hortonsphereFrom the highway, they look like nests of giant white globes or maybe fanciful architectural projects. “Hortonspheres,” the trademarked name of many of these iconic containers, were invented by a Chicago bridge builder.

Chicago Bridge & Iron Company (CB&I) named their Hortonspheres after Horace Ebenezer Horton, the company founder and inventor of the round vessels. His creation of a highly efficient storage tank was one of the great innovations to come to the oil patch.

Horton (1843-1912), the son of a successful Rochester, New York, real estate developer, grew up in Chicago. Skilled in mechanical engineering, he was 46 years old when he formed CB&I in 1889.

Horton’s company had built seven bridges across the Mississippi River when its Washington Heights, Illinois, fabrication plant expanded into the manufacture of water tanks.

CB&I erected its first elevated water tank in Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 1892, according to the company history, which notes that “the elevated steel plate tank was the first built with a full hemispherical bottom, one of the company’s first technical innovations.”

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Horace E. Horton designed spherical storage vessels for his Chicago Bridge & Iron Company. Photo courtesy CB&I.

When Horton died in 1912, his company was just getting started. Soon, the company’s elevated tank towers were providing efficient water storage and pipeline pressure that benefited many cities and towns. CB&I’s first elevated “Watersphere” tank was completed in 1939 in Longmont, Colorado.

The company had brought its steel plate engineering expertise to the oil and natural gas industry as early as 1919, when it built a petroleum tank farm in Glenrock, Wyoming, for Sinclair Refining Company (formed by Harry Sinclair in 1916).

CB&I’s innovative steel plate structures and its tank building technologies proved a great success. The company left bridge building entirely to supply the petroleum infrastructure market. Newly discovered oilfields in Ranger, Texas, in 1917 and Seminole, Oklahoma, in the 1920s were straining the nation’s petroleum storage capacity.

In the Permian Basin, a West Texas company desperate to store soaring oil production constructed an experimental tank designed to hold up to five million barrels of oil. The structure used concrete-coated earthen walls 30 feet tall and covered with a cedar roof to slow evaporation. But the tank’s seams leaked and it was abandoned. It today is home to the Million Barrel Museum.

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A spherically bottomed water tower shown in the Chicago Bridge & Iron Company 1912 sales book.

By 1923, CB&I’s storage innovations like its “floating roof” oil tank had greatly increased safety and profitability as well as setting industry standards. That year the company built its first Hortonsphere in Port Arthur, Texas. Soon, pressure vessels of all sizes where being used for storage of compressed gases such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) or propane and butane in a liquid gas stage.

Hortonspheres safely hold liquefied natural gas (LNG), which is produced by cooling natural gas at atmospheric pressure to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point it liquefies. In one of engineering’s finest examples of form following function, a sphere is the theoretical ideal shape for a vessel that resists internal pressure.

In that first Port Arthur installation and up until about 1941, the component steel plates were riveted; thereafter, welding allowed for increased pressures and vessel sizes. As metallurgy and welding advances brought tremendous gains in Hortonspheres’ holding capacities, they also have proven to be an essential part of the modern petroleum refining business.

CS&I constructed fractionating towers for many petroleum refineries, beginning with Standard Oil of Louisiana at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1930. The company also built a giant, all-welded 80,000 barrel oil storage tank in New Jersey.

Since 1923, Chicago Bridge & Iron has fabricated more than 3,500 Hortonspheres for worldwide markets in capacities reaching more than three million gallons. The company today says it continues to be the leading spherical storage container builder worldwide.

Poughkeepsie’s Hortonsphere

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A Hortonsphere viewed in 2012 from the “Walkway over the Hudson” in Poughkeepsie, New York. Photo courtesy Jeff Buster.

Fascinated by geodestic domes and similiar structures, Jeff Buster discovered a vintage Hortonsphere in Poughkeepsie, New York. In 2012 he contacted the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.

Buster wanted the agency to save Horton’s sphere at at the corner of Dutchess and North Water streets. He asked that an effort be made “to preserve this beautiful and unique ‘form following function’ structure, which is in immediate risk of being demolished.”

Buster posted a photo of the Poughkeepsie Hortonsphere on a website devoted to geodestic domes. “The jig saw pattern of steel plates assembled into this sphere is unique,” he wrote.

“The lay-out pattern is repeated four times around the vertical axis of the tank,” Buster added. “With the rivets detailing the seams, the sphere is extremely cool and organic feeling.”

Although the steel tank, owned by Central Hudson Gas and Electric Company, was demolished in late 2013, Buster’s photo helps preserve its oil patch legacy.

LNG Spheres at Sea

Sphere technology became seaborn as well. On February 20, 1959, after a three-week voyage, the Methane Pioneer – the world’s first LNG tanker – arrived at the world’s first LNG terminal at Canvey Island, England, from Lake Charles, Louisiana.

The Methane Pioneer, 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 successful voyage demonstrated that large quantities of liquefied natural gas could be transported safely across the ocean.

Most modern LNG carriers have between four and six tanks on the vessel. New classes have a cargo capacity of between 7.4 million cubic feet and 9.4 million cubic feet. They are equipped with their own re-liquefaction plant.

In 2015 – about 100 years after Horace Ebenezer Horton died – Mitsubishi Heavy Industries announced it was building next-generation LNG carriers to transport the shale gas produced in North America.

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