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

 

December 9, 1921 – Antinock Leaded Gas invented

Petroleum History December

Public health concerns brought the phase-out of leaded gas beginning in 1976.

Petroleum History December

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

General Motors scientists discovered the antiknock properties of tetraethyl lead in 1921. American motorists were 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. The shock frequently damaged the engine. After five years of lab work, G.M. researchers Thomas Midgely Jr. and Charles Kettering discovered the antiknock properties of tetraethyl lead. Their experiments had examined properties of bromine, iodine and tin and compared them to new additives such as arsenic, sulfur, silicon and lead. When they used tetraethyl lead (diluted to a ratio of one part per thousand) in a one-cylinder engine, the knocking abruptly disappeared.

Although the additive proved vital for winning World War II, tetraethyl lead’s danger to public health resulted in its phase-out beginning in 1976 and completed by 1986. Learn 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” was adopted as an infant by Culbertson and Sarah McClintock. John Steele (adopted with his sister Permelia) was brought home to the McClintock farm on the banks of Oil Creek in Venango County, Pennsylvania.

The petroleum boom prompted by Edwin L. Drake’s discovery 15 years later – America’s first commercial oil well – would lead to the widow McClintock making a fortune in royalties. She left the money to Johnny when she died in 1864. At age 20, he inherited $24,500 and $2,800 a day in oil royalties.

“Coal Oil Johnny” Steele earned his name in 1865 after such a legendary year of extravagance that the New York Times later reported: “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.” Learn about his extraordinary life in Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny.

December 10, 1955 – Life features Stella Dysart’s Uranium Well

The December 10, 1955, Life magazine featured Stella Dysart standing in front of her drilling rig after making a fortune from uranium after decades as of failure in oil drilling ventures.

Although Mrs. Stella Dysart had spent decades drilling dry holes in New Mexico, in 1955 a radioactive uranium sample from one of her wells made her rich. She was 78 years old when Life magazine featured her picture with the caption:

“Wealthy landowner, Mrs. Stella Dysart, stands before an 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 cuttings from one of her unsuccessful wells in McKinley County showed impressive Geiger counter readings. Test wells confirmed that she owned the world’s richest deposit of high-grade uranium ore. Learn 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 detonated an underground 29-kiloton nuclear warhead about 60 miles east of Farmington, New Mexico. It’s “fracking” late 1960s style.

The experiment was designed to test the feasibility of using nuclear explosions to stimulate release of natural gas trapped in dense shale deposits.

“Project Gasbuggy” included experts from the Atomic Energy Commission, the Bureau of Mines and a 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 by 18-inch diameter nuclear device into the borehole.

The experimental explosion was 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,” explained 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 added.

The detonation created 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 grows beyond Cannon Shot

After decades of controversy and a 1947 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the federal government’s “paramount rights” offshore were established beyond a three nautical mile limit – the 18th century precedent based on the theoretical maximum range of smooth-bore cannon.

The court issued a supplemental decree that prohibited 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 earned the government almost $130 million.

Learn more in Offshore Petroleum History.

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Listen online to “Remember When Wednesdays” on the weekday morning radio program Exploring Energy, 9 a.m to 10 a.m. (Eastern Time). Bruce Wells calls in on the last Wednesday of every month. Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society today with a tax-deductible donation. © This Week in Petroleum History, AOGHS 2016.

 

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.

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Listen online to “Remember When Wednesdays” on the weekday morning radio program Exploring Energy, 9 a.m to 10 a.m. (Eastern Time). Bruce Wells calls in on the last Wednesday of every month. Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society today with a tax-deductible donation. © This Week in Petroleum History, AOGHS 2016.