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


America on the Move

The Smithsonian’s exhibit includes the history behind creation of the interstate highway system.

America on the Move

The role of “Route 66” from Chicago to Los Angeles is an exhibit feature.

ExxonMobil is among the sponsors of a Smithsonian exhibition that includes themes aimed at educating young people about transportation in American history.

A red oilfield service truck from Shawnee, Oklahoma, is among the petroleum-related exhibits.

Opened in 2003 after a $22 million renovation, the Transportation Hall of National Museum of American History is 26,000 square feet – with 340 objects. The Washington, D.C., attraction features 19 historic settings in chronological order.

“America on the Move” features the Smithsonian Institution’s extensive transportation collection using the latest multimedia technology.

The exhibition “brings back to life the history of ships, trains, trucks, and automobiles. It also reveals America’s fascination with life on the road.”

The large exhibit hall begins with late 19th century transportation technologies, including steam-powered ships and trains, the building of canals and urban development of street cars.

Among the most popular collections, “American Adopt the Auto” features interactive exhibits about the massive new infrastructure required across the country.

“Explore the way the automobile went from being a plaything of the rich to a major factor in the American transportation landscape,” notes the Smithsonian. “In this exhibit section full of objects, you can see toy cars, early license plates, engines, road markers, car-part inventions, mechanics’ tools, and gas pumps.”

To cope with the changes that “automobility” brought, the nation developed an elaborate system of law, commerce, and custom, adds the Smithsonian. Congress passed laws to rebuild roads as inventors improved production techniques. New businesses – gas stations, tire shops, garages – sprang up to supply drivers’ needs.

In 1901, the year of the great oilfield discovery at Spindletop Hill in Texas, New York became the first state to register automobiles; by 1918 all states required license plates. Created in 1913, the Lincoln Highway Association promoted the building of a paved highway from New York to California largely supported by donations from car-related businesses.

America on the Move

Petroleum history plays a small role in the Smithsonian museum’s “America on the Move” exhibit.

By 1930, 23 million cars were on the road, and more than half of American families owned a car. Many high schools began offering driver education classes.

A large exhibit area highlights the Smithsonian’s collection, including displays showing the history of the interstate highway system and images and artifacts from Route 66.

A section about “life on the open road” notes how in the 1920s new highways began to affect people’s lives: “Some Americans used highways to migrate.

Others earned a living on the road, or by its side, running businesses. Many Americans began to take to the highways for pleasure.”

Travelers often saw the highway as a symbol of independence and freedom – although they depended on government for the roads, and on businesses such as automobile and tire manufacturers, oil refiners, gas stations and roadside restaurants.

Route 66 & the Interstate System

Among the exhibits are images of Route 66, which was commissioned in 1926 and fully paved by the late 1930s.

A prominent Tulsa, Oklahoma, businessman – who also invested in the petroleum industry – is credited with creating the enduring (and international) popular identity of Route 66.

Cyrus Avery, a Pennsylvania native, saw the need for better roads, the exhibit notes. As chairman of the Oklahoma Highway Commission, he helped plan the system for numbered highways. His proposal for a highway from Chicago to Los Angeles along a southwestern route was approved and designated U.S. 66 in 1926.

America on the Move

Pennsylvania’s 160-mile turnpike opened in 1940.

Avery founded the U.S. 66 Highway Association and coined the route’s nickname, “Main Street of America.”

Another exhibit notes that after decades of debate, Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956 – and the interstate network was born.

The 41,000-mile system was designed to reach every city with a population of more than 100,000.

When the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in 1940, it stretched 160 miles from Carlisle to Irwin. It would more than double in length by 1957. An historical marker notes creation of one of the earliest “service plazas,” now commonplace on all interstate highways. See Iowa 80 Trucking Museum.

The “limited access” design of the turnpike became the model for future superhighways – the U.S. interstate system. Almost completed by the 1990s, the total cost for the nation’s interstate system reached more than $100 billion.

The Route 66 exhibit includes the red Oklahoma “oil field service” truck owned by the Rufus Lillard Company of Shawnee with this note: “The 20th century oil industry employed increasingly large numbers of men in the oil fields: their number rose from 22,230 workers in 1902 to 93,205 in 1919.”

Even more people were employed building pipelines and working in refineries, corporate offices, and marketing. Despite the Depression, by the mid-1930s the U.S. petroleum industry employed some one million people.

Read about America’s first automobile show in 1900 in New York City’s Madison Square Garden in Cantankerous Combustion.  

Similar to today’s “American on the Move” hall, the the National Museum of American History once devoted space to the petroleum industry.

On June 28, 1967, the “Hall of Petroleum” opened. It including full-size cable-tool and rotary drilling rigs, pump jacks and other oilfield exhibits. The “Panorama of Petroleum,” a 56-foot-long mural by Delbert Jackson, welcomed thousands of visitors. Read more in Smithsonian’s “Hall of Petroleum.”

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


The U.S. Navy’s change from coal to oil-fired boilers at sea is another key chapter in petroleum history.

Petroleum and Sea Power

Commissioned on March 12, 1914, with coal-powered boilers that were converted to use fuel oil in 1925, the U.S.S. Texas “was the most powerful weapon in the world, the most complex product of an industrial nation just beginning to become a force in global events,” says an historian at Battleship Texas State Historic Site.

Read the rest of this entry »


As Pennsylvania petroleum production skyrocketed following the Civil War, Densmore oil tank cars – designed and fabricated by two inventive brothers – first successfully transported oil by rail from booming oilfields to refineries.

densmore oil tank car

Amos and James Densmore designed their first twin tanked railroad cars in 1865. Patented a year later and built by the thousands, their invention greatly improved bulk transportation of oil. Photo courtesy the Drake Well Museum.

densmore oil tank car

Although prone to leaks and top heavy, Densmore tank cars provided a vital service – but only briefly. A better railroad car replaced them.

Railroad oil tank cars became the latest of a growing number of oilfield innovations when two brothers received a U.S. patent on April 10, 1866.

James and Amos Densmore of Meadville, Pennsylvania, were granted the patent for their “Improved Car for Transporting Petroleum,” which they developed one year earlier in the booming oil region of Northwestern Pennsylvania.

Using an Atlantic & Great Western Railroad flatcar, the brothers secured two tanks in order to ship oil in bulk. Patent no. 53,794 describes and illustrates the railroad car’s design.

The nature of our invention consists in combining two large, light tanks of iron or wood or other material with the platform of a common railway flat freight-car, making them practically part of the car, so as they carry the desired substance in bulk instead of in barrels, casks, or other vessels or packages, as is now universally done on railway cars.

The brothers described the use of special bolts at the top and bottom of the tanks to act as a braces and “to prevent any shock or jar to the tank from the swaying of the car while in motion.” 

An historical marker on U.S. 8 south of Titusville memorializes the Densmore brothers’ contribution to petroleum transportation technology.

The first functional railway oil tank car was invented and constructed in 1865 by James and Amos Densmore at nearby Miller Farm along Oil Creek. It consisted of two wooden tanks placed on a flat railway car; each tank held 40-45 barrels of crude oil.

 A successful test shipment was sent in September 1865 to New York City. By 1866, hundreds of tank cars were in use. The Densmore Tank Car revolutionized the bulk transportation of crude oil to market.

densmore oil tank car

Safer and stronger, riveted-iron horizontal tanks brought an end to Densmore oil tank cars.

According to an ExplorePAhistory.com article, the benefit of such cars to the oil industry was immense – it cost $170 less to ship eighty barrels of oil from Titusville to New York in a tank car than in individual barrels. But the Densmore cars had flaws.

They were unstable, top heavy, prone to leaks, and limited in capacity by the eight-foot width of the flatcar.

Within a year, oil haulers shifted from the Densmore vertical vats to larger, horizontal riveted iron cylindrical tanks, which also demonstrated greater structural integrity during derailments or collisions.

The same basic design for transporting petroleum is still used today as railroads have put  dozens of other products – from corn syrup to chemicals – in the versatile tank car.

densmore oil tank car

Riveted cylindrical iron tank cars replaced Densmore brothers’ wooden vat cars. Discarded Densmore tanks can be seen in the foreground. Photo courtesy Drake Well Museum.

From Oil to Typewiters

Although the Densmore brothers left the oil region by 1867 – their inventiveness was far from over.

densmore oil tank car

The Densmore brothers invent one of the first typewriters.

In 1875, Amos Densmore assisted Christopher L. Sholes to rearrange the “type writing machine” keyboard – so that commonly used letters no longer collided and got stuck. The “QWERTY” arrangement vastly improved Shole’s original 1868 invention.

Following his brother’s work with Sholes, inventor of the first practical typewriter, James Densmore’s oilfield financial success helped the brothers establish the Densmore Typewriter Company, which produced its first model in 1891.

The ExplorePAhistory.com article concludes:

“Biographies of the Densmores – and even their personal papers now residing at the Milwaukee Public Museum – all refer to their work on typewriters, but make no mention of their pioneering work in railroad tank car design.”

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


America’s first auto show opened in New York City’s Madison Square Garden in November 1900. Gasoline proved to be the least popular source of engine power.

first auto show

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.

first auto show

Gasoline engines will take time to catch on with consumers.

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 were removing 450,000 tons of horse manure from the streets every year.

Brothers Charles and Frank Duryea test drove their gasoline powered automobile – built in their Springfield, Massachusetts, workshop – on April 19, 1892.

Considered the first automobile regularly made for sale in the United States, a total of 13 of the model was manufactured by the Duryea Motor Wagon Company. Other manufacturers quickly followed the Duryea example.

Although their company would last only three years, according to the Henry Ford Museum, “brothers Charles and Frank Duryea became the first Americans to attempt to build and sell automobiles at a profit.”

It was reported two months after the company’s first sale in 1896 that a New York City motorist driving a Duryea hit a bicyclist. This was recorded as the nation’s first automobile traffic accident.

A growing number of the new “infernal machines” soon shared unpaved U.S. roads with startled horses.

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 »


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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