This Week in Petroleum History, December 5 – December 11
December 9, 1921 – Antinock Leaded Gas invented
General Motors scientists discovered the antiknock properties of tetraethyl lead in 1921. American motorists were soon saying, “fill ‘er up with Ethyl!”
In early internal combustion engines, “knocking” resulted from the out-of-sequence detonations of the gasoline-air mixture in a cylinder. The shock frequently damaged the engine. After five years of lab work, G.M. researchers Thomas Midgely Jr. and Charles Kettering discovered the antiknock properties of tetraethyl lead. Their experiments had examined properties of bromine, iodine and tin and compared them to new additives such as arsenic, sulfur, silicon and lead. When they used tetraethyl lead (diluted to a ratio of one part per thousand) in a one-cylinder engine, the knocking abruptly disappeared.
Although the additive proved vital for winning World War II, tetraethyl lead’s danger to public health resulted in its phase-out beginning in 1976 and completed by 1986. Learn more in Ethyl “Anti-Knock” Gas.
December 10, 1844 – “Coal Oil Johnny” adopted
The future “Coal Oil Johnny” was adopted as an infant by Culbertson and Sarah McClintock. John Steele (adopted with his sister Permelia) was brought home to the McClintock farm on the banks of Oil Creek in Venango County, Pennsylvania.
The petroleum boom prompted by Edwin L. Drake’s discovery 15 years later – America’s first commercial oil well – would lead to the widow McClintock making a fortune in royalties. She left the money to Johnny when she died in 1864. At age 20, he inherited $24,500 and $2,800 a day in oil royalties.
“Coal Oil Johnny” Steele earned his name in 1865 after such a legendary year of extravagance that the New York Times later reported: “In his day, Steele was the greatest spender the world had ever known…he threw away $3 million ($45 million in 2013 dollars) in less than a year.” Learn about his extraordinary life in Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny.“
December 10, 1955 – Life features Stella Dysart’s Uranium Well
Although Mrs. Stella Dysart had spent decades drilling dry holes in New Mexico, in 1955 a radioactive uranium sample from one of her wells made her rich. She was 78 years old when Life magazine featured her picture with the caption:
“Wealthy landowner, Mrs. Stella Dysart, stands before an abandoned oil rig which she set up on her property in a long vain search for oil. Now uranium is being mined there and Mrs. Dysart, swathed in mink, gets a plump royalty.”
Just three years earlier, Dysart had been $25,000 in debt when cuttings from one of her unsuccessful wells in McKinley County showed impressive Geiger counter readings. Test wells confirmed that she owned the world’s richest deposit of high-grade uranium ore. Learn more in Mrs. Dysart’s Uranium Well.
December 10, 1967 – Project Gasbuggy tests Nuclear Fracturing
Government scientists detonated an underground 29-kiloton nuclear warhead about 60 miles east of Farmington, New Mexico. It’s “fracking” late 1960s style.
The experiment was designed to test the feasibility of using nuclear explosions to stimulate release of natural gas trapped in dense shale deposits.
“Project Gasbuggy” included experts from the Atomic Energy Commission, the Bureau of Mines and a natural gas company.
Near three low-production natural gas wells, the team drilled to a depth of 4,240 feet and lowered a 13-foot by 18-inch diameter nuclear device into the borehole.
The experimental explosion was part a federal program created in the late 1950s to explore possible uses of nuclear devices for peaceful purposes.
“Geologists had discovered years before that setting off explosives at the bottom of a well would shatter the surrounding rock and could stimulate the flow of oil and gas,” explained historian Wade Nelson (see Shooters – A “Fracking” History).
“It was believed a nuclear device would simply provide a bigger bang for the buck than nitroglycerin, up to 3,500 quarts of which would be used in a single shot,” he added.
The detonation created a molten glass-lined cavern 160 feet wide and 333 feet tall that collapses within seconds. Although the well produces 295 million cubic feet of natural gas, the gas is radioactive and useless. Learn more in “Gasbuggy” tests Nuclear Fracking.
December 11, 1950 – Federal Offshore grows beyond Cannon Shot
After decades of controversy and a 1947 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the federal government’s “paramount rights” offshore were established beyond a three nautical mile limit – the 18th century precedent based on the theoretical maximum range of smooth-bore cannon.
The court issued a supplemental decree that prohibited any further offshore development without federal approval. The first Outer Continental Shelf lease sale held by the Bureau of Land Management and Geological Survey’s Conservation Division in 1954 earned the government almost $130 million.
Learn more in Offshore Petroleum History.
Listen online to “Remember When Wednesdays” on the weekday morning radio program Exploring Energy, 9 a.m to 10 a.m. (Eastern Time). Bruce Wells calls in on the last Wednesday of every month. Please support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society today with a tax-deductible donation. © This Week in Petroleum History, AOGHS 2016.