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December 8, 1931 – Abercrombie patents Improved Blow-Out Preventer

James Abercrombie’s improved blowout preventer will set a new standard for safe drilling during the Oklahoma City oilfield boom. His design uses rams – hydrostatic pistons – to close on the drill stem.

Drilling safety increases dramatically when James S. Abercrombie improves the Cameron Iron Works mechanically operated ram-type blowout preventer (BOP).

Abercrombie patents a “Fluid Pressure Operated Blow Out Preventer” designed to be operated instantaneously to prevent a blowout when an emergency arises.

This hydraulic design, patent No. 1,834,922 (reissued in 1933), sets a new standard in safe drilling operations.

The new BOP is first used during the Oklahoma City oilfield boom to help end dangerous and wasteful gushers. Abercrombie’s patent improves upon a 1926 ram-type device he and machinist Harry S. Cameron first sketched out on the sawdust floor of Cameron’s machine shop in Humble, Texas.

Read more in Ending Oil Gushers — BOP.

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

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

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

General Motors scientists discover the antiknock properties of tetraethyl lead – and American motorists are soon saying “fill ‘er up with Ethyl.”

In early internal combustion engines, “knocking” resulted from the out-of-sequence detonation 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 F. 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 during World War II, tetraethyl lead’s danger to public health is greatly underestimated. Phase-out of its use in gasoline begins in 1976 and is completed by 1986. In 1996, EPA Administrator Carol Browner declares, “The elimination of lead from gas is one of the great environmental achievements of all time.”

Read more in Ethyl “Anti-Knock” Gas.

December 10, 1844 – “Coal Oil Johnny” adopted

“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 more in Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny.


December 10, 1967 – Project Gasbuggy tests Nuclear Fracturing

nuclear fracking

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.”

nuclear fracking

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.

Their 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 New Mexico historian Wade Nelson.

“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. The well produces 295 million cubic feet of radioactive gas. Learn more about other downhole bombs 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 yields $129.5 million from 417,221 acres.

Read about U.S. early offshore oil and natural gas technologies in Offshore Petroleum History.

December 13, 1905 – Hybrids evolve with Gas Shortage Fears

nuclear fracking

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

nuclear fracking

George Strake Jr. accepted a 2010 “Houston Legends” award honoring his father, who discovered the Conroe oil field in 1931.

George Strake Sr. brings in the South Texas Development Company No. 1 well eight miles southeast of Conroe, Texas. By the end of 1932 the field has 60 wells producing more than 65,000 of barrels of oil every day.

A 2010 “Houston Legends” event for Strake’s family is sponsored by the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers. Speakers acknowledge the oilman’s place in petroleum history for discovering the Conroe field, which by the time of his death in 1969 had produced half a billion barrels of oil.

Disaster will strike the field 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. Also see Technology and the Conroe Crater.

December 14, 1981 – Minnesota Oil Search gets Desperate

nuclear fracking

Minnesota remains not among the 33 states with oil or natural gas production, according to the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

A dowser – using copper wires – claims to have located petroleum deposits in Nobles County, Minnesota, near the town of Ellsworth, according to a report from the Minneapolis Tribune.

The Tribune notes that a Murray County group has engaged a “Texas oilman and evangelist to lead a prayerful search for oil.” Despite the lack of geological evidence, a few local investors pay $175,000 to drill a 1,145-foot well – but find no oil or natural gas.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Geological Survey reported in 1980 that of every 17 wells drilled in suitable geologic settings, 16 were dry holes and one noncommercial. By 1984, the survey concluded that “the geologic conditions for significant deposits of oil and gas do not exist in Minnesota.”

Minnesota remains one of the 17 U.S. states without petroleum production.

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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” 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.”

The boyhood home of “Coal Oil Johnny” stands today in Oil Creek State Park, 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.”

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 & Tourismstands 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.

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