- This Week in Petroleum History December 9 to December 15
December 9, 1921 – Ethyl “Anti-Knock” Gasoline invented
General Motors scientists discover the antiknock properties of tetraethyl lead – and American motorists are soon saying “fill ‘er up with Ethyl.”
In early internal combustion engines, “knocking” resulted from the out-of-sequence detonation of the gasoline-air mixture in a cylinder. This shock frequently damaged the engine.
After five years of lab work to find an additive to eliminate pre-ignition “knock” problems of gasoline, G.M. researchers Thomas Midgely Jr. and Charles F. Kettering discover the antiknock properties of tetraethyl lead. Their experiments examine the properties of knock suppressors such as bromine, iodine and tin – and compare these to new additives such as arsenic, sulfur, silicon and lead.
When the two chemists synthesize tetraethyl lead and try it in their one-cylinder laboratory engine, the knocking abruptly disappears. Although being diluted to a ratio of one part per thousand, the additive yields gasoline without the power-robbing knock.
“Ethyl,” the world’s first anti-knock gasoline containing a tetraethyl lead compound, goes on sale in 1923 at a service station in Dayton, Ohio. Its properties will prove vital during World War II.
However, the gasoline mixture’s danger to public health is underestimated. In the 1950s, geochemist Clair Patterson discovers the toxicity of tetraethyl lead; phase-out of its use in gasoline begins in 1976 and is completed by 1986. In 1996, EPA Administrator Carol Browner declares, “The elimination of lead from gas is one of the great environmental achievements of all time.”
See the related article, “Cantankerous Combustion — First U.S. Auto Show.”
December 10, 1844 – “Coal Oil Johnny” adopted
The future “Coal Oil Johnny” is adopted as an infant by Culbertson and Sarah McClintock. John Steels is adopted along with his sister, Permelia, and brought home to the McClintock farm on the banks of Oil Creek in Venango County, Pennsylvania.
The petroleum boom prompted by Edwin Drake’s discovery 15 years later – America’s first commercial oil well – will lead to the widow McClintock making a fortune in royalties. She leaves the money to her only surviving child, Johnny, when she dies in a kitchen fire in 1864. At age 20, he inherits $24,500 – and $2,800 a day in royalties.
“Coal Oil Johnny” Steele will earn his name in 1865 after such a legendary year of extravagance that years later the New York Times will report: “In his day, Steele was the greatest spender the world had ever known…he threw away $3,000,000 in less than a year.”
Read more in “Legend of ‘Coal Oil Johnny.’”
December 10, 1967 – Project Gasbuggy tests Nuclear Fracturing
Government scientists detonate an underground 29 kiloton nuclear warhead about 60 miles east of Farmington, New Mexico.
Their experiment is designed to test the feasibility of using nuclear explosions to stimulate release of natural gas trapped in dense shale deposits.
“Operation Gasbuggy” includes experts from the Atomic Energy Commission, the Bureau of Mines and a natural gas company.
Near three low-production natural gas wells, the team drills to a depth of 4,240 feet and lowers a 13-foot by 18-inch diameter nuclear device into the borehole.
The experimental explosion is 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, explains New Mexico historian Wade Nelson.
“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 adds.
The 29 kiloton detonation creates a molten glass-lined cavern about 160 feet in diameter and 333 feet tall that collapses within seconds.
Learn more about Operation Gasbuggy – and two more gas well nuclear detonations – in “Gasbuggy” tests Nuclear Fracking.”
December 11, 1950 – Federal Offshore expands beyond Cannon Shot
After decades of controversy and a 1947 U.S. Supreme Court decision citing the federal government’s “paramount rights” out to and beyond the three nautical mile limit - an 18th century precedent based on the range of smooth-bore cannon.
The court issues a supplemental decree that prohibits 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 yields $129.5 million from 417,221 acres.
Read about U.S. early offshore oil and natural gas technologies in “Offshore Petroleum History.”
December 13, 1905 – Hybrids evolve with Gas Shortage Fears
“The available supply of gasoline, as is well known, is quite limited, and it behooves the farseeing men of the motor car industry to look for likely substitutes,” declares an article in the Horseless Age.
A monthly journal first published in 1895, the Horseless Age describes the earliest motor technologies, including the use of compressed air propulsion systems, electric cars, steam, and diesel power – as well as hybrids.
As early as 1902, Ferdinand Porsche’s Mixte uses a small four-cylinder gasoline engine to generate electricity – but not to turn its wheels. The engine powers two three-horsepower electric motors mounted in the Mixte’s front wheel hubs that can briefly surge to seven horsepower and carry the vehicle to a top speed of 50 mph.
Read more about early engine technology in “Cantankerous Combustion — First U.S. Auto Show.”
December 13, 1931 – Oilfield discovered in Conroe, Texas
George Strake Sr. brings in the South Texas Development Company No. 1 well eight miles southeast of Conroe, Texas. By the end of 1932 the field has 60 wells producing more than 65,000 of barrels of oil every day.
A 2010 “Houston Legends” event for Strake’s family is sponsored by the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers. Speakers acknowledge the oilman’s place in petroleum history for discovering Conroe field, which by the time of his death in 1969 produced half a billion barrels of oil.
Disaster will strike the field in 1933 when several wells collapse, ignite, and create a lake of oil. The crisis ends thanks to relief wells drilled by George Failing and his newly patented truck-mounted drilling rig. A Failing truck is exhibited at the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center in Enid, Oklahoma.
Also see “Technology and the Conroe Crater.”
December 14, 1981 – Minnesota Oil Search gets Desperate
A dowser – using copper wires – claims to have located petroleum deposits in Nobles County, Minnesota, near the town of Ellsworth, according to a report from the Minneapolis Tribune.
The Tribune notes that a Murray County group has engaged a “Texas oilman and evangelist to lead a prayerful search for oil.” Despite the lack of geological evidence, a few local investors pay $175,000 to drill a 1,145-foot well – but find no oil or natural gas.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Geological Survey reported in 1980 that of every 17 wells drilled in suitable geologic settings, 16 were dry holes and one noncommercial. By 1984, the survey concluded that “the geologic conditions for significant deposits of oil and gas do not exist in Minnesota.”
Minnesota remains one of the 17 U.S. states without petroleum production.
December 15, 1892 – Birth of Willie-Cries-For-War
Ponca Indian Willie-Cries-For-War is born In Oklahoma’s Indian Territory. Five years before his birth, the Dawes General Allotment Act enables reservation lands formerly held in common by tribe members to be broken into small allotments for individuals.
At age 19, he leases his 160-acre allotment to Ernest “E. W.” Marland for $1,000 per year and 12.5 cents per barrel of oil produced – and becomes very wealthy when a well near Ponca City comes in and is quickly followed with others.
Marland, considered a maverick by many oilmen of his day, was among the first to use geology as a tool to discover oil –and his methods proved to be effective.
Thanks to an oil career launched by Willie-Cries-For-War, Marland will become governor of Oklahoma in 1935. Bought by the Continental Oil Company in 1928, Marland’s company is now part of ConocoPhillips. Visit the E. W. Marland Mansion Estate, declared a National Historic Landmark in 1977, in Ponca City.
December 15, 1958 – New Jack-Up Rig passes Under the Golden Gate Bridge
“Seemingly towering high above the deck of the Golden Gate Bridge, this ungainly barge with towering legs proceeds on its way towards the open sea,” notes an Associated Press photographer in San Francisco, California. “The craft, a 4,500-ton offshore mobile platform, said to be the world’s largest, had to lower its 270-foot towers 57 feet to squeeze under the bridge.”
The 1958 state-of-the-art offshore drilling platform’s towers – which will serve as legs reaching to the ocean floor – will be raised again after passing the bridge “to avoid grounding on the shallows before reaching the ocean,” the AP photographer notes.
The ancestors of today’s jack-up rig design can be traced to a World War II invention. Col. Leon B. DeLong of the Army Corps of Engineers develops it to support the D-Day landing.
In June 1944, the logistics of supplying troops put ashore on Omaha and Gold beaches include DeLong’s top secret construction of artificial harbors.
These structures, code-named Mulberrys, employed barges with four retractable 60-foot pylons to provide platforms to support floating causeways that extended to the beaches. Tons of supplies and equipment will come ashore in the massive effort – helping make the D-Day landing a success.
After World War II, the DeLong-type platforms begin serving the U.S. petroleum industry as Modular Offshore Drilling Units. Exploration will move farther offshore, especially after a November 14, 1947, discovery – the first out of sight of land – by Kerr McGee Industries.
Within 10 years, in addition to tender-serviced platforms in shallow waters, jack-up rigs equipped with much larger pylons are operating to depths of more than 150 feet. By the end of 1949, 11 petroleum fields have been found in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig Museum in Galveston, Texas, is a retired jack-up drilling rig – with three floors of models and interactive displays educating visitors about the offshore oil and gas industry.
Learn more about early offshore technologies in “Offshore Petroleum History.”
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