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


December 9, 1921 – Ethyl “Anti-Knock” Leaded Gasoline invented

petroleum history december

Invented by General Motors scientists in 1921, tetraethyl leaded gasoline helped win World War II. Phillips Petroleum’s leaded aviation fuel came from high-quality oil found in Osage County, Oklahoma, oilfields.

Petroleum History December

Public health concerns will result in the phase-out of tetraethyl lead in gasoline beginning in 1976.

Petroleum History December

General Motors chemists Thomas Midgely Jr. and Charles F. Kettering.

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

Petroleum History December

“Coal Oil Johnny” Steele

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

Life magazine featured Stella Dysart in front of a drilling rig in 1955, soon after making a fortune from uranium after decades as of failure in petroleum drilling ventures.

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

Petroleum History December

A September 1967 Popular Mechanics article describes how nuclear explosives would improve previous fracturing technologies, including gunpowder, dynamite and “forcing down liquids at high pressure.”

Petroleum History December

Scientists lower a 13-foot by 18-inches diameter nuclear warhead into a well in New Mexico. The 29-kiloton device is detonated on December 10, 1967.

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

Petroleum History December

Ab early hybrid, this 1902 Porsche used a gas engine to generate electricity to power motors mounted on the front wheel hubs.

“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

petroleum history december

The Conroe newspaper proclaimed in 1931, “Strake Well Comes In. Good for 10,000 Barrels Per Day.”

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.

Listen online to “Remember When Wednesdays” on the weekday morning radio program, Exploring Energy, 9 a.m – 10 a.m., eastern time. On the fourth Wednesday of each month AOGHS Executive Director Bruce Wells calls in to discuss petroleum history. Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society and this website with a donation. © AOGHS, This Week in Petroleum History.


Coal Oil Johnny

John Washington Steele of Venango County, Pennsylvania

The lucky life of John Washington Steele started on December 10, 1844, when Culbertson and Sarah McClintock adopted him as an infant.

Johnny Steele – who one day will become famous as “Coal Oil Johnny” – was adopted along with his sister, Permelia.

The McClintocks brought them home to their farm on the banks of Oil Creek in Venango County, Pennsylvania.

Fifteen years later, the petroleum boom prompted by Edwin Drake’s 1859 discovery at nearby Titusville – America’s first commercial oil well – made the widow McClintock a fortune in royalties.

When Mrs. McClintock died in a kitchen fire in 1864, she left the money to her only surviving child, Johnny. At age 20, he inherited $24,500.

Johnny also inherited his mother’s 200-acre farm along Oil Creek between what is now Rynd Farm and Rouseville. The farm already included 20 producing oil wells yielding $2,800 in royalties every day.

“Coal Oil Johnny” Steele will earn his name in 1865 after such a legendary year of extravagance that years later the New York Times reported.

“In his day, Steele was the greatest spender the world had ever known,” the newspaper proclaimed. “He threw away $3,000,000 in less than a year.”

Philadelphia journalists coined the name “Coal Oil Johnny” for him, reportedly because of  his attachment to a custom carriage that had black oil derricks spouting dollar symbols painted on its red doors. He later confessed in his autobiography:

I spent my money foolishly, recklessly, wickedly, gave it away without excuse; threw dollars to street urchins to see them scramble; tipped waiters with five and ten dollar bills; was intoxicated most of the time, and kept the crowd surrounding me usually in the same condition.‎

Coal Oil Johnny

“Coal Oil Johnny” owned a carriage with black oil derricks spouting dollar symbols painted on its red doors. Illustration from October 8, 2010, article in the Atlantic magazine.

Of course, such wealth could not last forever. The rise and fall of Coal Oil Johnny, who died in modest circumstances in 1920 at age 76, will linger in petroleum history.

In 2010, the Atlantic magazine published “The Legend of Coal Oil Johnny, America’s Great Forgotten Parable,” an article surprisingly sympathetic to his riches to rags story.

“Before J.R. Ewing, or the Beverly Hillbillies, or even John D. Rockefeller, there was Coal Oil Johnny,” noted the October 8 feature story.

“He was the first great cautionary tale of the oil age – and his name would resound in popular culture for more than half a century after he made and lost his fortune in the 1860s.”

Coal Oil Johnny

The refurbished boyhood home of “Coal Oil Johnny” today stands near Oil Creek State Park’s historic (and operating) train station north of Rouseville, Pennsylvania.

For generations after the peak of his career, Johnny was still so famous that any major oil strike – especially the January 1901 gusher at Spindletop Hill in Beaumont, Texas, “brought his tales back to people’s lips,” noted magazine article, citing Brian Black, a historian at Pennsylvania State University.

It was wealth from nowhere,” Black explained. “Somebody like that was coming in without any opportunity or wealth and suddenly has a transforming moment. That’s the magic and it transfers right through to the Beverly Hillbillies and the rest of the mythology.”

“Coal Oil Johnny” was a legend and like all legends, “he became a stand-in for a constellation of people, things, ideas, feelings and morals – in this case, about oil wealth and how it works,” added the article.

“He made and lost this huge fortune – and yet he didn’t go crazy or do anything terrible. Instead, he ended up living a regular, content life, mostly as a railroad agent in Nebraska,” the 2010 Atlantic article concluded.

“Surely there’s a lesson in that for the millions who’ve lost everything in the housing boom and bust.”

Coal Oil Johnny

John Washington Steele died in Nebraska in 1920.

John Washington Steele’s Venango County home, relocated and restored by Pennsylvania’s Oil Region Alliance of Business, Industry & Tourism, stands today in Oil Creek State Park, just off Route 8, north of Rouseville.

On Route 8 south of Rouseville is the still-producing  McClintock No. 1 oil well.

“This is the oldest well in the world that is still producing oil at its original depth,” proclaims the Alliance. “Souvenir bottles of crude oil from McClintock Well Number One are available at the Drake Well Museum, outside Titusville.”

Published in 1902, Coal Oil Johnny: story of his career as told by himself (John Washington Steele) was digitized in 2007 and now is a free Google Ebook.


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