December 9, 1921 – Ethyl “Anti-Knock” Leaded Gasoline invented
General Motors scientists discover the antiknock properties of tetraethyl lead in 1921. American motorists are soon saying, “fill ‘er up with Ethyl.”
In early internal combustion engines, “knocking” resulted from the out-of-sequence detonations of the gasoline-air mixture in a cylinder. This shock frequently damaged the engine.
After five years of lab work to find an additive to eliminate pre-ignition “knock” problems of gasoline, G.M. researchers Thomas Midgely Jr. and Charles Kettering discover the antiknock properties of tetraethyl lead.
Their earlier experiments have examined properties of “knock suppressors” such as bromine, iodine and tin and compared these to new additives such as arsenic, sulfur, silicon and lead.
When they use tetraethyl lead (diluted to a ratio of one part per thousand) in their one-cylinder laboratory engine, knocking abruptly disappears.
Although the additive proves vital for winning World War II, tetraethyl lead’s danger to public health results in its phase-out beginning in 1976 and completed by 1986. Read more in Ethyl “Anti-Knock” Gas.
December 10, 1844 – “Coal Oil Johnny” adopted
The future “Coal Oil Johnny” is adopted as an infant by Culbertson and Sarah McClintock. John Steele is adopted along with his sister, Permelia, and brought home to the McClintock farm on the banks of Oil Creek in Venango County, Pennsylvania.
The petroleum boom prompted by Edwin Drake’s discovery 15 years later – America’s first commercial oil well – will lead to the widow McClintock making a fortune in royalties. She leaves the money to her only surviving child, Johnny, when she dies in a kitchen fire in 1864. At age 20, he inherits $24,500 – and $2,800 a day in royalties.
“Coal Oil Johnny” Steele will earn his name in 1865 after such a legendary year of extravagance that years later the New York Times will report: “In his day, Steele was the greatest spender the world had ever known…he threw away $3 million ($45 million in 2013 dollars) in less than a year.”
Read his extraordinary oil patch tale in Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny.“
December 10, 1955 – Life features Stella Dysart’s Uranium Well
Although Mrs. Stella Dysart has spent decades drilling dry holes in New Mexico, in 1955 a radioactive uranium sample from one of her wells makes her rich. She is 78 years old when the December 10 Life magazine features her picture with the caption:
“Wealthy landowner, Mrs. Stella Dysart, stands before abandoned oil rig which she set up on her property in a long vain search for oil. Now uranium is being mined there and Mrs. Dysart, swathed in mink, gets a plump royalty.”
Just three years earlier, Dysart had been $25,000 in debt when she met a New Mexico uranium prospector. Louis Lothman examined cuttings from one of her unsuccessful wells in McKinley County – and got impressive Geiger counter readings.
Lothman drilled more test wells, which confirmed the result. Mrs. Dysart owned the world’s richest deposit of high-grade uranium ore. Read more in Mrs. Dysart’s Uranium Well.
December 10, 1967 – Project Gasbuggy tests Nuclear Fracturing
Government scientists detonate an underground 29-kiloton nuclear warhead about 60 miles east of Farmington, New Mexico. It’s “fracking” late 1960s style.
The experiment is designed to test the feasibility of using nuclear explosions to stimulate release of natural gas trapped in dense shale deposits.
“Project Gasbuggy” includes experts from the Atomic Energy Commission, the Bureau of Mines and a natural gas company.
Near three low-production natural gas wells, the team drills to a depth of 4,240 feet and lowers a 13-foot by 18-inch diameter nuclear device into the borehole.
The experimental explosion is part a federal program created in the late 1950s to explore possible uses of nuclear devices for peaceful purposes.
“Geologists had discovered years before that setting off explosives at the bottom of a well would shatter the surrounding rock and could stimulate the flow of oil and gas, explains historian Wade Nelson (see Shooters – A “Fracking” History).
“It was believed a nuclear device would simply provide a bigger bang for the buck than nitroglycerin, up to 3,500 quarts of which would be used in a single shot,” he adds.
The detonation creates a molten glass-lined cavern 160 feet wide and 333 feet tall that collapses within seconds. Although the well produces 295 million cubic feet of natural gas, the gas is radioactive and useless.
Learn more in “Gasbuggy” tests Nuclear Fracking.
December 11, 1950 – Federal Offshore expands beyond Cannon Shot
After decades of controversy and a 1947 U.S. Supreme Court decision citing the federal government’s “paramount rights” out to and beyond the three nautical mile limit – an 18th century precedent based on the range of smooth-bore cannon.
The court issues a supplemental decree that prohibits any further offshore development without federal approval. The first Outer Continental Shelf lease sale held by the Bureau of Land Management and Geological Survey’s Conservation Division in 1954 earns the government almost $130 million from 417,221 leased acres.
Also see Offshore Petroleum History.
December 13, 1905 – Hybrids evolve with Gas Shortage Fears
“The available supply of gasoline, as is well known, is quite limited, and it behooves the farseeing men of the motor car industry to look for likely substitutes,” declares a 1905 article in the Horseless Age.
A monthly journal first published in 1895, the Horseless Age describes the earliest motor technologies, including the use of compressed air propulsion systems, electric cars, steam, and diesel power – as well as hybrids.
As early as 1902, Ferdinand Porsche’s Mixte uses a small four-cylinder gasoline engine to generate electricity – but not to turn its wheels. The engine powers two three-horsepower electric motors mounted in the front wheel hubs that can achieve a top speed of 50 mph.
See more engine technologies in Cantankerous Combustion – First U.S. Auto Show.
December 13, 1931 – Oilfield discovered in Conroe, Texas
After many dry holes, independent oilman George Strake Sr. completes the South Texas Development Company No. 1 well eight miles southeast of Conroe, Texas, where he has leased 8,500 acres. By the end of 1932 the field has 60 wells producing more than 65,000 of barrels of oil every day.
Disaster will strike the Conroe oilfield in 1933 when several wells collapse, ignite, and create a lake of oil. The crisis ends thanks to relief wells drilled by George Failing and his newly patented truck-mounted drilling rig. Read about him and other oilfield technologies in Technology and the Conroe Crater.
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