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To make Hula Hoops and Frisbees, Arthur Melin, right, and his Wham-O Company partner Richard Kerr, left, chose Marlex – the world’s first high-density polyethylene plastic invented by two chemists at Phillips Petroleum Company.

In the 1950s, few companies knew what to do with a revolutionary plastic invented by Phillips Petroleum. Demand for “Marlex” would come from unexpected source – the Hula Hoop – “the great obsession of 1958 – the undisputed granddaddy of American fads.”

Prompted by a post World War II boom in demand for plastics, Phillips Petroleum invested $50 million to bring its own miracle product – Marlex – to market in 1954.

The company gambled that the new plastic would be perfect for all manner of emerging products trying to keep up with consumer demand.

With millions of dollars already committed, investors expected immediate results from the Phillips lab product.

Marlex is a first in plastics.

Marlex, a high-density polyethylene, was developed by Phillips chemists Paul Hogan and Robert Banks – who were researching gasoline additives. In their experiments, Hogan and Banks began to study catalysts.

“In June 1951, they set up an experiment in which they modified their original catalyst (nickel oxide) to include small amounts of chromium oxide,” notes the American Chemical Society. Their work was expected to produce low-molecular-weight hydrocarbons.

“As Paul Hogan recalls it, he was standing outside the laboratory when Banks came out saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got something new coming in our kettle that we’ve never seen before.’ Running inside, they saw that the nickel oxide had produced the expected liquids. But the chromium had produced a white, solid material. Hogan and Banks were looking at a new polymer – crystalline polypropylene.” Read the rest of this entry »

 

 "Women show off their nylon pantyhose to a newspaper photographer, circa 1942," notes historian Jennifer S. Li in "The Story of Nylon - From a Depressed Scientist to Essential Swimwear." Photo by Dale Rooks.

“Women show off their nylon pantyhose to a newspaper photographer, circa 1942,” notes historian Jennifer S. Li in “The Story of Nylon – From a Depressed Scientist to Essential Swimwear.” Photo by Dale Rooks.

Du Pont models at the 1939 New York World’s Fair play tug-of-war with a nylon stocking to dramatize its strength.

Du Pont Corporation foresees the future artificial fibers “strong as steel.” The chemical company becomes a global giant as its scientist create consumer products out of nylon, rayon and lucite.

The world’s first synthetic fiber – nylon – is discovered on February 28, 1935, by a former Harvard professor working at a DuPont Corporation research laboratory. Later called Nylon 6 by scientists, the revolutionary product comes from chemicals found in petroleum.

Professor Wallace Carothers had experimented with artificial materials for more than six years. He previously discovered neoprene rubber (commonly used in wetsuits) and made major contributions to understanding polymers – large molecules composed in long chains of repeating chemical structures.

DuPont names the new petroleum product nylon – although chemists call it Nylon 6 because the adipic acid and hexamethylene diamine each contain 6 carbon atoms per molecule. Durable petroleum-based polymer products are in common use throughout the world.

Just 32-years-old, Carothers creates fibers when he combines the chemicals amine, hexamethylene diamine, and adipic acid.

He forms a polymer chain using a process in which individual molecules join together with water as a byproduct.

However, the fibers are weak, explains a PBS series, “A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries.”

“Carothers’ breakthrough came when he realized the water produced by the reaction was dropping back into the mixture and getting in the way of more polymers forming,” notes the PBS website. “He adjusted his equipment so that the water was distilled and removed from the system. It worked!” Read the rest of this entry »

 

His 1939 “Oil Fields of Graham” today remains on display in its original Texas oil patch community’s historic U.S. Postal Service building – now a museum.

Born in Memphis, Missouri, on February 22, 1898, Alexandre Hogue will become known for his paintings of southwestern scenes during the Great Depression – including murals of the 1930s petroleum industry. Read the rest of this entry »

 

The change from coal to oil-fired boilers at sea is another chapter in petroleum history. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Thirty years before the Grinch stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss’ strange but wonderful critters worked for Standard Oil of New Jersey. His experience at Standard Oil, “taught me conciseness and how to marry pictures with words.”

Few know that Theodore Seuss Geisel created advertising campaigns for Standard Oil for many years. This Standard Oil Company “Essolube” oil change card was issued between 1930 and 1940.

Ted Geisel’s unique critters populated Standard Oil advertisements for “Flit,” once a popular bug spray.

In the cartoon that launched his career, Theodore Seuss Geisel drew a peculiar dragon inside a castle.

In the January 14, 1928, issue of New York City’s Judge magazine, Geisel introduced America to one of the many characters inhabiting his imaginative menagerie.

Dr. Seuss later said his experience working at Standard Oil “taught me conciseness and how to marry pictures with words.”

“Flit,” was a popular bug spray of the day – especially against flies and mosquitoes. It was one of many Standard Oil Company of New Jersey consumer products derived from petroleum.

Late in 1927, Standard Oil’s growing advertising department, which had focused on sales of Standard and Esso gasolines, lubricating oil, fuel oil and asphalt, reorganized to promote other products, according to author Alfred Chandler Jr.

“Specialities, such as Nujol, Flit, Mistol, and other petroleum by-products that could not be effectively sold through the department’s sales organization were combined in a separate subsidiary – Stanco,” noted Chandler in his 1962 book, Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the American Industrial Enterprise.

“Quick, Henry, the Flit!”

Geisel’s fortuitous bug-spray cartoon depicted a medieval knight in his bed, facing a dragon who had invaded his room, and lamenting, “Darn it all, another dragon. And just after I’d sprayed the whole castle with Flit.”

According to the curators of the Dr. Seuss Collection at the University of California, San Diego, an anecdote in Judith and Neil Morgan’s 1995 book Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel, the wife of the ad executive who handled the Standard Oil account saw the dragon cartoon. Read the rest of this entry »

 

42-gallon-barrels-and-trains-AOGHS

After an 1859 Pennsylvania oil discovery – the start of the U.S. petroleum industry – barges floated barrels of oil down the Allegheny River to Pittsburgh to be refined into a highly demanded product – kerosene for lamps.

A handful of America’s earliest independent oilmen met in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and agreed that henceforth, 42 gallons would constitute a “barrel” of oil. It was August 1866 and northwestern Pennsylvania led the world in oil production.

The 42-gallon standard was adopted by the Petroleum Producers Association in 1872.

Although pipelines would later challenge the oil region’s teamsters, the business of moving oil depended mostly on men, wagons, horses, flatboats, and barrels.

To reach railroad station and docks, teams of horses pulled wagons carrying as many as eight barrels of oil. Rugged northwestern Pennsylvania terrain and muddy roads added to transportation problems.

Meanwhile, as derricks multiplied, forests along Oil Creek were reduced to barrel staves by recently introduced barrel-making machinery. Hoop mills operated day and night supporting cooperages that sprang up to join in the oil boom in what would later be called “the valley that changed the world.”

Why a 42-gallon barrel?

Long before England’s King Richard III defined the wine puncheon as a cask holding 84 gallons and a tierce as holding 42 gallons, watertight casks of many sizes were crafted by “tight” coopers. Their guild, the Worshipful Company of Coopers, prescribed the manner of construction. Lesser skilled craftsmen (known as slack coopers) made casks, barrels, and pails for dry goods.

Technologies for making watertight casks replaced “tight” coopers and their guild of Worshipful Company of Coopers. Standard Oil introduced a steel version of the common 42-gallon oil barrel in 1902 with the same traditional bilged, cask-like appearance.

Technologies for making watertight casks replaced “tight” coopers and their guild of Worshipful Company of Coopers. Standard Oil will introduce a steel version of the 42-gallon oil barrel in 1902 with the same traditional bilged, cask-like appearance.

By around 1700 in Pennsylvania, practical experience and custom had made the 42-gallon watertight tierce a standard container for shipping everything from eel, salmon, herring, molasses, soap, butter, wine and whale oil. The 42-gallon barrels became familiar 19th century containers.

Then came Edwin L. Drake’s 1859 oil discovery at Titusville, the first commercial U.S. oil well. The petroleum boom that followed it consumed wooden tierces, whiskey barrels, casks and barrels of all sizes.

When filled with crude oil instead of fish or other commodities, a 42-gallon tierce weighed more than 300 pounds – about as much as a man could reasonably wrestle. Twenty would fit on a typical barge or railroad flatcar. Bigger casks were unmanageable and smaller were less profitable.

Contemporary photographs show cooperages’ prodigious response to the new demand. Within a year of Drake’s discovery, oil barrels were commonly considered to hold 42 gallons according to “The Oil Fountains of Pennsylvania” in Littells’ Living Age of September 1860.

By 1866, these abundant tierce-sized barrels were the logical choice to become the industry’s standard measure.

The 42-gallon standard oil barrel was officially adopted by the Petroleum Producers Association in 1872 and by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1882.

Pennsylvania’s “valley that changed the world” also has connections to college football’s Heisman Trophy. Among the late 19th century Titusville companies, the Oberly & Heisman cooperage on Bridge Street supplied 42-gallon barrels for the oil trade – providing Michael Heisman’s son John an afterschool job.

John Heisman played varsity football for Titusville High School as a guard on the varsity team from 1884 to 1887. He graduated in 1887 and went on to become the legendary football coach for whom the Heisman Trophy is named.

“Blue Barrel” Myth

A persistent oilfield myth says that the abbreviation “bbl” for a barrel of oil resulted from Standard Oil Company’s early practice of painting their barrels blue –bbl for “blue barrel.”

However, while Ida Tarbell’s controversial 1904 History of Standard Oil Company acknowledged the “holy blue barrel,” the abbreviation “bbl” had been in use before the 1859 birth of the petroleum industry.

In the early 19th century, wooden barrels of all capacities were common containers of trade: hogsheads, puncheons, tierces, butts, tuns, and other long since forgotten terms.

Shipping manifests reveal that quantities of honey, rum, whale oil, and other commodities were shipped by the “bbl” – well before John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil’s blue barrels. For today’s industry, the abbreviation simply signifies a 42-gallon unit of measure…of any color.

Learn about the 55-gallon steel drum at The Remarkable Nellie Bly.

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

 

Phillips Petroleum Co. vice presidents L.E. Phillips and Clyde Alexander, pilot Arthur Goebel Jr., and legendary oilman Frank Phillips with the 1927 racing airplane – Woolaroc.

Phillips Petroleum Co. vice presidents L.E. Phillips and Clyde Alexander, pilot Arthur Goebel Jr., and legendary oilman Frank Phillips with the 1927 racing airplane – Woolaroc.

It was a foggy Tuesday morning, August 16, 1927, as eight airplanes prepared for takeoff before a crowd of more than 50,000 at the Oakland Airport in California.

Aviation history was about to be made with a race to Honolulu – thanks to a revolutionary petroleum product: Phillips Nu-Aviation Gasoline. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Because modern motorists seek environmentally friendly but low-cost transportation fuels, today’s abundance of natural gas promises innovation. City buses, taxis and interstate trucks now burn it. But before these new clean-energy transporters, a speedy blue rocket car blazed the trail.

Powered by natural gas, the Blue Flame makes a spectacular debut at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. On October 23, 1970, the rocket-car sets a new world land speed record of 630.388 mph.

Today there are more than 120,000 vehicles on U.S. roads powered by natural gas. Experts say engine design advances promise greater natural gas use for transportation. Historic pursuit of the world land speed record is the heritage of this “fuel of the future.”

The 38-foot Blue Flame’s natural gas-powered rocket motor could produce up to 58,000 horsepower.

Throughout the 20th century, land speed records were set with vehicles powered by steam, electricity, and all manner of petroleum distillates. National pride was often at stake as British, American, French, Belgian, German, and Italian teams fielded competing machines.

The first record was set by a Frenchman in 1898. Count Gaston De Chasseloup-Laubat, driving an electric-powered car, achieved 39.24 mph.

Jet Engines rule World Speed Record

Natural gas industry funding will provide Dick Keller and his team of engineers vital access to research facilities, including a supersonic wind tunnel.

After decades of more traditional internal combustion fueled records, mainly by the British, by the 1960s, American innovation – at Utah’s famed Bonneville’s Salt Flats – took mankind’s need for speed to a new level. Jet engines began pushing the land record to previously unthinkable levels. Read the rest of this entry »

 

As the Indiana natural gas boom continued, communities took great pride in what they thought to be an unlimited supply of natural gas. They erected arches of perforated iron pipe and let them burn day and night for months. Indiana lawmakers banned these wasteful “flambeaux” lights in 1891 – becoming one of the earliest states to legislate conservation.

The late 1880s discoveries of natural gas in Eaton and Portland ignited Indiana’s historic gas boom, which would dramatically change the state’s economy.

The “Trenton Field” as it would become known, spread over 17 Indiana counties and 5,120 square miles. It was the largest natural gas field known in the world. Within three years, more than 200 companies were drilling, distributing, and selling natural gas.

In 1859, the same year that “Colonel” Edwin L. Drake drilled the country’s first commercial oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, there were already 297 “manufactured gas” (known as coal gas) companies in the 33 United States. Read the rest of this entry »

 

July 29, 1918 – Burkburnett becomes a North Texas Boom Town

“Burkburnett was a sleepy farm town that transformed into a ‘Boom Town’ as a result of the North Texas oil boom in 1918,” explains the Burkburnett Historical Society. A popular 1940 MGM movie results from an article in Cosmopolitan magazine.

A wildcat well comes in on S. L. Fowler’s farm near a small North Texas community on the Red River.

The subsequent drilling boom will make Burkburnett famous  – two decades before “Boom Town,” the 1940 motion picture it inspires. Future movie star Clark Gable is a teenage oilfield worker in Oklahoma.

The well is completed at the northeastern edge of Burkburnett, founded in 1907 – and named by President Theodore Roosevelt, who two years earlier hunted wolf along the Red River with rancher Burkburnett. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Outside the Page Museum of Los Angeles, life-size replicas of several extinct mammals are featured at the Rancho La Brea in Hancock Park. Although commonly called the “tar pits,” the pools are actually comprised of asphalt.

“Tar pits” form when crude oil seeps to the surface through fissures in the earth’s crust and part of the oil evaporates.

The La Brea “tar pits,” discovered on August 3, 1769, by Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola, exemplify the many natural petroleum seeps of southern California.

“We proceeded for three hours on a good road; to the right were extensive swamps of bitumen which is called chapapote,” Franciscan friar Juan Crespi noted in a diary of the expedition.

“We debated whether this substance, which flows melted from underneath the earth, could occasion so many earthquakes,” he added.

Crespi – the first person to use the term bitumen – described the sticky pools in southern California where crude oil had been seeping from the ground through fissures in the coastal plain sediments for more than 40,000 years. Read the rest of this entry »

 

“Sometimes, when researching history, you find places where it’s still alive,” says Evan L. Schwartz, author of Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story.

L. Frank Baum – whose father found great success in Pennsylvania oilfields – would serve as chief salesman for Baum’s Castorine Company, which he founded with his brother on July 9, 1883.

L. Frank Baum’s sales trips may have influenced Oz. “On one of these trips, while installing a window display for a customer, the idea of the Tin Woodman came to him.”

Schwartz’s search for the Tin Man’s mythic oil-can led him to finding that in the 1880s L. Frank Baum and his brother owned a petroleum products business in Syracuse, New York. The business continues to this day.

The future world-famous author of the children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz once sold cans of buggy wheel oil for a living.

In 1883, Baum and his brother Benjamin launched their small business offering lubricants, oils, greases – and “Baum’s Castorine, the great axle oil.”

Reporting on the July 9, 1883, opening, the Syracuse Daily Courier newspaper noted that Baum’s Castorine was a rust-resistant axle grease concoction for machinery, buggies, and wagons. The grease was advertised to be “so smooth it makes the horses laugh.”

Baum’s Castorine Company prospered with L. Frank Baum serving as superintendent and chief salesman for the next four years.

“He was a traveling salesman for the company,” notes an exhibit at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum in Michigan. ”On one of these trips, while installing a window display for a customer, the idea of the Tin Woodman came to him.”

The exhibit also explains that  although the company enjoyed some success, it “came to an end when the bookkeeper gambled away the profits.”

Baum wrote of Baum’s Castorine Company, “I see no future in it to warrant my wasting any more years of my life in trying to boom it.”

Baum sold the business. In May 1900 he published the first of his children’s classics.

Son of a Successful Independent Oilman

L. (Lyman) Frank Baum was born in Chittenango, New York, on May 15, 1856, the seventh of nine children of Cynthia Stanton and Benjamin Ward Baum – one of only five of the children to survive into adulthood.

Baum’s Castorine products “are designed to extend machine life and reduce your maintenance costs.”

Thanks to Benjamin Ward Baum’s financial success in the newly born Pennsylvania petroleum industry, the young Baum grew up in an environment where his imagination and love of reading flourished.

In 1860, just one year after America’s first commercial oil discovery, Benjamin Ward Baum closed the family barrel-making business to risk his fortunes in the western Pennsylvania oilfields. ”Frankie” was then only four and a half years old.

Productive oil wells drilled near Titusville and Cherry Tree Run will bring Benjamin Ward Baum great wealth.

“Benjamin recognized a splendid opportunity and joined the crowds who moved in to exploit the oilfields and develop the area. A hundred new wells were drilled every month, ingenious mechanical contrivances were invented, towns and cities were built,” writes Katharine M. Rogers in her 2002 book, L. Frank Baum, Creator of Oz: A Biography.

“Benjamin began acquiring oilfields, including a particularly profitable one at Cherry Tree Run, a few miles south of Titusville,” Rogers explains. “He later bought property between Bradford, Pennsylvania, and Olean, New York, where he helped to develop the hamlet of Gilmour and built a hotel and an opera house.”

By 1862, the elder Baum owned Carbon Oil Company – and was a well-established oilman. His success helped finance diversification into dry goods and other mercantile businesses.

L. Frank Baum’s father once owned an oil company in Bolivar, New York, where a museum today exhibits the region’s extensive petroleum history.

Son Frank found employment in several of these family ventures as a young man. When his father purchased the Cynthia Oil Works in Bolivar, New York, Frank operated a retail outlet for awhile.

“The Cynthia Oil Works, the first refinery in Bolivar Township, was erected on the Porter Cowles flats at the north end of Bolivar village in 1882,” explains historian Ronald G. Taylor.

“The plant, owned by B. W. Baum & Son, dealers in oil leases and managers of the first opera house at Richburg, was designed as a lubricating oil works and for the manufacture of ship oil of 300 fire test for illuminating on board ships,” Taylor notes.

However, there was no longer unlimited free enterprise in the oil fields, says Rogers in her book.

“John D. Rockefeller had moved in and was increasingly controlling distribution. In 1878, Benjamin organized a group of independent producers to break Rockefeller’s grip by building a pipeline from Bradford to Rochester, where the oil could be transferred to tank cars and shipped to refineries in New York and Buffalo.”

Although the Standard Oil Company used its influence with the New York Central Railroad and the state legislature to block the plan, Rogers says, Baum continued to find success by discovering productive wells in New York.

“Oz” historian and author Evan L. Schwartz’s search for the Tin Man’s oil can led him to Baum’s Castorine Company in Rome, New York.

In 1887, after almost 30 years in the oil business, Benjamin Ward Baum died in New York. His father’s prosperity in the oil business permitted Frank to pursue writing, publishing journals and writing for the stage.

There were nine daily and 18 weekly newspapers published in the oil region, Rogers notes, and “Benjamin Baum had used some of his oil profits to acquire a string of small theaters in New York and Pennsylvania.”

Finding the Tin Man’s Oil Can

Was Baum’s Castorine lubricants inspiration for the oil can of the 1939 classic?

When historian Evan L. Schwartz researched his 2009 book, Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story, he was surprised to learn of the role petroleum played in Baum’s life – and that the Tin Man’s oil can trace its roots to Baum’s Castorine Company.

“L. Frank Baum sold cans of buggy wheel oil for a living as the co-owner of Baum’s Castorine Company of Syracuse, New York,” Schwartz explains, noting the company’s troubles that led to Baum’s selling it in 1888.

Schwartz describes discovering that the company still manufactures industrial oils and lubricants under the brand name, Baum’s Castorine Company .

“So I visited the current location in Rome, New York, and sat down for a peek into the archives with owner Charles Mowry, whose grandfather was one of the investors who bought the company from Frank Baum himself,” Schwartz explains.

“The smells of fine lubricant wafted in the air as I perused the collection of historic oil cans and heard the legend of Baum’s magic balms,” he says.

“What if Frank had never sold oil cans? Would we have never met the heartless Tin Man? And in 1939, why wasn’t Baum’s Castorine given the chance to pony up for some choice product placement?”

Visit the Pioneer Oil Museum in Bolivar.

 

 

New York chemist Robert Chesebrough will find a way to purify the waxy paraffin-like substance that clogged oil wells in early Pennsylvania petroleum fields.

Few associate 1860s oil wells with women’s smiling faces, but they are fashionably related.

This is the story of how the goop that accumulates around an oil well’s sucker-rod first made its way to the eyelashes of American women.

In 1865, a 22-year-old chemist left the prolific oil fields of Titusville, Pennsylvania, to return to his Brooklyn laboratory and experiment with a waxy substance that clogged well-heads.

Chesebrough experimented by inflicting minor cuts and burns on himself, then applying his purified petroleum jelly. By 1915, thrifty young ladies were using Vaseline to make mascara. Cosmetic industry giant Maybeline today can trace its roots to the petroleum product.

Chesebrough experimented by inflicting minor cuts and burns on himself, then applying his purified petroleum jelly. By 1915, thrifty young ladies were using Vaseline to make mascara. Cosmetic industry giant Maybelline today can trace its roots to the petroleum product.

Within a few years Robert Augustus Chesebrough would patent a method that turned the paraffin-like goop into a balm he called “petroleum jelly.”

In 1872, he patented his new product as “Vaseline.”

Even before America’s first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania, Chesebrough was in the “coal oil” business in Brooklyn, New York. His expertise was in the reduction of cannel coal into kerosene – a much in demand illuminant.

Chesebrough knew of the process for refining oil into kerosene, so when Edwin L. Drake’s August 27, 1859, discovery launched the American petroleum industry, he was one of many who rushed to the Titusville oil fields to make his fortune.

Scientific American reported, “Now commenced a scene of excitement beyond description. The Drake Well was immediately thronged with visitors arriving from the surrounding country, and within two or three weeks thousands began to pour in from the neighboring States.” Read the rest of this entry »

 

May 20, 1930 – Professional “Doodlebuggers” launch a Geophysical Society 

The Society of Economic Geophysicists adopts a constitution and bylaws in Houston. The organization will become a leader in the science of petroleum exploration.

In 1937 the society adopts the name by which it is known today, the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, which fosters “the ethical practice of geophysics in the exploration and development of natural resources, in characterizing the near surface, and in mitigating earth hazards.” Read the rest of this entry »

 

The petroleum industry supplies America with an amazing variety of products that are often “hiding in plain sight.” For Binney & Smith Company, common oilfield paraffin changed the company’s destiny by coloring children’s imaginations.

Dustless chalk circa 1904.

Although they longed for color, students in Alice Stead Binney’s classroom had to settle for dustless chalk. An-Du-Septic dustless chalk was so popular among turn-of-the-century teachers that it won a Gold Medal at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

Teachers like Alice loved the tidy new product, but their choices were limited. Pencils of the day were primitive, with square “leads” made from a variety of clays, slates, and graphite.

Color writing implements were the toxic and expensive imports of artists, best kept away from schoolchildren.

Alice’s husband Edwin, and his cousin, C. Harold Smith, created the award-winning An-Du-Septic chalk as a consequence of expanding their pigment business into the sideline production of slate pencils for schools. Read the rest of this entry »