team drilled to a depth of 4,240 feet – and lowered a 13-foot-long by 18-inch-wide nuclear device into the borehole. Read the rest of this entry »


Community museums educate visitors about early petroleum technologies, including oilfield cannons used for firefighting after lightning strikes at storage tanks. Oil patch artillery exhibits often can be found at oil and gas museums in the Great Plains.

oilfield cannons

A cloud of black smoke marks the site of an early oil tank fire being fought with oilfield artillery as spectators look on. This rare photo is from the collection of the Butler County History Center & Kansas Oil Museum in El Dorado.

“Oil Fires, like battles, are fought by artillery” was the catchy phrase in an 1880s magazine article from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:

“Lightning had struck the derrick, followed pipe connections into a nearby tank and ignited natural gas, which rises from freshly produced oil. Immediately following this blinding flash, the black smoke began to roll out.”

“A Thunder Storm in the Oil Country,” a December 17, 1884, first-person account in MIT’s The Tech magazine, described what happened next:

“Without stopping to watch the burning tank-house and derrick, we followed the oil to see where it would go. By some mischance the mouth of the ravine had been blocked up and the stream turned abruptly and spread out over the alluvial plain.

“Here, on a large smooth farm, were six iron storage tanks, about 80 feet in diameter and 25 feet high, each holding 30,000 barrels of oil. The burning oil spread with fearful rapidity over the level surface, and finally touched the sides of the nearest tank. Read the rest of this entry »


Oil patch lore says the yellow dog lantern was so named because its 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.

Jonathan Dillen’s lantern was “especially adapted for use in the oil regions…where the explosion of a lamp is attended with great danger by causing destructive conflagration and consequent loss of life and property.”

Rare is the community oil and natural 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 these heavy, odd shaped, crude-oil burning lanterns once prevalent on petroleum fields from Pennsylvania to California.

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, Pennsylvania, was first to patent what became the yellow dog in 1870. Read the rest of this entry »



From the petroleum industry’s earliest days, when tools stuck downhole, drilling stopped. Money and time evaporated. An oil well fishing expert took over.

“Fishing” Tools

The loss of a drilling tool down a well bore has caused trouble practically since the first commercial well in America.

The challenge of retrieving broken (and often expensive) equipment obstructing a well – “fishing” – has tormented oil and natural gas exploration companies since the first tool stuck irretrievably at 134 feet and ruined a Pennsylvania well.

It was just four days after the historic August 27, 1859, discovery by Edwin Drake along Oil Creek in Titusville, in the “valley that changed the world,” that a far less known driller got his iron chisel wedged tight.

John Grandin, who drilled his well using a simple spring pole and improvised his well fishing tools, not only lost his drill bit (an industry first), he ended up with the first dry hole in U.S. petroleum history. Read more about him in the First Dry Hole.

In those early days of the industry, the search for petroleum was less an earth science and more an art. Even as drilling technologies evolved from spring poles and cable tools to modern rotary rigs, downhole problems remained – especially as wells reached new depths.

The term fishing came from early percussion drilling using cable-tools. When the derrick’s Manila rope broke, a crewman lowered a hook and attempted to pull out the well’s heavy iron bit. More advance attachments followed.

The term fishing came from early percussion drilling using cable-tools. When the derrick’s manila rope or wire line rope broke, a crewman lowered a hook and attempted to pull out the well’s heavy iron bit. More advance attachments followed. Note the fishing tools to the left of the drill pipe.

Like its ancient predecessor the spring pole, early cable-tool rigs utilized percussion drilling, the repeated lifting and dropping of a heavy chisel using hemp ropes.

Drilling time and depth improved with the addition of steam power and tall, wooden derricks. But as the well got deeper, frequent stops were needed to bail out water and cuttings – and sharpen the wedged drill bit made of iron. Forges were often on the derrick floor.

Often tools would get jammed deep in the borehole. Perhaps the manila rope or wire line would break. A pipe connection might bend or break. The increasingly heavy downhole tool assemblies could no longer be lifted and dropped.

On the rig floor, fishing tools had to be lowered by a line into the well, armed at their end with spears, clamps and hooks. Sometimes a wood, wax and nails “impression block” was first lowered to get an idea of what lay downhole.

Boot Jacks, Die Nipples and Whipstocks

“Well fishing tools are constantly being improved and new ones introduced,” explains the author of A Handbook of the Petroleum Industry. David T. Day published volume one of his book in 1922.

Describing cable tool operations, he writes that the basic principle of well fishing tools often involved milled wedges – on a spear or in a cylinder – for recovering lost tubing or casing.

Hundreds of designs were patented, each designed to catch some tool or part that broken or lost in the borehole, writes Day. Although fishing tools could be improvised on site, many already were available to get the job done.

“Simpler types of fishing tools comprise horn sockets, corrugated friction sockets, rope grabs, rope spears, bit hooks, spuds, whipstocks, fluted wedges, rasps, bell sockets, rope knives, boot jacks, casing knives and die nipples.” notes Day.

Basic fishing tools include the spear and socket, each with milled edges. Using nails and wax, an impression block helps determine what is stuck downhole. Image from A Handbook of the Petroleum Industry, 1922.

Basic fishing tools include the spear and socket, each with milled edges. Using nails and wax, an impression block helps determine what is stuck downhole. Image from A Handbook of the Petroleum Industry, 1922.

These and other devices, when used with an auger stem in various combinations called jars, can secure a powerful upward stroke or “jar” and thus dislodge and recover the tool being sought, he explains.

“The jars, essentially and universally used in fishing with cable tools, consist off two heavy forged-steel links, interlocking as the links of a cable chain, but fitting together more snugly,” he adds.

“Many lost tools that cannot be recovered are drilled up or ‘side-tracked” (driven into or against the wall) and passed in drilling,” Day concludes. “Much depends upon the skill and patience of the driller.”

Once all well fishing tools failed, a final resort was a whipstock, which allowed the bit to angle off and actually bypass the fish but leaves the operator with a deviated hole, adds another historian. This was sometimes unpopular where wells were closely spaced.

By the early 1900s, rotary drilling introduced the hollow drill stem that enabled broken rock debris to be washed out of the borehole. It led to far deeper wells.

By the early 1900s, rotary drilling introduced the hollow drill stem that enabled broken rock debris to be washed out of the borehole. It led to far deeper wells.

As drilling with rotary rigs became more common in the early 1900s, fishing methods adapted.

“In rotary drilling, the only tools ordinarily used in the well are the drill pipe and bits,” Day writes in his 1922 book, adding that the rotary fishing tools, “were comparatively free from the complexities of cable-tool work.”

Most rotary fishing jobs were caused by “twist offs” (broken drill pipe), although the bit, drill coupling or tool joints may break or unscrew. As in cable-tool fishing, an impression block often was needed to determine the proper fishing tool.

However, even back then – and especially now with wells miles deep and often turned horizontally – when a downhole problem occurred, the well could be lost for good – like John Grandin’s spring pole well in 1859.

Although fishing technologies have made great advances, efficiently “making hole” remains as vital to an exploration company’s success today as it was more than 150 years ago.

Read more about the evolution of petroleum exploration in Making Hole – Drilling Technology.

Deep Fishing in Oklahoma

The Anadarko Basin is a geologic feature covering approximately 50,000 square miles primarily in west-central Oklahoma. It holds vast amounts of natural gas miles below the surface.

Beginning in the late 1950s, exploration companies attempted to reach the natural gas. In 1974, the record-setting Bertha Rogers well in Beckham County got stuck…and had to be fished.

A granite monument at Third and Pioneer streets in Elk City notes: “The Deep Anadarko Basin of Western Oklahoma is one of the most prolific gas provinces of North America. Wells drilled here have been among the world’s deepest.”

See Anadarko Basin in Depth.

oil well fishing

The Parker Drilling Rig No. 114 attracts tourists to Elk City and the historic Casa Grande Hotel, home of the shuttered Anadarko Museum of Natural History.

Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society and this website with a donation.


 Scientists chose Oklahoma's Arbuckle Mountains to est a new technology in 1921, seismic surveying, "because an entire geologic section from the Basal Permian to the basement mass of granite is exposed."

A sign and marker commemorating the August 9, 1921, test of seismic technology is located on I-35 at a scenic turnout near Ardmore, Oklahoma, about halfway between Oklahoma City and Dallas.

A monument in Seminole, Oklahoma, commemorates the December 4, 1928, birth of reflection seismography, a vital petroleum exploration technology.

An earth science technology revolutionized petroleum exploration in the late 1920s – and led to major oilfield discoveries worldwide.

The technology evolved from efforts to locate enemy artillery during World War I.

Although the oilfield technology came from several competing inventors, a 1921 experiment of an Oklahoma physicist stood out.

“Oklahoma is the birthplace of the reflection seismic technique of oil exploration,” proclaims the Oklahoma Historical Society.

“This geophysical method records reflected seismic waves as they travel through the earth helping to find oil bearing formations,” the historical society notes on a granite monument northeast of Ardmore.

The technology has been responsible for discovering many of the world’s largest oil and natural gas fields, containing billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.

According to Oklahoma oil patch historians, it was thanks to pioneering research led by Dr. J. C. Karcher, that the first reflection seismograph geologic section was measured during an experiment near Ardmore in 1921.

Scientists chose Oklahoma's Arbuckle Mountains to est a new technology in 1921, seismic surveying, "because an entire geologic section from the Basal Permian to the basement mass of granite is exposed."

Scientists chose Oklahoma’s Arbuckle Mountains to test a new technology in 1921, seismic surveying, “because an entire geologic section from the Basal Permian to the basement mass of granite is exposed.”

Karcher, raised on a farm near Hennessey, received both electrical engineering and physics degrees from the University of Oklahoma in 1916.

“The Arbuckle Mountains of Oklahoma were selected for a pilot survey of the technique and equipment, because an entire geologic section from the Basal Permian to the basement mass of granite is exposed, the historical society explains, adding that limited testing  previously was done in  June 1921 on the outskirts of Oklahoma City.

“Verification and confirmation testing was conducted in the Arbuckles beginning July 4, 1921, by Dr. Karcher and Dr. W.P. Haseman, Dr. D.W. Ohern and Dr. Irving Perrme of the University of Oklahoma. Results were promising,” the society notes on its marker.

Funded by Oklahoma City oilman Frank Buttram, the men formed the Geological Engineering Company. The experiments indicated that their seismograph could reveal subsurface structures capable of holding oil.

“The world’s first reflection seismograph geologic section was measured on August 9, 1921, along vines branch, a few miles north of Dougherty near here,” the marker explains before concluding:

“The reflection technique has become the major method of energy exploration throughout the world. By 1983 more than 70 percent of the 18, 600 members of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists in 112 countries were involved in reflection seismography.”

Seismic finds Oklahoma Oil

Seismic technology first helped find oil in 1928 when Amerada Petroleum Corporation drilled into the Viola limestone formation and struck oil on December 4 near Seminole, Oklahoma.

The well was the world’s first oil discovery in a geological structure that had been identified by reflection seismography. Others soon followed as the new exploration technology revealed dozens of oilfields. See Greater Seminole Oil Boom.

The 1928 seismic survey, conducted by Amerada subsidiary Geophysical Research, used technology that evolved from the experiments of Karcher, his Oklahoma University colleagues. But they were not alone.

During World War I, inventors Reginald Fessenden and Ludger Mintrop independently contributed to the new earth science.

Work by Fessenden, chief physicist for the Submarine Signaling Company of Boston, helped make the technology smaller and more practical for the field. Mintrop, a native of Imperial Germany, was equally important.

Illustration of an energy source (explosive charge, weight drop, vibration generator, or other source of seismic waves), several seismic wave paths demonstrating reflection from the top of bedrock to detectors (or geophones) on the land surface - courtesy Geologic Resources.

Seismic wave paths reflect from the top of bedrock to detectors (or geophones) on the land surface. Image courtesy Geologic Resources.

During World Way 1 he had developed portable seismic detection equipment to locate Allied artillery for the German Army.

But the Oklahoma Historical Society is steadfast that Karcher’s seismic design dates back to 1917, when he was an employee of the U.S. Bureau of Standards.

“Both the German and American versions, crude contrivances at best, were intended for use in locating enemy artillery by measuring the seismic vibrations produced by their firing,” the historical society explains.

Although both Mintrop and J.C. Karcher, who was president of Geophysical Research, would secure patents, Karcher’s successful apparatus changed American petroleum exploration. His methodology – and his 1928 Seminole oil discovery – have earned him the title “Father of Reflection Seismography.”

The Oil Museum in Seminole includes a diorama maintained by volunteers that features many of the boom towns of the 1930s. The Greater Seminole Area includes six of Oklahoma’s 20 giant oilfields.

Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society and this website with a donation.


Erle P. Halliburton received a 1921 patent for an improved method for cementing oil wells. It brought greater petroleum production and environmental safety.

cementing oil wells

An early Halliburton truck for cementing oil wells can be seen in the background of this circa 1920s photo with an unidentified company employee sitting in a Model T Ford. Photo courtesy Timothy Johnson.

When Halliburton received his patent for a “Method and Means for Cementing Oil Wells,” he helped revolutionize how an oil or natural gas well was completed for production.

cementing oil wells

Erle Halliburton’s well cementing process isolated down-hole production zones, prevented collapse of the casing – and helped secure the well throughout its producing life.

cementing oil wells

An Erle Halliburton statue was dedicated in 1993 in Duncan, Oklahoma.

Halliburton’s small petroleum equipment and service company headquartered in Ardmore, Oklahoma, received many patents on its way to becoming dominant worldwide in extending the life of oil and natural gas wells.

After working in Burkburnett, Texas, in 1919, Erle Halliburton had moved to the booming Healdton oilfield near Ardmore, where he established the New Method Oil Well Cementing Company.

“It is well known to those skilled in the art of oil well drilling that one of the greatest obstacles to successful development of oil bearing sands has been the encountering of liquid mud water and the like during and after the process of drilling the wells,” Halliburton notes in his June 26, 1920, patent application. Read the rest of this entry »


Ever since America’s earliest oil discoveries, dynamite or nitroglycerin detonations increased a well’s production. Hydraulic fracturing came in the 1949. 

Today’s hydraulic fracturing technologies can trace their roots to April 25, 1865, when Civil War veteran Col. Edward A. L. Roberts received the first of his many patents for an “exploding torpedo.”

hydraulic fracturing

Hydraulic fracturing has been used to increase production on millions of oil and natural gas wells since 1949.

Read the rest of this entry »


 Two Texans sought the end of gushers at oil wells. In 1922, James Abercrombie and Harry Cameron filed a patent for the hydraulic ram-type blowout preventer. 

“The object of our invention is to provide a device designed to be secured to the top of the casing while the drilling is being done and which will be adapted to be closed tightly about the drill stem when necessary,” they noted in their application, which was approved in January 1926. It revolutionized the petroleum industry.

blowout preventer

James Dean starred as a roughneck in the 1956 movie “Giant” – at the time “a sprawling epic” about a Texas rancher (Rock Hudson) and an oil gusher on his land. In fact, decades earlier two Texas wildcatters had invented a device that prevented most gushers.

Petroleum drilling technologies, among the most advanced of any industry, have evolved since 1859 – especially as wells have reached far deeper. In 1922, it took a Texas wildcatter’s experience and ingenuity to invent a device designed to stop gushers.

blowout preventer

Gushers like this famous one on Spindletop Hill, Texas, in 1901 were dramatic – but dangerous and wasteful.

The image of James Dean celebrating in a rain of oil may have been dramatic in 1956, but most oilfield gushers ended much earlier. By the time the movie “Giant” was made, the technology of well control and blowout prevention had been in place more than 30 years.

Perhaps the most famous high-pressure blowout occurred at Spindletop Hill near Beaumont, Texas.

On January 10, 1901, a three-man crew was drilling when a six-inch stream of oil and gas erupted 100 feet into the air. This oilfield would prove to be among the largest and most significant for a gasoline-hungry nation.

The Beaumont newspaper described the discovery well drilled by Anthony F. Lucas and Pattillo Higgins of the Gladys City Oil, Gas, and Manufacturing Company: “An Oil Geyser – Remarkable Phenomenon South of Beaumont – Gas Blows Pipe from Well and a Flow of Oil Equaled Nowhere Else on Earth.”

It took nine days and 500,000 barrels of oil before a shut off valve for the well (producing from a salt dome, as Lucas had predicted) could be affixed to the casing to stop the flow. At the time and for years to follow, images of gushers would attract investors.

blowout preventer

James Abercrombie invented the “ram-type” blowout preventer – using hydrostatic pistons to close on the drill stem and form a seal against the well pressure.

Learn more at the Spindletop/Gladys City Boomtown Museum in Beaumont. Read the rest of this entry »


In 1951, Henry Mohaupt will apply for a U.S. patent for his “Shaped Charge Assembly and Gun,” based on World War II anti-tank technology he patented a decade earlier – a conically hollowed out explosive fired from bazookas.

Cement casing, developed in 1919 by Erle P. Halliburton’s New Method Oil Well Cementing Company, Duncan, Oklahoma, isolates wellbore zones and guards against collapse.

But far down the borehole, a newly completed well’s cemented casing stands between the petroleum company’s massive investment and the production of oil or gas.

In the early days of well “perforating” technology, a variety of mechanical means of penetrating casings were used. Read the rest of this entry »


oil well pumps

The founding of the Lufkin Foundry and Machine Company in 1902 will lead to creation of an oilfield icon known by many names — nodding donkey, grasshopper, horse-head, thirsty bird, etc.

In a valley in northwestern Pennsylvania in 1859, Edwin Drake discovered America’s first significant quantities of oil. For his oil well pump, he borrowed a common water well hand pump to retrieve the new resource from 69.5 feet.

As the American petroleum industry was born, it wasn’t long before necessity and ingenuity combined to find something more efficient for producing oil from a well.

Industry pioneers realized that by improving oil well pump efficiency they could extend the economic life of far deeper wells by years. The new resource will be refined to meet the phenomenal worldwide demand for an inexpensive lamp fuel: kerosene.


oil well drilling technology

The Chinese drilled with bamboo spring poles as early as 450 A.D.

Oil well drilling technology has evolved from the ancient spring pole to percussion cable-tools to the modern rotary rigs that can drill miles into the earth.

“A good cable-tool man is just about the most highly skilled worker you’ll find,” historian note.

“Besides having a feel for the job, knowing what’s going on thousands of feet under the ground just from the movement of the cable, he’s got to be something of a carpenter, a steam-fitter, an electrician, and a damned good mechanic.”

– From a 1939 interview in “Voices from the Oilfield” by Paul Lambert and Kenny Franks.

“A cable tool driller knows more knots and splices than any six sailors you can find,” Lambert and Franks added during the interview. Cable-tool rigs, powered by a steam engine and boiler, included the bullwheel and drilling cable – often high-quality manila rope.

oil well drilling technology

Standard cable-tool derricks stood 82 feet tall and were powered by a steam boiler and engine using a “walking beam” to alternately raise and lower drilling tools – which frequently had to be sharpened in a forge. Image from The Oil-Well Driller, 1905.

Drilling or “making hole” began long before oil or natural gas were anything more than flammable curiosities found seeping from the ground.

For centuries, digging by hand or shovel was the best technologies that existed to pry into the earth’s secrets. Oil seeps provided a balm for injuries. Natural gas seeps – when ignited – created folklore and places called “burning springs.” Read the rest of this entry »


Disaster in 1933 at a giant oil field near Conroe, Texas, brings together the inventor of a portable drilling rig and the father of directional drilling.

Two years earlier, veteran oilman George W. Strake Sr. had made a major discovery eight miles southeast of Conroe in December 1931. His wildcat well would prove historic in many ways.

Although the Conroe well’s producing sands proved to be dangerously gas-charged, shallow and unstable, the giant oil field – the third largest in the United States at the time – soon had 60 successful wells producing more than 65,000 of barrels of oil a day.

The region north of Houston boomed as the Great Depression worsened.

Disaster came in January 1933 when one of the wells blew out and erupted into flame. The runaway well cratered – completely swallowing nearby drilling rigs. Read the rest of this entry »


 The founder and president of the REDA Pump Company, Armais Arutunoff, once lived in this house at 1200 Cherokee Avenue - across from the home of Phillips Petroleum founder Frank Phillips, whose home today is a Bartlesville museum. Courtesy Kathryn Mann, Only in Bartlesville.

The founder and president of the REDA Pump Company, Armais Arutunoff, once lived in this house at 1200 Cherokee Avenue – across from Phillips Petroleum founder Frank Phillips, whose home today is a Bartlesville, Oklahoma, museum. Photo courtesy Kathryn Mann, Only in Bartlesville.

Armais Arutunoff will obtain 90 patents. Above, a 1934, patent for an improved submersible well pump – and “submersible electric cable and method for making same.” At right, a 1951 Reda Pump advertisement.

By 1938, it was estimated that two percent of all oil produced in the United States with artifical lift, was lifted by REDA Pumps.

Invented just prior to the Russian Revolution by Armais Arutunoff from the Caucasus Mountains, the electric submersible pump (ESP) revolutionized petroleum production worldwide, beginning in the 1930s.

Arutunoff built his first practical oilfield ESP in 1916 in Germany, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

“Suspended by steel cables, it was dropped down the well casing into oil or water and turned on, creating a suction that would lift the liquid to the surface formation through pipes,” notes historian Dianna Everett.

“The ESP was used successfully to increase production in very deep wells,” Everett adds. “A boon to the industry, the unit quickly replaced the old-fashioned, mechanical lifts formerly used in the oilfields.”

After immigrating to the United States in 1923, Arutunoff moved to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, in 1928 at the urging of Phillips Petroleum Company.

“With Phillips’s backing, he refined his pump for use in oil wells and first successfully demonstrated it in a well in Kansas,” says Everett. The device was manufactured  by a small company that soon became REDA Pump.

The name REDA – Russian Electrical Dynamo of Arutunoff – was the cable address of the company that Arutunoff originally started in Germany.

A holder of more than 90 patents in the United States, Arutunoff was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1974. “Try as I may, I cannot perform services of such value to repay this wonderful country for granting me sanctuary and the blessings of freedom and citizenship,” he said at the time.

A modern ESP applies artificial lift by spinning the impellers on the pump shaft, putting pressure on the surrounding fluids and forcing them to the surface. It can lift more than 25,000 barrels of fluids per day. Courtesy Schlumberger.

A modern ESP applies artificial lift by spinning the impellers on the pump shaft, putting pressure on the surrounding fluids and forcing them to the surface. It can lift more than 25,000 barrels of fluids per day. Courtesy Schlumberger.

Arutunoff died in February 1978 in Bartlesville. At the end of the twentieth century, REDA was the world’s largest manufacturer of ESP systems. It is now part of Schlumberger.

A Centrifugal Pump

Arutunoff was an ingenious and prolific inventor, who, among other odd practices, ensured the punctuality of REDA employees by furnishing his office with only three chairs, to be divided up for the entire day on a first-come first-served basis. – ESP Pump

Armais Sergeevich Arutunoff was born to Armenian parents in Tiflis, part of the Russian Empire, on June 21,1893. His home town, in the Caucasus Mountains between the Caspian and Black Sea, dated back to the 5th Century.

According to an online electrical submersible pump history at ESP Pump, his father was a soap manufacturer and his grandfather a fur trader. In his youth, Arutunoff lived in Erivan (now Yerevan) the capital of Armenia.

The ESP Pump website, which profiles his scientific career, says Arutunoff’s research convinced him that electrical transmission of power could be efficiently applied to oil drilling and improve the antiquated methods he saw in use in the early 1900s in Russia.

“To do this, a small, yet high horsepower electric motor was needed,” ESP Pump explains. “The limitation imposed by available casing sizes made it necessary that the motor be relatively small.”

Armais Arutunoff, inventor of the modern electric submersible pump.

Armais Arutunoff, inventor of the modern electric submersible pump.

However, a motor of small diameter would necessarily be too low in horsepower.

“Such a motor would be inadequate for the job he had in mind so he studied the fundamental laws of electricity to find the basis for the answer to the question of how to build a higher horsepower motor exceedingly small in diameter,” explains ESP Power.

By 1916, Arutunoff was designing a centrifugal pump to be coupled to the motor for de-watering mines and ships. To develop enough power it was necessary the motor run at very high speeds.

Arutunoff successfully designed a centrifugal pump, small in diameter and with stages to achieve high discharge pressure.

“In his design, the motor was ingeniously installed below the pump to cool the motor with flow moving up the oil well casing, and the entire unit was suspended in the well on the discharge pipe,” ESP Pump says. “The motor, sealed from the well fluid, operated at high speed in an oil bath.”

A Submersible Pump

Although Arutunoff built the first centrifugal pump while living in Germany, he built the first submersible pump and motor in the United States while living in Los Angeles.

“Before coming to the U.S. he had formed a small company of his own, called REDA, to manufacture his idea for electric submersible motors,” notes ESP Pump. “He later settled in Germany and then came with his wife and one-year-old daughter to the United States to settle in Michigan, then Los Angeles.”

However, after emigrating to America in 1923, Arutunoff could not find financial support for his down-hole production technology. Everyone he approached turned him down, saying the unit was “impossible under the laws of electronics.”

No one would consider his inventions until friends at Phillips Petroleum Company in Bartlesville encouraged him to form his own company there.

The REDA Company manufacturing plant in Bartlesville will cover nine acres and employ hundreds.

Arutunoff’s manufacturing plant in Bartlesville will cover nine acres, employing hundreds during the Great Depression.

In 1928 Arutunoff moved to Bartlesville, where formed Bart Manufacturing Company, which changed its same to the REDA Pump Company in 1930. He soon demonstrated a working model of an oilfield electric submersible pump for down-hole drilling.

One of his pump-and-motor devices was installed in an oil well in the El Dorado field near Burns, Kansas – the first equipment of its kinds to be used in a well. One reporter telegraphed his editor, “Please rush good pictures showing oil well motors that are upside down.”

A 1936 Tulsa World article described his revolutionary pump as “an electric motor with the proportions of a slim fencepost which stands on its head at the bottom of a well and kicks oil to the surface with its feet.”

By end of the 1930s Arutunoff’s company held dozens of patents for industrial equipment, leading to decades of success and even more patents. His “Electrodrill” aided scientists in penetrating the Antarctic ice cap for the first time in 1967.

“Arutunoff’s ESP oilfield technology quickly had a significant impact on the oil business,” concludes ESP Pump. “His pump was crucial to the successful production over the years of hundreds of thousands of oil wells.”

Also see All Pumped Up – Oilfield Technology. Visit the Frank Phillips Home in Bartlesville.

Read more in an article about the Conoco & Phillips Petroleum Museums.

Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society with a donation.


Few remember the names of those who come in second – they often are relegated to the “also rans,” no matter how close to the finish. Petroleum history is the same.

Visitors to the scenic Allegheny National Forest Region on U.S. 62 near Tidioute, Pennsylvania, will discover this Warren County roadside marker.

Second-place finishers dwell in the fine print of history. Consider America’s first oil well.

Edwin L. Drake drilled his famous well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859. As a result, each year the Drake Well Museum draws thousands of visitors from all over the world. The discovery’s sesquicentennial in 2009 was commemorated for a week in the “valley that changed the world.”

Although August 27, 1859, marks the date of America’s first commercial well drilled specifically for oil, August 31 – just four days later – is less known. It was on that day that a well was spudded by a young man named John Livingston Grandin.

This well, America’s second to be drilled for oil, will produce petroleum industry firsts, including:

♦ First Dry Hole
♦ First Well in Which Tools Stuck
♦ First Well in Which an                  Explosive Charge Was Used

Two days after “Drake’s Folly” at Titusville surprised everybody by producing barrels of oil from a depth of 69.5 feet, the news arrived in Tidioute’s general store, 20 miles away.

Each barrel of oil was said to be selling for 75 cents and 22-year-old John Grandin, the owner’s son and an aspiring entrepreneur, saw an opportunity. Using more primitive equipment, he will drill almost twice as deep in search of oil riches.

Grandin knew of petroleum seeps on Gordon Run of the nearby Campbell Farm and rode south of town to buy the land. He bought 30 acres surrounding the oil spring at $10 per acre.

John Livingston Grandin

John Livingston Grandin

Within a day he had employed blacksmith Henry H. Dennis, said to be “the handiest man in the region,” to “kick down” a well using the time-honored spring-pole method.

Drake’s drilling effort had the financial backing (and patience) of the Seneca Oil Company of Connecticut and its investors. The former railroad man used the latest technology – a steam-powered cable-tool rig. He also added his own innovation.

When water from Oil Creek threatened his progress, Drake came up with the idea of inserting a cast iron pipe to protect the wellbore  – another petroleum industry first. Read more about Drake and his well in Birth of the U.S. Petroleum Industry.

For their well, Grandin and Dennis constructed a rough 20-foot derrick above a spring pole. Using a discarded tram axle, Dennis made a surprisingly workable reamer.

Drilling with the axle as a chisel worked well enlarging the borehole – until it became stuck at 134 feet, “where it never saw daylight again!” as described in a contemporary account. All attempts to retrieve the axle drill bit failed.

A drilling tool lost while specifically looking for oil.

An early technology for drilling brine wells – the “spring-pole” – was replaced by steam-powered cable-tools. Photo from “The World Struggle for Oil,” a 1924 film by the Department of the Interior.

This significant “first” in the history of stuck tools remains buried as a footnote in petroleum history.

In fact, in the early days of percussion drilling, heavy cable tool assemblies often got jammed in the borehole and could no longer be repeatedly lifted and dropped. Read more in Fishing Petroleum Wells.

Still, all was not lost at he Grandin well as far as blacksmith Dennis was concerned.

Dennis put together several makeshift “torpedoes” from blasting powder and experimented with timing fuses in hopes of breaking things loose.

“The explosion was sensibly felt upon the surface,” notes a report of his third attempt. “Mr. Dennis says, the ground trembled like an earthquake under his feet!”

With this noteworthy effort, the Grandin well was ruined in the first recorded “shooting” of an oil well – and its first failure.

Read about early technologies to increase petroleum production in Shooters – A “Fracking” History.

With the failure of Grandin’s well, the industry had its first of dry hole.  Many more  followed in the almost four million U.S. wells drilled since 1859.

Even with advances in seismic surveys, geology and petroleum engineering, more than one-third of modern exploration wells drilled – costing millions of dollars each – end up as dry holes.

Of the 2,803 exploratory wells drilled in 2009, natural gas was discovered by 1,188 and oil found by 626 wells. There were 989 dry holes.

Grandin eventually became wealthy. In addition to his father’s store in the booming oil region, the Grandin family found wealth in the lumber industry as wooden derricks multiplied. Drilling activity in Warren County centered at Tidioute and by July 1860 more than 60 wells were being drilled.

Petroleum drilling has made great advances since 1859, especially as inventions like rotary drilling allowed exploration miles beneath the surface. Learn more in Making hole – Drilling Technology.

“Firsts” get the jubilees, centennials and sesquicentennials. “Seconds” get roadside markers – and even those can be very hard to find. In 1959, during the centennial of Drake’s discovery,  Grandin’s well was not neglected.

A privately funded stone monument was erected at the site with this inscription:

THE GRANDIN WELL – Worlds second oilwell, commenced August 31st 1859. It was the First Dry Hole, First Well in Which Tools Stuck; First Well in Which an Explosive Charge Was Used; First Well in Warren, County, PA. Erected July 22, 1959, by Oil Centennial Inc.

Today, a roadside marker by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission can be found on U.S. 62 four miles south of the Allegheny River Bridge at Tidioute in Warren County.

Editor’s Note – According to the Warren County Historical Society, on September 4, 1860, a well on Tidioute Island in the Alleghany River, “commenced flowing and as far as is known, this was the first successful well ever drilled on an island.”

Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society and this website with a donation.


Penn-Brad Museum Historical Oil Well Park and Museum Director Sherri Schulze in 2005 exhibited a laminated (though wrinkled) page from a newspaper published in 1899. “This was done by a student many years ago,” she said. “It was a school project done by one of Mrs. Alford’s descendants.”

Although a proper turn-of-the-century lady, she cooked 3,000 pounds of nitroglycerine every day.

Mrs. Byron Alford, the “Only Woman in the World who Owns and Operates a Dynamite Factory,” was an astute businesswoman in the midst of America’s first billion-dollar oilfield.

Over 125 years later, the Bradford oilfield in northwestern Pennsylvania and adjacent New York remains interesting for several more reasons, according to geologists and a nearby petroleum museum.

“A light golden amber to a deep moss-green in color, the ‘miracle molecule ‘ from the Bradford field is high in paraffin and considered one of the highest grade natural lubricant crude oils in the world,” explains the Penn-Brad Museum Historical Oil Well Park and Museum.

Opened in 1971, an oil park near Bradford, Pennsylvania, includes a 72-foot cable-tool rig.

Opened in 1971, an oil park near Bradford, Pennsylvania, includes a 72-foot cable-tool rig.

In 1881, the Bradford field alone accounted for 83 percent of all the oil produced in The United States. Today, horizontal drilling technologies are producing natural gas from a 400-million-year-old rock formation, the Marcellus Shale.

“It is located about equidistant between the place where oil was first discovered in America and the famous Drake well,” notes a 1929 abstract from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

With 85,000 acres of continuously productive territory from the Bradford sand, “its 25,000 producing wells and fifty-five years of productive history make it one of the most outstanding oil fields of the world.”

In November 1899, the New York World newspaper featured the world-famous oilfield – and its nitroglycerine company run by a woman more than two decades before women won the right to vote.

“It is an odd business for a woman to be in,” said Mrs. Alford in the World’s article, “but I know no reason why a woman who understands it cannot manage it as well as a man.”

She entered the business in 1884 with her husband. Ten years later, owing to Mr. Alford’s failing health, she took over the business. By 1899 she had increased daily production to 3,000 pounds of nitroglycerine and 6,000 pounds of dynamite.

Demand was high since nitroglycerin detonations – “shooting” a well – increased a well’s production from petroleum bearing formations. See Shooters – A “Fracking” History.

Soon Mrs. Alford’s manufacturing plant consisted of 12 cheaply built and unpainted wood buildings located outside of Eldred, Pennsylvania. Brick buildings would have been prettier, she told the New York newspaper, but it would cost more to replace them.

“The owner of a nitroglycerine factory never knows beforehand when it is going to blow up or afterward why it did blow up,” the article explained. “There is never anyone to explain how it happened.”

In 1899, the manufacture of nitroglycerine was a primitive, cautious, temperature-sensitive churning of nitric and sulphuric acids with glycerin. Knowing the temperature was vital.

“On the accuracy of the thermometer depend the lives of the employees,” Mrs. Alford said. “When the mixing is done, the liquid is the color of milk. It is drawn off into a wooden tank in which there is eighteen inches of cold water. As the milky fluid strikes the water, red fumes light the surface and there is a sound like the hissing of geese.”

If successful, the nitroglycerine settled to the bottom of the wooden tank. Poured and readied for transport, an eight-quart can weighed 26 pounds and sold for $8 dollars. It was delivered by wagon – trains would not transport nitroglycerine for any price.

Mrs. Alford maintained that if people were kind to nitroglycerine, they could live with it for a long time, despite her own close call.

She lived with her husband and daughter only about 80-yards from their factory. One evening, an employee may have absent-mindedly lit a match or otherwise erred. The factory and their home were obliterated and the family buried under the debris.

Neighbors dug them out to find they were not seriously injured. They rebuilt and started again.

Mrs. Alford raised her daughter, Dessie, in the business.

“Dessie is my right bower,” she said. “I believe in bringing up a girl to work, even if it is not necessary from a financial point of view. Riches, if they fly away, do not work so much hardship for a girl who has been taught to work.”

The 19th century oilfield was a dangerous place – made even more dangerous by nitroglycerine. Despite the hazards, Mrs. Alford lived long and prospered. She died of natural causes in 1924 at the age of 77. Daughter Dessie followed in 1947 at 79.

Today, surrounded by the beautiful Allegheny National Forest, Bradford is home to Zippo Manufacturing Company and the American Refining Group, the oldest continuously operating refinery in the United States.

Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society with a donation.