Making Hole – Drilling Technology
A good cable-tool man is just about the most highly skilled worker you’ll find.
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.
A cable tool driller knows more knots and splices than any six sailors you can find. – From a 1939 interview in “Voices from the Oilfield” by Paul Lambert and Kenny Franks.
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.”
Drilling technology advanced when the spring pole harnessed the resiliency of a bent tree to assist in pummeling a hole into the ground to find water.
Ancient histories record the technique, which is still used in some corners of the world. While repeatedly kicking down a stirrup was primitive and slow, the spring pole’s rope and chisel were practical drilling technologies.
Salt was an essential commodity for preserving food and extracting it from brine was a simple process. In 1802 in what is now West Virginia, salt brine drillers David and Joseph Ruffner took 18-months to drill through 40 feet of bedrock to a total depth of 58 feet using a spring pole.
The Ruffner brothers drilling ingenuity and innovation made the Kanawha River Valley a major salt manufacturing and distribution center in the early 1800s. Many early drilling technologies were developed there.
“The Ruffner brothers’ well was the first well known to have been ‘drilled,’ as distinct from ‘dug,’ in the Western Hemisphere,” notes J.E. Brantly in the History of Oil Well Drilling. The well’s historic significance rests on the “development of well drilling tools and practices, which became almost immediately standard equipment used by many other well drillers in the new salt industry.”
There was money to be made from brine wellss. The rapidly growing number of settlers in the frontier needed a lot of salt to preserve food. However, sometimes a good well would be fouled with the intrusion of unsought and unwanted oil. The rainbow sheen and pungent smell of oil was bad news to brine drillers.
Chiseling a Hole with Cable Tools
The advent of cable-tool drilling introduced the wooden derrick into the changing American landscape. Using the same basic notion of chiseling a hole deeper and deeper into the earth, but adding the miracle of steam power and clever mechanical engineering, wells could be drilled far more efficiently.
Frequent stops were needed to remove the chipped-away rock and other material, bail out water – and sharpen the bit. Bull wheels and hemp rope repeatedly hoisted and dropped heavy iron drill strings and a curious variety of bits deep into the borehole. Oil was still an adversary to those in search of either fresh water or brine.
However, savvy businessmen like the Ruffner brothers and Samuel Kier of Tarentum, Pennsylvania, learned to profit from this oil.
It had long been recognized that oil could be collected and used as a medicine, lubricant, and even a foul-smelling, smoky illuminant. American Indians gathered oil by using blankets to soak it up from natural seeps. The Ruffner brothers sold their oil to marketers of patent medicines and lubrication products.
A decade before the birth of the petroleum industry, Samuel Kier of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania., sold 50-cent, half-pint bottles of Pennsylvania “Rock Oil” proclaiming its “Wonderful Medical Virtues.”
Kier’s advertisements featured wooden cable-tool derricks drilling brine wells.
When a Yale chemist, Benjamin Silliman, found that oil could be distilled into a kerosene illuminant, the world changed forever. Inspired entrepreneurs formed the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company with the idea of using cable tool drilling to extract oil they hoped to find near Pennsylvania’s known oil seeps at Oil Creek near Titusville. It worked, and the petroleum age was born.
Kier soon abandoned his patent medicine and went into the kerosene refining business, buying all the oil he could get.
Edwin L. Drake’s August 27, 1859, discovery of commercial quantities of oil at 69. 5 feet brought America’s first drilling boom — and virtually created an industry. Soon, cable-tool rigs were everywhere, pounding into the earth, searching for oil. In June 1860, J.C. Rathbone used a steam engine to power a rig and produced a 100-barrel-per-day producer at 140 feet in what is now West Virginia.
In Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, the soft soil yielded to cable-tool drilling. But further west, oilmen found resistant rock strata that made drilling far more difficult.
Rotary Rigs cut Faster, Deeper
A new technology answered the call of necessity and the lure of opportunity. Rotary drilling is most often associated with the spectacular 1901 Spindletop Hill discovery near Beaumont, Texas.
Instead of the repetitive lift and drop of heavy cable-tool bits, rotary drilling introduced the hollow drill stem that enabled broken rock debris to be washed out of the borehole with re-circulated mud while the rotating drill bit cut deeper.
Rotary drilling uses fluids (drilling mud) to circulate out the rock as it is chipped away. The fluid washes out the drill hole as it goes, making the process more efficient. By applying downward pressure, drilling mud also stops an oil well from bursting forth unexpectedly – the dangerous and wasteful gushers.
Meanwhile, grinding their way through layers of rock rather than pounding, the heavy fishtail bits made history. Rotary rigs soon became the preferred means of drilling for oil, although to this day they still share the oil patch with a few cable-tool rigs.
The record depth recorded for a cable-tool rig is 11,145 feet. On Russia’s Kola Peninsula, a rotary rig reached more than 40,000 feet after ten years of drilling.
The Duel Cones of Howard Hughes Sr.
Fishtail bits became obsolete in 1909 when Howard Hughes Sr. introduced the twin-cone roller bit. History remembers several men who were trying to develop better drill bit technologies, but it was Hughes who made it happen.
The Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) notes that about the same time Hughes developed his bit, Granville A. Humason of Shreveport, La., patented the first cross-roller rock bit, the forerunner of the Reed cross-roller bit.
By 1934, Hughes had patented a three-cone bit, an enduring design that remains much the same today. Rotary drilling revolutionized the search for oil by allowing deeper wells through harder rock formations.
More innovations followed. Frank Christensen and George Christensen developed the earliest diamond bit in the 1941. The tungsten carbide tooth came into use in the early 1950s. The company Hughes founded would merge in 1987 with one founded in 1927 by Carl Baker (Baker Oil Tool).
In 1990, Baker Hughes purchased the Christensen company, which in 1992 resulted in the first rolling cone bit company and first diamond bit company becoming today’s Hughes Christensen, a Baker Hughes company.
Editor’s Note – Biographers note that Howard Hughes Sr. met Granville Humason in a Shreveport bar, where Humason sold his roller bit rights to Hughes for $150. The University of Texas’ Center for American History has a rare 1951 recording of Humason’s recollections of that chance meeting. Humason recalls he spent $50 of his sale proceeds at the bar during the balance of the evening.
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To learn more about early petroleum technologies, see “All Pumped Up — Production Technology.”