This Week in Petroleum History, February 20 to February 26
February 20, 1959 – World’s First LNG Tanker arrives in England
After a three-week voyage from Lake Charles, Louisiana, the Methane Pioneer – the world’s first liquefied natural gas tanker – arrived at the world’s first LNG terminal at Canvey Island, England. The trip across the Atlantic took 27 days. The ship, a converted World War II Liberty freighter, contained five 7,000-barrel aluminum tanks supported by balsa wood and insulated with plywood and urethane.
The experimental vessel demonstrated that large quantities of liquefied natural gas could be transported safely across the ocean. The 340-foot Methane Pioneer, owned by the Comstock Liquid Methane Corporation, refrigerated its cargo to minus 285 degrees Fahrenheit. The world’s first purpose-built commercial LNG carrier, the Methane Princess, began delivering LNG to the same Canvey Island port in 1964.
February 21, 1887 – New Refining Process will bring Riches to Rockefeller
Herman Frasch applied to patent his unique process for eliminating sulfur from “skunk-bearing oils.” Once an employee of Standard Oil of New Jersey, the chemist would soon be rehired by John D. Rockefeller.
Although the oilfields near Lima, Ohio, produced a thick, sulfurous oil, Rockefeller had accumulated a 40-million-barrel stockpile of the cheap, sour “Lima oil.” His Standard Oil Company bought Frasch’s patent for a copper-oxide refining process to “sweeten” the oil. The desulfurized, odorless result greatly multiplied its value, making Rockefeller a fortune.
Paid in Standard Oil shares and soon wealthy himself, Frasch moved to Louisiana, where he patented a process for mining sulfur by injecting superheated water into wells. By 1911 he was known as the “Sulfur King.”
February 22, 1923 – First Carbon Black Factory in Texas
Texas granted its first permit for a carbon black factory to J.W. Hassel & Associates in Stephens County. It had been discovered that carbon black increased the durability of rubber used in tires.
Modern carbon black, which looks like soot, is produced by controlled combustion of petroleum products, both oil and natural gas. It is used in rubber and plastic products, printing inks and coatings. Automobile tires were white until B.F. Goodrich Company in 1910 discovered that adding carbon black to the vulcanizing process improved strength and durability. An early Goodrich supplier was the Binney & Smith Company, maker of Carbon Black and Oilfield Crayons.
February 23, 1906 – Flaming Kansas Well makes Headlines
A small town in southeastern Kansas found itself making headlines when a natural gas well erupted into flames after a lightning strike. The 150-foot burning tower could be seen at night for 35 miles.
Drilled by the New York Oil and Gas Company, the well became a tourist attraction. Newspapers as far away as Los Angeles regularly updated their readers as technologies of the day struggled to extinguish the highly pressurized well, “which defied the ingenuity of man to subdue its roaring flames.”
Postcards were printed of the Caney well, which took five weeks to smother using a specially designed and fabricated steel hood. Learn more about Caney’s famed oilfield in Kansas Gas Well Fire.
February 23, 1942 – Japanese Submarine shells California Refinery
Less than three months after the start of World War II, a Japanese submarine attacked a refinery and oilfield near Los Angeles. The shelling caused little damage but created the largest mass sighting of UFOs ever in American history.
Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-17 fired armor-piercing shells at the Bankline Oil Company refinery in Ellwood City, California. The shelling north of Santa Barbara continued for 20 minutes before I-17 escaped into the night. It was the first Axis attack on the continental United States of the war. Learn more in Japanese Sub attacks Oilfield.
February 24, 1938 – First Nylon Bristle Toothbrush
The Weco Products Company of Chicago, Illinois, “Dr. West’s Miracle-Tuft” toothbrush went on sale – the first to use synthetic nylon developed three years earlier by a former Harvard professor working at a DuPont research laboratory in New Jersey.
“Until now, all good toothbrushes were made with animal bristles,” noted a 1938 Weco Products advertisement in Life magazine. “Today, Dr. West’s new Miracle-Tuft is a single exception. It is made with EXTON, a unique bristle-like filament developed by the great DuPont laboratories, and produced exclusively for Dr. West’s.”
Americans would soon be brushing their teeth with nylon bristle toothbrushes, declared the New York Times. These “Exton” toothbrushes were the first commercial use of the petroleum product nylon, a synthetic polymer. Pricing its toothbrushes at 50 cents each (more than $8.25 today), Weco Products guaranteed “no bristle shedding.”
February 25, 1897 – “Golden Rule” Jones elected
Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones, the founder of a successful oilfield service company, was elected Mayor of Toledo, Ohio, on a progressive Republican ticket.
Jones, a 40-year veteran of the Pennsylvania oilfields, had earned his nickname in 1894 – when he posted the biblical admonition at his newly formed Acme Sucker Rod Company.
Jones introduced better wages, paid vacations, bonuses – and became an advocate for eight-hour workdays. He was elected Toledo’s mayor four times and served until dying on the job in 1904. Read more in “Golden Rule” Jones of Ohio.
February 25, 1918 – Pawnee Bill Oil Company incorporates
As World War I neared its end in 1918, Gordon William “Pawnee Bill” Lillie entered the oil business in Yale, Oklahoma. Despite not being as famous as his Wyoming friend Col. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Lillie was “widely known as a showman, a teacher and friend of the Indian and finally as a colonizer in Oklahoma and builder of his state,” according his biographer.
After its incorporation in February 1918, the Pawnee Bill Oil (and refining) Company helped “supply Uncle Sam and his allies with the stuff that enables armies to save civilization,” noted the trade publication the Petroleum Age, which in July 1919 reported the company had leased 25 railroad tank cars.
However, the end of “the war to end all wars” drastically reduced demand for oil and refined petroleum products. In early 1921, most Oklahoma refineries operated at half capacity – or were closed.
Although Lillie was forced to shut down his Yale refinery, his oil company was still operating by March 1921. The Wichita Daily Eagle in June reported the Pawnee Bill Oil Company had declared a dividend, noting that “the officers and directors have been highly complimented for their judicious and able handling of the affairs of the company through the strenuous times the oil industry has passed through since the Armistice was signed.”
What happened next remains a mystery since financial records of Pawnee Bill Oil Company are rare, but a 1918 stock certificate signed by Lillie is valued by collectors (it can be found online selling for about $2,500). Lillie’s Wyoming friend Cody also formed several oil exploration ventures, including the Shoshone Oil Company.
February 25, 1919 – Oregon enacts First Gasoline Tax
A U.S. state for the first time taxed gasoline in February 1919. Oil was selling for just $2 a barrel when Oregon enacted the one-cent gas tax to be used for road construction and maintenance. Less than two months later, Colorado and New Mexico followed Oregon’s example.
Within a decade, every state had added a gas tax of up to three cents per gallon. Faced with $2.1 billion federal deficit, President Herbert Hoover tacked on another one-cent per gallon federal excise tax in 1932.
Today, the state gasoline taxes average about 29 cents per gallon (varying from less than 10 cents to about 70 cents per gallon). The federal excise tax on gasoline is 18.4 cents per gallon and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel fuel. The federal tax on gas has been unchanged since 1993.
February 25, 1926 – Wyatt Earp’s California Oil Wells
A northern California oil well invested in by former lawman Wyatt Earp was completed with production of 150 barrels of oil a day. His interest in the prolific Kern County oilfields came long after his famous 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.
At age 75, Earp was just briefly interested in the oil patch. As he began working on Hollywood movie deals, he turned over management of his California oil properties to his wife’s sister. Disappointing results would later prompt his wife to write, “I was in hopes they would bring in a two or three hundred barrel well. But I must be satisfied as it could have been a duster, too.”
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