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When a young chemist distills paraffin from Pennsylvania oil fields into petroleum jelly – Vaseline – its leads to a new mascara and the Maybelline Company.

vaseline

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.

vaseline

Robert Chesebrough consumed a spoonful of Vaseline each day and lived to be 96. Photo courtesy the Drake Well Museum, Titusville, Pennsylvania.

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

This is the story of how the goop that accumulated around the sucker rods of America’s earliest  oil wells 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 oil field well heads.

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

On June 4, 1872, Chesebrough patented “a new and useful product from petroleum,” which he names “Vaseline.”

Even before America’s first commercial oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859, Chesebrough was in the “coal oil” business in Brooklyn, New York. His expertise was in the reduction of cannel coal into kerosene – an illuminant in high demand among consumers.

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. Read the rest of this entry »

 

The exploration history of the U.S. offshore oil and natural gas industry began in the Pacific Ocean more than 100 years ago. As recently as 1947 no company had ever risked drilling beyond the sight of land.

America’s offshore petroleum industry began in the late 19th century in Pacific Ocean with drilling and production piers at Summerland, California. Drilling platforms also appreared on lakes in Ohio and Lousiana. By the 1940s, technology was taking wells far into the Gulf of Mexico.

America’s offshore petroleum industry began in the late 19th century in Pacific Ocean with drilling and production piers at Summerland, California. Drilling platforms also appreared on lakes in Ohio and Louisiana. By the 1940s, technology was taking wells far into the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1896, as enterprising businessmen pursued California’s prolific Summerland oilfield all the way to the beach, the lure of offshore production enticed Henry L. Williams and his associates to build a pier 300 feet out into the Pacific – and mount a standard cable-tool rig on it. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Offshore Ohio wells are drilled on a lake in the 1890s, perhaps the industry’s first. Mercer County says oil wells pumped far out in Grand Lake St. Marys.

 ohio offshore wells

Grand Lake St. Marys – hand-dug from 1837 to 1845 – originally was nine miles long by three miles wide. It supplied water to central Ohio’s Miami and Eric Canal until designated a “public recreation and pleasure resort” in 1915.

America’s “first offshore drilling” is generally acknowledged to be over Louisiana’s Caddo Lake in 1911 – although historians in Mercer and Auglaize counties in Ohio say otherwise.

Mercer County documents record oil wells pumping far out in the waters of Grand Lake St. Marys 20 years before drillers ventured into the waters of Caddo Lake.

Work on the Ohio reservoir that would become known as Grand Lake St. Marys – about 60 miles north of Dayton – began in 1837 to support construction of the Miami and Erie Canal near the towns of Celina and St. Marys. To maintain the canal’s water levels, the reservoir was excavated over nine years by more than 1,700 men earning 30 cents a day. Read the rest of this entry »

 

 Two Texans sought the end of gushers at oil wells. In 1922, James Abercrombie and Harry Cameron filed a patent for the hydraulic ram-type blowout preventer.

blowout preventer

James Dean starred as a roughneck in the 1956 movie “Giant” – at the time “a sprawling epic” about a Texas rancher (Rock Hudson) and an oil gusher on his land. In fact, decades earlier two Texas wildcatters had invented a device that prevented most gushers.

Petroleum drilling technologies, among the most advanced of any industry, have evolved since 1859 – especially as wells have reached far deeper. In 1922, it took a Texas wildcatter’s experience and ingenuity to invent a device designed to stop gushers.

blowout preventer

Gushers like this famous one on Spindletop Hill, Texas, in 1901 were dramatic – but dangerous and wasteful.

The image of James Dean celebrating in a rain of oil may have been dramatic in 1956, but most oilfield gushers ended much earlier. By the time the movie “Giant” was made, the technology of well control and blowout prevention had been in place more than 30 years.

Perhaps the most famous high-pressure blowout occurred at Spindletop Hill near Beaumont, Texas.

On January 10, 1901, a three-man crew was drilling when a six-inch stream of oil and gas erupted 100 feet into the air. This oilfield would prove to be among the largest and most significant for a gasoline-hungry nation.

The Beaumont newspaper described the discovery well drilled by Anthony F. Lucas and Pattillo Higgins of the Gladys City Oil, Gas, and Manufacturing Company: “An Oil Geyser – Remarkable Phenomenon South of Beaumont – Gas Blows Pipe from Well and a Flow of Oil Equaled Nowhere Else on Earth.”

It took nine days and 500,000 barrels of oil before a shut off valve for the well (producing from a salt dome, as Lucas had predicted) could be affixed to the casing to stop the flow. At the time and for years to follow, images of gushers would attract investors.

blowout preventer

James Abercrombie invented the “ram-type” blowout preventer – using hydrostatic pistons to close on the drill stem and form a seal against the well pressure.

Learn more at the Spindletop/Gladys City Boomtown Museum in Beaumont. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Powered by natural gas, the Blue Flame set a world speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1970. The American Gas Association sponsored the rocket car.

Because driver now 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.

blue flame

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

Today there reportedly 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.”

blue flame

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. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Hollywood newsreels and NBC Radio rushed to feature the March 1930 “Wild Mary Sudik” gusher. Within weeks they made the Oklahoma oil field famous worldwide.

wild mary sudik

“Wild Mary Sudik” newsreels soon appeared in theaters around the country. When the well was brought under control, crews recovered 200,000 barrels of oil from pits and ponds.

The Mary Sudik No. 1 well blew out after striking a high-pressure formation about 6,500 feet beneath the state capital.

The Indian Territory Illuminating Oil Company’s well flowed for 11 days before being brought under control on April 6, 1930.

The well, which produced a stunning 20,000 barrels of oil and 200 million cubic feet of natural gas a day, became a public sensation.

The giant discovery was featured in newsreels and on radio, according to “Oklahoma Journeys,” an audio program of the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City.

“At about 6:30 the morning of March 26, 1930, the crew of roughnecks drilling a well on the property of Vincent Sudik paused in their work,” the program begins about the well, which is near I-240 and Bryant Street in present day Oklahoma City.

“The tired drillers had been waiting for daylight to continue their work,” the audio tape notes.

wild mary sudik

Experts control the well with “a clever ball-shaped contrivance” that lowers a two-ton “overshot” cap.

The program’s narrator Michael Dean notes that after drilling to drilling to 6,471 feet, the roughnecks overlook a dangerous pressure increase in the well.

“The exhausted crew failed to fill the hole with mud,” he explains. “They didn’t know the Wilcox sand formation was permeated with natural gas under high pressure, and within minutes that sand under so much pressure found a release.”

The drilling crew was caught off guard when oil and natural gas suddenly “came roaring out of the hole,” Dean adds.

“Pipe stems were thrown hundreds of feet into the air like so many tooth picks. First there was gas then the flow turned green gold and then black,” he reports. “Oil shot hundreds of feet into the air, and for the next eleven days, the Mary Sudik ran wild.”

“Wild Mary Sudik” Daily Updates

On April 6, Floyd Gibbons of NBC Radio – who broadcast regular reports about the well – reports that after two unsuccessful attempts, the well is closed with a two-ton “overshot” cap.

An Associated Press article describes the “clever equipment” required to control the well without sparking a fire – a “double die was screwed into four inches of casing threads…a clever ball-shaped contrivance, called a fantail, was used to affix the double die to the casing.”

The fantail was placed over the well, “and the ‘Wild Mary’s’ pressure, playing through jets in the contrivance, aided in lowering the cap through the blast,” the article explains.

“With the petroleum geyser halted, operators in the field drew sighs of relief,” it concludes. “A stray spark from two clanking pieces of steel and the territory might have become a raging inferno.”

With the well was brought under control and the danger of fire eliminated, drilling continues at a frantic pace elsewhere in Oklahoma City.

However, the prolific, high-pressure of the Wilcox sands formation continued to challenge drillers and the technologies of the day.

A Wild Mary Sudik article in the Southwest Missourian newspaper reported:

Oklahoma City, April 7 – A gas well, estimated to be producing at a rate of 75,000,000 cubic feet a day, blew in at the edge of the city today, creating a new fire threat less than 24 hours after the wild No. 1 Mary Sudik gusher, several miles to the south, had been brought under control.

Recognizing the risks of drilling into the Wilcox sand, Oklahoma City passes additional ordinances for safety and well spacing in the city.

Although the first ram-type blowout preventer had been patented by James Abercrombie in 1926, many high-pressure Texas and Oklahoma oil fields would take time to tame.

wild mary sudik

The Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City includes the Devon Energy Oil and Gas Park.

In December 1933, Abercrombie patented an improved blowout preventer (patent No. 1,834,922), that set a new standard for safe drilling during the Oklahoma City oil field boom. Read more in Ending Oil Gushers – BOP.

Visitors today  can see the valve that split in half and view newsreel film of the Wild Mary Sudik in the oil and gas and natural resources on exhibit at the Oklahoma History Center.

There also is the Devon Energy Oil and Gas Park with drilling and production equipment at the center, located on N.E. 23rd Street just east of the state capitol.

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

 

oil well drilling technology

The Chinese drilled with bamboo spring poles as early as 450 A.D.

Oil well drilling technology has evolved from the ancient spring pole to percussion cable-tools to the modern rotary rigs that can drill miles into the earth.

“A good cable-tool man is just about the most highly skilled worker you’ll find,” historian note.

“Besides having a feel for the job, knowing what’s going on thousands of feet under the ground just from the movement of the cable, he’s got to be something of a carpenter, a steam-fitter, an electrician, and a damned good mechanic.”

– From a 1939 interview in “Voices from the Oilfield” by Paul Lambert and Kenny Franks.

“A cable tool driller knows more knots and splices than any six sailors you can find,” Lambert and Franks added during the interview. Cable-tool rigs, powered by a steam engine and boiler, included the bullwheel and drilling cable – often high-quality manila rope.

oil well drilling technology

Standard cable-tool derricks stood 82 feet tall and were powered by a steam boiler and engine using a “walking beam” to alternately raise and lower drilling tools – which frequently had to be sharpened in a forge. Image from The Oil-Well Driller, 1905.

Drilling or “making hole” began long before oil or natural gas were anything more than flammable curiosities found seeping from the ground.

For centuries, digging by hand or shovel was the best technologies that existed to pry into the earth’s secrets. Oil seeps provided a balm for injuries. Natural gas seeps – when ignited – created folklore and places called “burning springs.” Read the rest of this entry »

 

In 2001, an archaeological survey of the seafloor prior to construction of a natural gas pipeline led to the discovery of U-166 about 45 miles off the Louisiana coast. BP and Shell sponsored additional fieldwork to record detailed images, including a gun on the deck aft of the submarine’s conning tower.

Petroleum companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico’s outer continental shelf are required to provide detailed sonar data in areas that have archaeological potential.

Several federal agencies today review about 1,700 oil and natural gas company surveys every year. The surveys have revealed more than 100 historic shipwrecks. In 2001, scientists at the Minerals Management Service noted that “a German submarine definitely got our attention.”

During World War II, U-boats prowled the Gulf of Mexico to disrupt the vital flow of oil carried by tankers departing ports in Louisiana and Texas.

In just one year, the Kriegsmarine sank 56 Allied ships, including 17 tankers, while losing only one submarine – the Unterseeboot 166.

German submarine predations so threatened the war effort that American government and industry responded with the longest petroleum pipeline project ever undertaken, building the “Big Inch” and “Little Big Inch” from East Texas to Illinois, and as far as New York. See WW II Big Inch and Little Big Inch Pipelines.

But for the U-166, the war was over. Its final resting place remained a mystery for almost 60 years.

The last victim of the U-166 was the passenger freighter Robert E. Lee, sunk by a single torpedo on July 30, 1942, while on its way to New Orleans. Her Naval escort ship, PC-566, rushed in to drop ten depth charges. The U-166 was believed to have escaped. It did not.

Commissioned on March 23, 1942, U-166 today is a war grave in the Gulf of Mexico.

Finding U-166

In 1986, a Shell Offshore vessel using a deep-tow system of the day recorded two close wrecks about 45 miles off the Louisiana coast in 5,000 feet of water.

Thought to be the Robert E. Lee and cargo freighter Alcoa Puritan, it was May 2001 before an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) using side scan sonar revealed the U-166. The lost World War II submarine was separated from Robert E. Lee by less than a mile on the sea floor.

The U.S. petroleum industry remains a principle user of advanced underwater technologies for seafloor mapping.

The AUV, which required no cable connection to its mother ship, found the Alcoa Puritan 14 miles away. Learn more about the petroleum industry’s offshore robotics in “Swimming Socket Wrenches.”

The historic submarine’s discovery resulted from the requirement for an archaeological survey of the seafloor prior to construction of a natural gas pipeline by BP and Shell Oil. Six other World War II vessels have been discovered in the course of Gulf of Mexico oil and natural gas surveys.

As a result of the U-166′s discovery, BP and Shell altered their proposed pipeline to preserve the site and government archaeologists notified the U.S. Navy Historical Center of the discovery, notes a 2001 MMS newsletter.

“They, in turn, notified the German Embassy and military attaché,” the MMS article explains. “Since the remains of the U-166’s 52 crewmen are still on board, the German government has declared the site to be a war grave and has requested that it remain undisturbed.”

Gulf of Mexico oil tanker losses led to a petroleum industry achievement: construction of the “Big Inch” and “Little Big Inch” pipelines that connected Texas oilfields to eastern refineries.

Editor’s Note – Since 2011, the Minerals Management Service has become the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

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Disaster in 1933 at a giant oil field near Conroe, Texas, brings together the inventor of a portable drilling rig and the father of directional drilling.

Two years earlier, veteran oilman George W. Strake Sr. had made a major discovery eight miles southeast of Conroe in December 1931. His wildcat well would prove historic in many ways.

Although the Conroe well’s producing sands proved to be dangerously gas-charged, shallow and unstable, the giant oil field – the third largest in the United States at the time - soon had 60 successful wells producing more than 65,000 of barrels of oil a day.

The region north of Houston boomed as the Great Depression worsened.

Disaster came in January 1933 when one of the wells blew out and erupted into flame. The runaway well cratered – completely swallowing nearby drilling rigs. 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 »

 

Offshore petroleum platforms act as artificial reefs, creating ideal marine habitats. Since 1979, the Rigs to Reefs program has formed the world’s largest.

rigs to reefs

Offshore platforms are a good choice for artificial reefs. Their size and open design attract fish – and divers – where they can swim easily through the circulating water.

Gulf of Mexico federal offshore oil production accounts for 23 percent of total U.S. oil production, notes the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Federal offshore natural gas production in the Gulf accounts for seven percent

Over 40 percent of total U.S. petroleum refining capacity is located along the Gulf coast, as well as 30 percent of total U.S. natural gas processing plant capacity.

More than 4,500  petroleum platforms operate daily in offshore waters. Thanks to a program begun two decades ago, offshore production benefits both the economy and the environment.

rigs to reefs

Whether in operation or a retired rig intentionally placed, a typical four-pile platform jacket provides almost three acres of living and feeding habitat for thousands of underwater species. Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

Rigs to Reefs is a program in which offshore structures that are no longer producing remain in the marine environment. They form the largest artificial reef complex in the world.

The industry-government partnership is a Gulf of Mexico success story, notes an article in Ocean Science, the Minerals Management Service quarterly magazine.

Rigs to Reefs is a program in which offshore structures that are no longer producing remain in the marine environment. Today, they form the world’s largest artificial reef complex.

Although Rigs to Reefs developed as an official policy in the mid-1980s, the concept was first explored in 1979. The National Artificial Reef Plan paved the way for government-endorsed artificial reef projects.

The first planned conversion took place in 1979 with the re-location of an Exxon experimental subsea structure from offshore Louisiana to an artificial reef site off Apalachicola, Florida.

In 1984, the National Fishing Enhancement Act established national artificial reef standards.

MMS then developed policies encouraging the reuse of obsolete offshore petroleum structures – requiring compliance with standards of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the criteria in the National Artificial Reef Plan of 1985, which allowed states to plan, construct, and manage artificial reefs. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Charles Duryea claimed the first American patent for a gasoline automobile in 1895. One year later, Henry Ford sold his first “quadri-cycle,” creating the auto industry. Meanwhile, New York City public workers removed 450,000 tons of horse manure every year. 

A growing number of unreliable machines soon shared unpaved U.S. roads with horses.

In 1906, a “Stanley Steamer” (above) set the world land speed record at 127.7 m.p.h. – still officially recognized as the land speed record for a steam car.

Of the 4,200 new automobiles sold in the United States at the turn of the century, gasoline powered less than 1,000. On November 3, 1900, America’s first national automobile show opened in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Read the rest of this entry »

 

December 4, 1928 – First Oil Discovery using Reflection Seismography 

Geologic Resources

An energy source (explosive charge, weight drop, vibration generator), creates waves reflecting from the top of bedrock to surface detectors.

Amerada Petroleum drills into a Viola limestone formation in Oklahoma – the first successful oil well produced from a geological structure identified by a reflection seismograph.

The exploration technology for the first time reveals an oil reservoir near Seminole. Successfully tested as early as June 1921, reflection seismography – seismic surveying – will lead to oilfield discoveries across the world.

Amerada Petroleum’s subsidiary Geophysical Research applies the new technology, which has evolved from the World War I and experiments of Reginald Fessenden, Ludger Mintrop of Germany – and renowned Oklahoma physicist John Karcher.

Fessenden, working as the chief physicist for the Submarine Signaling Company of Boston, makes the technology practical for use in the field. In Germany, Mintrop develops portable seismic detection equipment that uses seismic reflections from Allied artillery to aid the German army in locating the source. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Building a community oil museum is not for the faint of heart.

“Money and volunteers, volunteers and money,” are the biggest challenges, according to John Larrabee, board president for the Illinois Oil Field Museum and Resource Center on the outskirts of his hometown of Oblong, Illinois.

The Illinois Oil Field Museum is located in Oblong, Illinois, on Highway 33, southeast of Effingham. First opened in 1961, the community museum moved into a new building in 2001 and today continues to add new exhibits.

“The first thing you have to have is a goal and the determination to keep at it, no matter what. Don’t give up, whatever happens,” Larrabee explained in a 2004 interview with historical society Contributing Editor Kris Wells.

It helps to know something about the oil business, said the third generation Illinois Basin oilman. “The museum began way back in 1961 with a fellow named Enos Bloom, Larrabee noted. “In those days, the city of Oblong provided and maintained a building that housed donated artifacts.” Read the rest of this entry »

 

Detailed illustrations tell the story of the industry’s remarkable heritage in Oil and Natural Gas – an excellent book from the Society of Petroleum Engineers. Discovering the story of petroleum – and the many ways it shapes the world – is the theme of this illustrated guide to the industry’s past, present and future. Read the rest of this entry »