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.

Inventing the BOP

Patent records abound with inventors’ efforts to find a solution to controlling the underground pressure encountered when drilling. It took a successful wildcatter’s ingenuity to finally devise a workable “blowout preventor.”

James Abercrombie of Huntsville, Texas, had personal experience with the dangers of uncontrollable blowouts, having narrowly escaped one himself:

“With a roar like a hundred express trains racing across the countryside, the well blew out, spewing oil in all directions,” notes one account. “The derrick simply evaporated. Casings wilted like lettuce out of water, as heavy machinery writhed and twisted into grotesque shapes in the blazing inferno.”

Abercrombie started in the oilfields as a roustabout in 1908 working for the Goose Creek Production Company and by 1920 owned several rigs in south Texas. He met Harry Cameron in the machine shops of the Cameron-Devant Company, where Abercrombie was a frequent customer.

The two men soon became friends and business partners.

In 1920, Abercrombie and Cameron formed Cameron Iron Works to repair drilling rigs and sell supplies and parts to oilmen. They employed five men with two lathes, a drill press, and hand tools. They named the company Cameron because Abercrombie already had two companies with his name.

Abercrombie said of his friend, “Harry Cameron was a great machine-tool man. You could give him a piece of iron and he could make just about anything you wanted.”

A Sketch in Sawdust

James Abercrombie came up with the idea for a “ram-type” blowout preventer – using rams (hydrostatic pistons) to close on the drill stem and form a seal against the well pressure. He sketched his idea on the sawdust floor of the Cameron Iron Works machine shop in Humble, Texas.

Abercrombie and Cameron worked out the details, using simple, rugged parts. When installed on a wellhead, the rams could be closed off, allowing full control of pressure during drilling and production. In 1922, their Type MO blowout preventer (BOP) could withstand pressures of up to 3,000 psi. Subsequent improvements continued to increase the device’s capability.

According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Abercrombie and Cameron filed a patent application for their MO BOP on April 14, 1922. The simple, straightforward design of the MO was summed up in words from the application, “Another object is to provide a blowout preventer of the kind described, which will be composed to a minimum number of parts of simple and rugged construction.”

The application was acknowledged and the basic patent was granted January 12, 1926 – U.S. patent number 1,569,247. In December 1931, Abercrombie patented an improved blowout preventer (patent No. 1,834,922, reissued in 1933), that set a new standard for safe drilling during the Oklahoma City oilfield boom.

blowout preventer

James Abercrombie

In December 1931, Abercrombie patented an improved blowout preventer (patent No. 1,834,922, reissued in 1933), that set a new standard for safe drilling during the Oklahoma City oilfield boom.

The blowout preventer saved lives and quickly became an industry standard. An original Abercrombie and Cameron blowout preventer was displayed in the Smithsonian Institution for many years before returning to Cooper Cameron headquarters in Houston, where it is now on display in the lobby.

Modern blowout preventers include not only ram-types using steel rams to seal the borehole as in Abercrombie’s patents, but also annular BOPs (Granville Knox – 1952) and spherical BOPs (Ado Vujasinovic – 1972) stacked for redundancy and capable of withstanding pressures of 20,000 pounds per square inch.

blowout preventer

This onshore BOP configuration from Schlumberger is typical for a well drilled with a hole size greater than four inches diameter.

The early contributions of pioneers like James Abercrombie, Harry Cameron, and others made the search safer, more productive, and more sensitive to the environment.

In 2003, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers recognized the Cameron Ram-Type Blowout Preventer as an “Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.”

Since the History and Heritage Program began in 1971, more than 235 landmarks have been designated as “historic mechanical engineering landmarks, heritage collections or heritage sites. Each represents a progressive step in the evolution of mechanical engineering and its significance to society in general.”

James Abercrombie died January 7, 1975. His success in the oilfields and philanthropy made him one of Houston’s leading citizens.

Article adapted from the July 2003 ASME designation ceremony.

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