• This Week in Petroleum History, January 19 to January 25


    January 19, 1922 – Geological Survey predicts America will Run Out of Oil

    The U.S. Geological Survey in 1922 predicts America’s oil supplies will run out in two decades. This is not the first or last false alarm. Warnings of petroleum shortages are made for most of the 20th century, according to geologist David Deming of the University of Oklahoma.

    In a 2000 paper for the National Center for Policy Analysis, Deming cites a 1950 monograph by L.M. Fanning, “A Case History of Oil-Shortage Scare” that documents six similar claims prior to 1950 alone. Among them are:

    “The Model T Scare of 1916; the Gasless Sunday Scare of 1918; the John Bull Scare of 1920-1923; the Ickes Petroleum Reserves Scare of 1943-1944; the Cold War Scare of 1946-1947; and the second Cold Winter Scare of 1947-1948.”

    Deming notes that five years prior to the creation of USGS in 1879, the state geologist of Pennsylvania estimated that only enough oil remained to keep America’s kerosene lamps burning for four years.

    January 19, 1965 – Inventor patents Offshore “Underwater Manipulator”

    January oil history

    Designs for a robot “underwater manipulator” in 1965 will lead to modern remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). Today they are most widely used by the petroleum industry. Photo courtesy Oceaneering International.

    Howard Shatto Jr. receives a 1965 patent for an “underwater manipulator with suction support device” – precursor to today’s modern remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

    January oil history

    Howard Shatto Jr. will patent many offshore technologies on his way to becoming “a world-respected innovator in the areas of dynamic positioning and remotely operated vehicles.”

    Shatto and others help make Shell Oil Company an early leader in offshore oilfield development thanks to new offshore technologies.

    Their early underwater robot technology can trace its roots to the late 1950s, when Hughes Aircraft Company developed a Manipulator Operated Robot – MOBOT – for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

    Working on land, the robot performed in environments too radioactive for humans.

    Beginning in 1960, Shell Oil began transforming the landlocked MOBOT into a marine robot – “basically a swimming socket wrench,” according to one engineer.

    In his 1965 patent – one of many he will receive – Shatto explained how his underwater device particularly relates to the offshore petroleum industry.

    “A recent development at offshore locations is the installation of large amount of underwater equipment used in producing oil fields and gas fields situated many miles from shore,” he says. “Many of the wells are being drilled in water up to 600 feet deep, a depth greater than divers can safely work.”

    Shatto’s work will lead to designs for the first subsea wellheads for drilling and production using ROVs. He also will become a world-respected innovator in dynamic positioning.

    Learn more in Swimming Socket Wrenches.

    January 20, 1886 – “Great Karg” Well erupts Natural Gas at Findlay, Ohio

    A plaque dedicated in 1937 in Findlay, Ohio, commemorates the state’s giant natural gas discovery of January 20, 1886.

    The spectacular natural gas well – the Great Karg Well of Findlay, Ohio – comes in with an initial flow of 12 million cubic feet per day.

    The well’s pressure is so great that it cannot be controlled by the technology of the time. The gas will ignite and the flame becomes an Ohio tourist attraction that burns for four months.

    Ohio’s first natural gas well was drilled in Findlay two years earlier in 1884 by the Findlay Natural Gas Company, formed by Dr. Charles Oesterle.

    However, the Karg well, then the largest in the world, launches the state’s first major natural gas boom – and brings many new industries.

    Glass companies especially are “lured by free or cheap gas for fuel,” notes an historical marker at the Richardson Glass Works in Findlay. “They included eight window, two bottle, two chimney lamp, one light bulb, one novelty, and five tableware glass factories.”

    By 1887, Findlay will become known as the “City of Light,” adds another nearby historical marker at the first field office for the Ohio Oil Company – established the same year by the merger of five small independent oil companies. After becoming an international exploration and production company, in 1962 Ohio Oil Company will change its name to today’s Marathon Oil Company. Read about another early natural gas discovery in Indiana Natural Gas Boom.

    The Hancock Historical Museum of Findlay includes natural gas exhibits from the region and is less than two miles from the site of the famous well. The museum also houses permanent exhibits relating to Findlay Glass Company.

    January 21, 1865 – Civil War Veteran demonstrates Oil Well “Torpedo”

    January oil history

    A Pennsylvania historical marker commemorates Colonel E.A.L. Roberts, a Civil War veteran who patented oil well “torpedoes.”

    Civil War veteran Col. Edward A. L. Roberts (1829-1881) conducts his first experiment to increase oil production by using an explosive charge deep in the well.

    Roberts twice detonates eight pounds of black powder 465 feet deep in the bore of the Ladies Well on Watson’s Flats south of Titusville, Pennsylvania.

    The “shooting” of the well increases daily production from a few barrels to more than 40 barrels. In 1866, the Titusville Morning Herald will report:

    Our attention has been called to a series of experiments that have been made in the wells of various localities by Col. Roberts, with his newly patented torpedo.

    The results have in many cases been astonishing. The torpedo, which is an iron case, containing an amount of powder varying from 15 pounds to 20 pounds, is lowered into the well, down to the spot, as near as can be ascertained, where it is necessary to explode it.

    The downhole canister is exploded by means of a percussion cap on the torpedo, connected with the top of the shell by a wire.

    Attached to the wire on the surface, the heavy shell, which will become known as a “go devil,” is dropped down the well where it impacts the cap and detonates the torpedo.

    Modern well fracturing – or “fracking” – will evolve from Col. Roberts’ success. He will receive the first of his many patents for an “exploding torpedo” on April 25, 1865. By 1870, his torpedo technology – increasingly using nitroglycerin – becomes common. Read more about his revolutionary invention in Shooters – A “Fracking” History.

    January 22, 1861 – Pennsylvania Refinery produces Kerosene

    January oil history

    These stills of an 1880s refinery (the first in California) are preserved in Santa Clarita – perhaps the world’s oldest refinery. Photo by Konrad Summers.

    The first multiple-still refinery is brought on-stream in the Pennsylvania oil region, one mile south of Titusville along Oil Creek.

    The refinery uses stills to produce two grades of illuminating oil, white and the less the expensive yellow. Each barrel of oil yields about 20 gallons of kerosene.

    William Barnsdall (driller of the first well to follow Edwin L. Drake’s 1859 discovery), James Parker, and W.H. Abbott build six stills for refining kerosene at a cost of about $15,000. Much of the equipment is purchased in Pittsburgh and shipped up the Allegheny to Oil City, then up Oil Creek to the new refinery.

    January 23, 1895 – Standard Oil seals Fate of Oil Exchanges

    January oil history

    The Oil City, Pennsylvania, Oil Exchange incorporated in 1874. By 1877, it was the third largest financial exchange of any kind in America.

    The Standard Oil Company purchasing agency in Oil City, Pennsylvania, notifies independent producers it will only buy their oil at a price “as high as the markets of the world will justify” – and not “the price bid on the oil exchange for certificate oil.”

    Oil City’s exchange had become the third largest financial exchange of any kind in America, behind New York and San Francisco. But with Standard Oil buying 90 percent of production and setting its own price for oil certificates, all other oil exchanges are soon closed. Read more in End of Oil Exchanges.

    January 23, 1991 – Gulf War Oil Spill

     Al Ahmadi oilfield, Kuwait, in 1991, courtesy Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos.

    Al Ahmadi oilfield, Kuwait, 1991. Steve McCurry/Magnum Photos.

    The world’s largest oil spill begins in the Persian Gulf when Saddam Hussein’s retreating Iraqi forces open pipeline valves at oil terminals in Kuwait.

    An estimated 11 million barrels of oil will cover an area reaching as far as 101 miles by 42 miles. The oil spill, which remains the largest in history, is five inches thick in some areas.

    Iraqi soldiers also sabotage Kuwait’s main supertanker loading pier – and in February set about 600 Kuwaiti wells ablaze. It takes seven months to put out the fires.

    January 24, 1895 – Pure Oil Company founded by Independent Producers


    January oil history

    Pure Oil Company began in 1895 when Pennsylvania oilmen united to fight Standard Oil. In 1926 (six years after an Ohio company adopted the name) Pure Oil moved into its majestic building headquarters at 35 East Wacker Drive in Chicago.

    January oil history

    An Ohio firm will adopt the old Pennsylvania name.

    Pure Oil Company is formed by Pennsylvania independent producers, refiners and pipeline operators. It will become a major Chicago-based oil company.

    With its first headquarters in Pittsburgh, the company is organized to counter Standard Oil Company’s dominance. It is the second vertically integrated oil company – after Standard Oil.

    Beginning in March 1896, Pure Oil markets illuminating oil by tank wagon in Philadelphia and New York – successfully competing with Standard’s monopoly.

    The growing Ohio Cities Gas Company buys Pure Oil and in 1920 the Columbus, Ohio, firm adopts the original Pennsylvania name.

    In 1926 Pure Oil moves its headquarters into a new Chicago skyscraper (once considered the tallest building outside of New York). Union Oil of California will purchase Pure Oil in 1965.

    January 25 1930 – Oil Producers found Today’s Texas Alliance of Energy Producers

    After meeting a week earlier at the Wichita Club in Wichita Falls to protest “the recent drastic price cut in crude oil, inaugurated by some of the major purchasing companies,” a group of 50 independent producers formally organize the North Texas Oil and Gas Association on January 25, 1930.

     January oil history

    Alliance Chairman Emeritus Townes Pressler (center) visits with Texas Railroad Commissioner candidates Wayne Christian (left) and Ryan Sitton during the 2014 Alliance Expo in Wichita Falls.

    With P.B. Flynn elected the first president, membership dues are established ($100 for largest producers to $10 for producers of small quantities of crude oil). The new association’s agenda includes fighting oilfield theft, supporting a tariff on imported oil, prorationing, and common-carrier status of oil pipelines.

    Seven decades later, oil price volatility (falling below $12 a barrel in late 1998) forces many independents out of business. The association merges with the West Central Texas Oil and Gas Association to form the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers.

    With membership extending statewide since 2000, the Texas Alliance annually presents a Legends Merit Award honoring members who have “made a long-time contribution to the betterment of the industry, community and country,” according to President Alex Mills.

    January oil history

    The Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, a state oil and gas association that traces its roots to 1930, today hosts an annual expo and meeting that includes equipment exhibits, technical seminars and an opening BBQ that feeds the first 2,000 attendees.


    Support the American Oil & Gas Historical Society and this website with a donation© AOGHS, This Week in Petroleum History.