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cementing oil wells

An unidentified Halliburton company employee in this circa 1920s photograph posed confidently in a Model T Ford. Background includes an early Halliburton self-propelled truck with pumps for cementing wells. Photo courtesy Timothy Johnson.

Erle P. Halliburton received a 1921 patent for an improved method for cementing oil wells, helping to bring greater production and environmental safety to America’s oilfields. When he patented his “Method and Means for Cementing Oil Wells,” the young inventor revolutionized how wells were completed after drilling.

cementing oil wells

Erle Halliburton’s well cementing process isolated down-hole production zones, prevented collapse of the casing – and helped secure the well throughout its producing life.

In 1919, Halliburton was 27 years old when he founded his oilfield equipment and service company headquartered in Ardmore, Oklahoma. The New Method Oil Well Cementing Company would receive many patents on its way to becoming today’s Halliburton. He had recently moved to Ardmore and the nearby Healdton oilfield after working in the booming fields of Burkburnett, Texas.

“It is well known to those skilled in the art of oil well drilling that one of the greatest obstacles to successful development of oil bearing sands has been the encountering of liquid mud water and the like during and after the process of drilling the wells,” Halliburton noted in his June 1920 U.S. patent application.

Halliburton’s patent awarded on March 1, 1921, explained that a typical well’s production, hampered by water intrusion that required time and expense for pumping out, “has caused the abandonment of many wells which would have developed a profitable output.”

cementing oil wells

A statue dedicated in 1993 in Duncan, Oklahoma.

The improved well cementing process isolated the various down-hole zones, guarded against collapse of the casing, and allowed better control of the well throughout its producing life. Learn more about well production history in All Pumped Up – Oilfield Technology.

Inventing a Cement Service Company

After World War I, as Halliburton struggled to set up cementing operations in Texas, many oil companies were skeptical of cementing casing, according to the former editor-in-chief of E&P magazine.

“Most wells were doing well, they reasoned, without the new-fangled technology and there was, in the back of their minds, the question of possible well damage resulting from cementing,” explains Bill Pike. “For Halliburton, it was to be an uphill struggle to normalize the practice of cementing a well.”

Halliburton would persist — and patent much of today’s cementing technologies, including the jet mixer, the re-mixer and the float collar, guide shoe and plug system, bulk cementing, multiple-stage cementing, advanced pump technology and offshore cementing technology.

cementing oil wells

One of the earliest self-propelled Halliburton cementing trucks includes a jet mixer at the rear of the truck on the left. Halliburton photo courtesy E&P magazine.

“It is safe to say that in the first half of the 20th century, the formative years, Halliburton dominated the development of cementing technology,” Pike proclaims in his 2007 article, Cementing is not for Sissies, where he also also notes: “Halliburton was ever the tinkerer. He owned nearly 50 patents. Most are oilfield, and specifically cementing related, but the number includes patents for an airplane control, an opposed piston pump, a respirator, an airplane tire and a metallic suitcase.”

For years Halliburton’s only real competitor in the oilfield service industry was R.C. (Carl) Baker of Coalinga, California. Baker Oil Tools also held around 50 patents, including a Gas Trap for Oil Wells in 1908, a Pump-Plunger in 1914, and a Shoe Guide for Well Casings in 1920.

Almost three decades after his Method and Means for Cementing Oil Wells patent, Halliburton would develop yet another industry-changing oilfield technology.

On March 17, 1949, Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company and Stanolind Oil Company completed a well near Duncan, Oklahoma: It was the first commercial application of hydraulic fracturing, a process that dramatically increased oil and natural gas production.

Casing a Well

Today, cement is first used soon after a well has been spudded – the beginning of drilling operations. The surface hole is lined with steel casing and cement to protect freshwater aquifers.

cementing oil wells

Steel casing is installed in the surface hole to prevent the contamination of freshwater zones. (A) The conductor pipe has been cemented into place. Cement is pumped down the inside of the casing. (B) The cement in the bottom of the casing has been drilled out so that drilling can be resumed. Illustration courtesy the Kansas Geological Survey.

cementing oil wells

A 1939 issue of “The Cementer,” a Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company magazine.

According to the Kansas Geological Survey (KGS), this surface hole may be several hundred or several thousand feet deep. When the predetermined depth is reached, drilling pauses so steel casing can be inserted.

To strengthen the well and protect the environment, cement is then pumped down the surface casing to fill the space between the outside of the casing and the well bore all the way to the surface. This insures the protection of freshwater aquifers and the security of the surface casing.

KGS notes that the casing and the cement typically are tested under pressure for 12 hours before drilling operations resume. A vital piece of equipment for controlling pressure – the blowout preventer – is attached at the top of the surface casing.

Cementing a Well

When drilling has reached total depth and after well-logging and other tests have been completed and analyzed, petroleum company executives must decide whether to complete the well as a producing well – or plug it as a dry hole.

cementing oil wells

(A) The casing shoe makes it easier to insert the casing into the bore hole. The float collar prevents drilling fluid from entering the casing. The bottom plug precedes the cement down the casing, and the top plug follows the cement. (B) The production casing when the cementing operation is completed. Kansas Geological Survey illustration.

The KGS explains that if the well is to be plugged and abandoned as a dry hole, the well bore is filled with a drilling fluid with additives that prevent its movement from the well bore into the surrounding rock.

Several cement plugs can be used within the well bore at intervals where porosity has been detected, KGS adds. This isolates the porosity zones – and prevents movement of fluids from one formation to another.

If a decision is made to complete the well as a producer, more casing is delivered to the site and the cementing company called.

“The well bore is filled with drilling fluid that contains additives to prevent corrosion of the casing and to prevent the movement of the fluid from the well bore into the surrounding rock,” notes KGS.

Casing may be inserted to a total depth of the hole or a cement plug may have been set at a specific depth and the casing set on top of it.”

The cement is then pumped down the casing and displaced out of the bottom with drilling fluid. The cement then flows up and around the casing, filling the space between the casing and the well bore.

Special tools are sometimes used with the casing which allow the setting of cement between the outside of the casing and the well bore at specific intervals. This is done to protect the casing and to prevent the movement of formation fluids from one formation to another.

“After the cementing of the casing has been completed, the drilling rig, equipment, and materials are removed from the drill site,” says KGS. “A smaller rig, known as a workover rig or completion rig, is moved over the well bore. The smaller rig is used for the remaining completion operations.”

A well-perforating company is then called to the well site, adds the KGS article, because it is necessary to perforate holes in the casing at the proper position to allow the oil and natural gas to enter the casing. Learn more in Downhole Bazooka. Also see Halliburton and the Healdton Oilfield.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.org energy education website with a donation today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2018 Bruce A. Wells.


gas well fire

Kansas oilfield workers struggled for weeks trying to cap the 1906 burning well at Caney. Photo courtesy Jeff Spencer.

America’s fascination with “black gold” switched to natural gas for a time in 1906 after lightning ignited a natural gas well fire near a small Kansas town.

The flaming well of Caney, Kansas, towered 150 feet high and at night could be seen for 35 miles. It made headlines.

Newspapers as far away as Los Angeles regularly updated readers as the technologies of the day struggled to put out the well, “which defied the ingenuity of man to subdue its roaring flames.”

It would take five weeks to bring the well under control.

In the early 1900s large amounts of natural gas had been discovered between Caney and Bartlesville in Indian Territory. About 20 miles apart, the towns were connected by the Caney River. Read the rest of this entry »


Illuminating Gaslight

The Baltimore gas company used wooden pipes to distribute gas to elegant street lights. Photo courtesy BG&E.

America’s first public street lamp (fueled by manufactured gas) illuminated Market Street in Baltimore, Maryland, in early 1817. The Gas Light Company of Baltimore thus became the first U.S. commercial gas lighting company by distilling tar and wood to manufacture its gas.

Today, a small monument to the company and its street lamp stands at the corner of North Holliday Street and East Baltimore Street (once Market and Lemon streets). Dedicated in 1991, the lamp is a 175th anniversary replica of the original 1817 design.

In 1816, noted local inventor, artist and museum founder Rembrandt Peale first illuminated a room in his Holliday Street museum a year earlier, burning his artificial gas and dazzling local businessmen and socialites gathered there with a “ring beset with gems of light.”

“Taking after a natural history museum that his father, Charles Wilson Peale, started in Philadelphia in 1786, Rembrandt Peale displayed collections of fossils and other specimens, as well as portraits of many of the country’s founding fathers that his family had painted,” notes a historian for Explore Baltimore Heritage.

“During a candlelit period in American history the forward-thinking Peale aimed to form a business around his gas light innovations, the exhibition targeting potential investors,” adds another historian at the utility Baltimore Gas & Electric (BG&E). The manufactured gas gamble worked, and several financiers aligned with Peale, forming The Gas Light Company of Baltimore,BG&E’s precursor.

Illuminating Gaslight

A 1921 painting dramatized the moment when Rembrandt Peale ignited his “gems of light.” Photo courtesy BG&E.

manufactured gas

“Peale’s Baltimore Museum and Gallery of Paintings” opened in 1814 in a building designed by architect Robert Carey Long. Photo courtesy Baltimore Heritage.

“Less than a year later, on February 7, 1817, the first public gas street lamp was lit in a ceremony one block south of City Hall,” notes BG&E.

The impressed city council speedily approved Peale’s plan to light more of the city’s streets. BG&E also credits Baltimore inventor Samuel Hill for establishing America’s first gas meter manufacturing company in 1832. Two years later the first meters were installed. The company petitioned the city to begin laying underground pipelines in 1851.

Over coming decades, two miles of gas main would be completed under Baltimore streets and the company showed its first profit. Metering replaced flat-rate billing, helping residents afford lighting their homes with gas.

By 1855, a new gas manufacturing plant was constructed to distill gas from coal – an improvement over the former “gasification” of tar or wood.  Manufacturing gas from coal had earlier proved successful in Philadelphia.

Coal Gas brightens Philadelphia

Forty-six lights burning manufactured “coal gas” were lit on February 8, 1836, along Philadelphia’s Second Street by employees of the newly formed Philadelphia Gas Works. As Philadelphia became the nation’s center for finance and industry, the municipally owned gas distribution company began a series of  gas-manufacturing innovations.

By 1856, Philadelphia Gas completed construction of a gas tank at the company’s Point Breeze Plant in South Philadelphia. At the time it was the largest in the nation with a total holding capacity of 1.8 million cubic feet.

february 2 oil history

A natural gas storage facility at Point Breeze in South Philadelphia, circa 1856. Photograph courtesy Philadelphia Gas Works.

When the American Centennial Exposition of 1876 displayed the wonders of the age in agriculture, horticulture and machinery, gas cooking was showcased as a novelty. Sixty miles of pipe brought manufactured gas to the exhibition’s lamps.

Natural Gas Lights

The earliest commercial use of natural gas in a community, according to most historians, took place in Fredonia, New York, in 1825.

Natural gas was piped to several stores, shops and a mill from a downtown natural gas well drilled by William Hart, who some consider as the father of the natural gas industry.

Hart made three attempts at drilling, according to Lois Barris in her history of the Fredonia Gas Light and Water Works Company, which incorporated in 1857.

“He left a broken drill in one shallow hole and abandoned a second site at a depth of forty feet because of the small volume of gas found,” she reports.

“In his third attempt, Mr. Hart found a good flow of gas at seventy feet,” Barris adds. “He then constructed a crude gasometer, covering it with a rough shed and proceeded to pipe and market the first natural gas sold in this country.”

Today in the United States, there are more than 900 public natural gas systems serving more than 70 million customers; the Philadelphia Gas Works is the largest. Learn more about the early natural gas industry in Natural Gas is King in Pittsburgh and Indiana Natural Gas Boom. 


Help us preserve U.S. petroleum history. Support the AOGHS.org energy education website with a donation today. Contact bawells@aoghs.org for more information. © 2018 Bruce A. Wells.


James Abercrombie and Harry Cameron in 1922 filed a patent for the hydraulic ram-type blowout preventer. Their invention was a vital technology for ending dangerous oil gushers. 

“The object of our invention is to provide a device designed to be secured to the top of the casing while the drilling is being done and which will be adapted to be closed tightly about the drill stem when necessary,” they noted in their application, which was approved in January 1926. It revolutionized the petroleum industry. Read the rest of this entry »


An “Improvement in Rock Drills” patent application filed after the Civil War included the basic elements of the modern petroleum industry’s rotary rig. The design for making hole was an idea decades ahead of its time.

The inventor, who applied for his U.S. patent on January 2, 1866, described his rotary drilling method’s “peculiar construction particularly adapted for boring deep wells.”

Peter Sweeney of New York City was granted a patent (No. 51,902), which included a series of descriptions similar to technology used in modern rotary rigs. His design improved upon an 1844 British patent by Robert Beart.

Sweeney’s patent utilized a roller bit with replaceable cutting wheels such “that by giving the head a rapid rotary motion the wheels cut into the ground or rock and a clean hole is produced.”

1866 Rotary Rig

Peter Sweeney’s innovative 1866 “Stone Drill” patent included a roller bit using “rapid rotary motion” similar to modern rotary drilling technologies.

The “drill-rod” was hollow and connected with a hose through which “a current of steam or water can be introduced in such a manner that the discharge of the dirt and dust from the bottom of the hole is facilitated.”

petroleum history December

A 1917 rotary rig in the Coalinga, California, oilfield. Courtesy of the Joaquin Valley Geology Organization.

Better than cable-tool technology of the day, which lifted and dropped iron chisel-like bits, Sweeney claimed his drilling apparatus could be used with great advantage for making holes in hard rock, “in a horizontal, oblique, or vertical direction.”

Drilling operations could be continued without interruption, he added in his 1866 patent application, “with the exception of the time required for adding new sections to the drill rod as the depth of the hole increases. The dirt is discharged during the operation of boring and a clean hole is obtained into which the tubing can be introduced without difficulty.”

Perhaps even foreseeing the offshore exploration industry, Sweeney’s patent concluded with a note that “the apparatus can also be used with advantage for submarine operations.”

With the American oil industry booming, drilling contractors improved upon Sweeney’s idea. A new device was fitted to the rotary table that clamped around the drill pipe and turned. As this “kelly bushing” rotated, the pipe rotated – and with it the bit down hole. The torque of the rotary table was transmitted to the drill stem.

Thirty-five years after Sweeney’s patent, rotary drilling revolutionized the petroleum industry after a 1901 oil discovery by Capt. Anthony Lucas launched a drilling boom at Spindletop Hill near Beaumont, Texas. Learn more at Making Hole – Drilling Technology.


AOGHS.org welcomes sponsors to help us preserve petroleum history. Please support this energy education website with a tax-deductible donation today. Contact bawells@aoghs.org for information on levels and types of available sponsorships.  © 2018 AOGHS.



From the petroleum industry’s earliest days, when tools stuck downhole, drilling stopped. Money and time evaporated. An oil well fishing expert took over.

“Fishing” Tools

The loss of a drilling tool down a well bore has caused trouble practically since the first commercial well in America.

The challenge of retrieving broken (and often expensive) equipment obstructing a well – “fishing” – has tormented oil and natural gas exploration companies since the first tool stuck irretrievably at 134 feet and ruined a Pennsylvania well.

It was just four days after the historic August 27, 1859, discovery by Edwin Drake along Oil Creek in Titusville, in the “valley that changed the world,” that a far less known driller got his iron chisel wedged tight.

John Grandin, who drilled his well using a simple spring pole and improvised his well fishing tools, not only lost his drill bit (an industry first), he ended up with the first dry hole in U.S. petroleum history. Read more about him in the First Dry Hole.

The term fishing came from early percussion drilling using cable-tools. When the derrick’s Manila rope broke, a crewman lowered a hook and attempted to pull out the well’s heavy iron bit. More advance attachments followed.

The term fishing came from early percussion drilling using cable-tools. When the derrick’s manila rope or wire line rope broke, a crewman lowered a hook and attempted to pull out the well’s heavy iron bit. Note the fishing tools to the left of the drill pipe.

In those early days of the industry, the search for petroleum was less an earth science and more an art. Even as drilling technologies evolved from spring poles and cable tools to modern rotary rigs, downhole problems remained – especially as wells reached new depths.

Like its ancient predecessor the spring pole, early cable-tool rigs utilized percussion drilling, the repeated lifting and dropping of a heavy chisel using hemp ropes.

Drilling time and depth improved with the addition of steam power and tall, wooden derricks. But as the well got deeper, frequent stops were needed to bail out water and cuttings – and sharpen the wedged drill bit made of iron. Forges were often on the derrick floor.

Often tools would get jammed deep in the borehole. Perhaps the manila rope or wire line would break. A pipe connection might bend or break. The increasingly heavy downhole tool assemblies could no longer be lifted and dropped.

On the rig floor, fishing tools had to be lowered by a line into the well, armed at their end with spears, clamps and hooks. Sometimes a wood, wax and nails “impression block” was first lowered to get an idea of what lay downhole.

Boot Jacks, Die Nipples and Whipstocks

“Well fishing tools are constantly being improved and new ones introduced,” explains the author of A Handbook of the Petroleum Industry. David T. Day published volume one of his book in 1922.

Describing cable tool operations, he writes that the basic principle of well fishing tools often involved milled wedges – on a spear or in a cylinder – for recovering lost tubing or casing.

Hundreds of designs were patented, each designed to catch some tool or part that broken or lost in the borehole, writes Day. Although fishing tools could be improvised on site, many already were available to get the job done.

“Simpler types of fishing tools comprise horn sockets, corrugated friction sockets, rope grabs, rope spears, bit hooks, spuds, whipstocks, fluted wedges, rasps, bell sockets, rope knives, boot jacks, casing knives and die nipples.” notes Day.

Basic fishing tools include the spear and socket, each with milled edges. Using nails and wax, an impression block helps determine what is stuck downhole. Image from A Handbook of the Petroleum Industry, 1922.

Basic fishing tools include the spear and socket, each with milled edges. Using nails and wax, an impression block helps determine what is stuck downhole. Image from A Handbook of the Petroleum Industry, 1922.

These and other devices, when used with an auger stem in various combinations called jars, can secure a powerful upward stroke or “jar” and thus dislodge and recover the tool being sought, he explains.

“The jars, essentially and universally used in fishing with cable tools, consist off two heavy forged-steel links, interlocking as the links of a cable chain, but fitting together more snugly,” he adds.

“Many lost tools that cannot be recovered are drilled up or ‘side-tracked” (driven into or against the wall) and passed in drilling,” Day concludes. “Much depends upon the skill and patience of the driller.”

Once all well fishing tools failed, a final resort was a whipstock, which allowed the bit to angle off and actually bypass the fish but leaves the operator with a deviated hole, adds another historian. This was sometimes unpopular where wells were closely spaced.

By the early 1900s, rotary drilling introduced the hollow drill stem that enabled broken rock debris to be washed out of the borehole. It led to far deeper wells.

By the early 1900s, rotary drilling introduced the hollow drill stem that enabled broken rock debris to be washed out of the borehole. It led to far deeper wells.

As drilling with rotary rigs became more common in the early 1900s, fishing methods adapted.

“In rotary drilling, the only tools ordinarily used in the well are the drill pipe and bits,” Day writes in his 1922 book, adding that the rotary fishing tools, “were comparatively free from the complexities of cable-tool work.”

Most rotary fishing jobs were caused by “twist offs” (broken drill pipe), although the bit, drill coupling or tool joints may break or unscrew. As in cable-tool fishing, an impression block often was needed to determine the proper fishing tool.

However, even back then – and especially now with wells miles deep and often turned horizontally – when a downhole problem occurred, the well could be lost for good – like John Grandin’s spring pole well in 1859.

Although fishing technologies have made great advances, efficiently “making hole” remains as vital to an exploration company’s success today as it was more than 150 years ago.

Read more about the evolution of petroleum exploration in Making Hole – Drilling Technology.

Deep Fishing in Oklahoma

The Anadarko Basin extends across western Oklahoma into the Texas Panhandle and into southwestern Kansas and southeastern Colorado. It includes the Hugoton-Panhandle field, the Union City field and the Elk City field and is among the most prolific natural gas producing areas in North America.

A granite monument at Third and Pioneer streets in Elk City, Oklahona, notes:

The Deep Anadarko Basin of Western Oklahoma is one of the most prolific gas provinces of North America. Wells drilled here have been among the world’s deepest.


A 1974 souvenir of the Bertha Roger No. 1 well, which sought natural gas almost six miles deep in Oklahoma’s Anadarko Basin.

Until the 1960s, few companies could risk millions of dollars and push rotary rig drilling technology to reach beyond the 13,000-foot level in what geologists called “the deep gas play.”

The great expense and technological expertise necessary to complete ultra-deep natural gas wells at these depths made the Anadarko Basin “the domain of the major petroleum corporations,” explains Bobby Weaver, Oklahoma Historical Society.

GHK Company and partner Lone Star Producing Company believed ultra-deep wells in Oklahoma’s Anadarko Basin could produce massive amounts of natural gas. They began drilling wells more than three miles deep in the late 1960s. South of Burns Flat in Washita County, their Bertha Rogers No.1 would reach almost six miles deep in 1974 – after a deep fishing trip.

Spudded in November 1972 and averaging about 60 feet per day, the Bertha Rogers was heading for the history books as the world’s deepest well at the time. After 16 months of drilling and almost six miles deep – the rotary rig drill stem sheared from the strain.

More than 4,100 feet of pipe and the massive drill bit were stuck downhole in what was then the deepest well in the world.

anadarko basin

An independent producer, in 2006 John West preserved artifacts in Anadarko Basin Museum of Natural History, now closed due to a lack of support.

It was March 1974 and the enormous investment of Lone Star Producing Company of Dallas, and partner GHK, was about to be lost.

GHK called a Houston fishing company.

Wilson Downhole Service Company sent its downhole fishing expert, Mack Ponder, to the rescue the multimillion dollar well. Many companies were pushing the edge of the envelope to drill deep enough.

Against all odds using the technology of 1970s – Ponder retrieved the pipe sections and drill bit from 30,019 feet deep. Drilling resumed at the site (about 12 miles west of Cordell).

Although the remarkable deep fishing achievement was celebrated, the Bertha Rogers No. 1 had to be completed at just 14,000 feet after striking molten sulfur at 31,441 feet. The equipment could not take the abuse at total depth. The well set a world record at the time – and today remains one of the deepest ever drilled.

In 1979 the No. 1 Sanders well near Sayre in Beckham County became Oklahoma’s deepest natural gas producer at 24,996 feet. Deep drilling today has returned in force to today’s Anadarko Basin.

“At the close of the twentieth century this vast Oklahoma region was the most prolific gas-producing area in the nation,” concludes Weaver, a Ph.D. oil patch story-teller. Also see Anadarko Basin in Depth.



AOGHS.org welcomes sponsors to help us preserve petroleum history. Please support this energy education website with a tax-deductible donation today. Contact bawells@aoghs.org for information on levels and types of available sponsorships.  © 2018 AOGHS.


oil well pumps

The founding of the Lufkin Foundry and Machine Company in 1902 will lead to creation of an oilfield icon known by many names — nodding donkey, grasshopper, horse-head, thirsty bird, etc.

oil well pump

Invented in 1925 in Lufkin, Texas, the counterbalanced pumping unit brought greater efficiency to the oil patch. Photo by Bruce Wells.

In a valley in northwestern Pennsylvania in 1859, Edwin Drake drilled America’s first commercial oil well, launching the U.S. petroleum industry. For his oil well pump, he borrowed a common water well hand pump to retrieve the new resource from 69.5 feet.

As the American petroleum industry was born, it wasn’t long before necessity and ingenuity combined to find something more efficient for producing oil from a well.

Industry pioneers realized that by improving oil well pump efficiency they could extend the economic life of far deeper wells by years. The new resource will be refined to meet the phenomenal worldwide demand for an inexpensive lamp fuel: kerosene.

The evolution of technology for pumping oil from the ground is reflected in thousands of small, marginally producing oil wells reaching deep into often stubborn reserves.

Although there are almost one-half million wells in the United States that produce less than 15 barrels of oil per day, their total production remains significant.

Stripper Wells

Oil wells will run dry, but advances in “artificial lift systems” technology can put off the inevitable. But even with today’s best technologies, more than half of the oil can remain trapped underground.

Low-volume marginal or “stripper” wells produce no more than 15 barrels a day. The average stripper well produces only about 2.2 barrels per day. These wells comprise 84 percent of U.S. oil wells and produce 18 percent of all domestic oil.

Marginal oil and natural gas wells number about 650,000 of the nation’s 876,000 wells. Once shutdown, they are lost forever. Keeping them in production has long been a challenge for a special breed of oilman, one who combines technical skills with hard work in the field.

pump jack

America’s oilfield technologies advanced in 1875 with this “Improvement In Means For Pumping Wells” invented in Pennsylvania.

“This is an occupation where most of your work is done in all types of weather while working alone, with few thanks, and possibly only a small herd of cattle as company,” notes the Oklahoma Commission on Marginally Producing Oil and Gas Wells.

It was the same in the industry’s earliest oil well pump days.

Central Power Units

Marginal quantities of oil always need help leaving the well. In the early days of the industry, oilmen adapted water-well technology to the problem and used steam-driven walking beam pump systems.

At each well, a steam engine rhythmically raised and lowered one end of a sturdy wooden beam, which pivoted on a Samson post. The walking beam’s other end cranked a long string of sucker-rods up and down to pump oil to the surface.

oil well pump

An oilfield “jack plant” often included a single-cylinder horizontal engine that rotated one eccentric wheel.

The beam walked and the oil surfaced, but a more efficient system was needed. One of the early oil pumping innovations came from an 1875 patent. An “Improvement in Means for Pumping Wells” allowed pumping of multiple wells with a single steam engine. The technology helped boost efficiency in the early oilfields of Venango County, Pennsylvania.

The new pumping method applied a system of linked and balanced walking beams to pump the oil wells. Wooden or iron rods instead of a rope and pulley system made the technology the forerunner of more efficient production methods. Learn more in Eccentric Wheels and Jerk Lines.

Walter Trout’s Revolutionary Prototype

oil well pump

Sketched by Walter Trout in 1925, a prototype of his counterbalanced pump jack was in an oilfield before the end of the year.

As efficient as central power units were, time and technology changed the oilfield again. A new icon of U.S> petroleum production appeared and was soon known by many names: Donkey, Grasshopper, Horse-head, Thirsty Bird, and Pump Jack, among others.

As East Texas timber supplies dwindled and the sawmill business declined, the long-established Lufkin Foundry & Machine Company discovered new opportunities in the oilfield. As more oil discoveries were made, the company – in Lufkin, Texas – not only survived, but prospered.

Walter Trout was working in Texas for Lufkin Foundry & Machine in 1925 when he sketched out his idea for the now familiar counterbalanced oil well pump jack. Before the end of the year, the prototype was installed and working near Hull, Texas, in a Humble Oil Company oilfield.

“The well was perfectly balanced, but even with this result, it was such a funny looking, odd thing that it was subject to ridicule and criticism, and it took a long time, nearly a year, before we could convince many the idea was a good one,” Trout explained.

oil well pump

Key to pumping the oil (and often set to run on a timer), an engine turns gears that move a counter weight connected to the walking beam, which moves the sucker-rod up and down to up draw oil. The oil is pumped into nearby holding tanks.

Modern stripper wells still look much like Walter Trout’s original, but they enjoy the reliability and efficiency that 85 more years of evolving technology have produced.

Lufkin Industries produces a variety of oil well pump units designed to meet worldwide needs. More than 200,000 units have been sold.

Advancements in Efficiency

As with nearly every segment of the petroleum industry, artificial lift systems – including the venerable pump jack – are also benefiting from inclusion of “smart” technology, notes a representative from another leading oilfield supply company.

“The computer-based technology is used to monitor and analyze pump systems in realtime from miles away, quickly and with minimal human interference,” says Paul Nelson of Weatherford International Ltd., Houston.

“On pump jacks that means constant monitoring of well production and the lift unit in order to optimize energy usage while maximizing the amount of oil recovered from reluctant zones,” Nelson adds.

Smart well technology is of particular importance to the United States, where a very large portion oil is produced from thousands of stripper wells producing less than 10 barrels a day, Nelson explains. Many of these wells have reached such a depleted pressure state that once they are shut in they can never be economically restarted. The majority of them are being kept alive by oil well pump jacks.

The lighting of the “Rudolph the Red Nosed Pumping Unit” in Lufkin, Texas, has included more than 1,000 lights decorating a 38-foot-tall pump jack. Photo courtesy the Lufkin Daily News.

“By improving pump efficiencies without adding significantly to operating costs, smart well technology stands to extend by years the economic life of many of these wells and, by extension, add millions of barrels of oil to U.S. reserves,” he concludes.


Edwin L. Drake (1819-1880) became the “father of the petroleum industry” when he drilled what most consider America’s first commercial oil well on August 27, 1859, near Titusville, Pennsylvania. He used a steam engine and cable-tool rig.

Drake overcame many financial and technical obstacles to make his historic discovery. He also pioneered new drilling technologies, including using iron casing to isolate his well bore from nearby Oil Creek.

Seeking oil for the Seneca Oil Company for refining into a new product (kerosene), Drake’s shallow well created an industry.

Learn more about drilling technology – including how “fishtail” bits became obsolete in 1909 when Howard Hughes Sr. introduced the twin-cone roller bit: Making Hole – Drilling Technology.

For more articles about the evolution of modern petroleum production technologies, read Shooters – A ‘Fracking‘ History and Downhole Bazooka. Another innovative advance came in 1933 with the use of slant drilling to solve a major oilfield crisis – see Technology and the “Conroe Crater.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.org energy education website with a donation today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2018 Bruce A. Wells.


Early petroleum technologies included cannons for fighting oil-tank storage fires, especially in the great plains where lightning strikes often ignited derricks and tanks. Shooting cannon balls into the base of a burning tank allowed oil to drain into a holding pit until fire died.

oilfield cannons

Lightening frequently struck oil derricks, which spread fires to storage tanks. Photo courtesy Butler County History Center & Kansas Oil Museum in El Dorado.

“Oil Fires, like battles, are fought by artillery,” proclaimed a December 1884 article from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Lightning had struck the derrick, followed pipe connections into a nearby tank and ignited natural gas, which rises from freshly produced oil. Immediately following this blinding flash, the black smoke began to roll out,” noted the first-person account in Tech magazine.


Burning oil tank could be drained by a muzzle-loading cannon firing solid shot at the tank’s base.

The “A Thunder Storm in the Oil Country” article described what happened next:

“Without stopping to watch the burning tank-house and derrick, we followed the oil to see where it would go. By some mischance the mouth of the ravine had been blocked up and the stream turned abruptly and spread out over the alluvial plain,” reported the Tech article.

“Here, on a large smooth farm, were six iron storage tanks, about 80 feet in diameter and 25 feet high, each holding 30,000 barrels of oil,” it added, noting the burning oil “spread with fearful rapidity over the level surface” before reaching an oil storage tank. Read the rest of this entry »


Scientists lowered a 13-foot by 18-inches diameter nuclear device into a New Mexico gas well. The experimental 29-kiloton Project Gasbuggy bomb was detonated at a depth of 4,240 feet. Los Alamos Lab photo.

Project Gasbuggy was the first in a series of Atomic Energy Commission downhole nuclear detonations to release natural gas trapped in shale. This was “fracking” late 1960s style.

In December 1967, government scientists – exploring the peacetime use of controlled atomic explosions – detonated Gasbuggy, a 29-kiloton nuclear device they had lowered into a natural gas well in rural New Mexico. The Hiroshima bomb was about 15 kilotons.

Project Gasbuggy’s team included experts from the Atomic Energy Commission, the U.S. Bureau of Mines and El Paso Natural Gas Company. They sought a new, powerful method for fracturing petroleum-bearing formations.

Near three low-production natural gas wells, the team drilled to a depth of 4,240 feet – and lowered a 13-foot-long by 18-inch-wide nuclear device into the borehole.

Plowshare Program

The 1967 experimental explosion in New Mexico was part of a wider set of experiments known as Plowshare, a program established by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1957 to explore the constructive use of nuclear explosive devices.

The 1967 nuclear detonation produced 295 million cubic feet of natural gas – and Tritium radiation.

“The reasoning was that the relatively inexpensive energy available from nuclear explosions could prove useful for a wide variety of peaceful purposes,” notes a report later prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy.

From 1961 to 1973, researchers carried out dozens of separate experiments under the Plowshare program – setting off 29 nuclear detonations.

Most of the experiments focused on creating craters and canals. Among other goals, it was hoped the Panama Canal could be inexpensively widened. “In the end, although less dramatic than nuclear excavation, the most promising use for nuclear explosions proved to be for stimulation of natural gas production,” explains the September 2011 government report.

Tests, mostly conducted in Nevada, also took place in the petroleum fields of New Mexico and Colorado. Project Gasbuggy was the first of three nuclear fracturing experiments that focused on stimulating natural gas production. Two later tests took place in Colorado.

Gasbuggy: “Site of the first United States underground nuclear experiment for the stimulation of low-productivity gas reservoirs.”

In 1969, Project Rulison – at a site near Rulison, Colorado – detonated a 43-kiloton nuclear device almost 8,500 feet underground to produce commercially viable amounts of natural gas.

A few years later, project Rio Blanco, northwest of Rifle, Colorado, was designed to increase natural gas production from low-permeability sandstone.

The May 1973 Rio Blanco test consisted of the nearly simultaneous detonation of three 33-kiloton devices in a single well, according to the Office of Environmental Management.

The explosions occurred at depths of 5,838, 6,230, and 6,689 feet below ground level. It would prove to be the last experiment of the Plowshare program.

Although a 50-kiloton nuclear explosion to fracture deep oil shale deposits – Project Bronco – was proposed, it never took place. Growing knowledge (and concern) about radioactivity ended these tests for the peaceful use of nuclear explosions.

The Plowshare program was canceled in 1975. In its September 2011 report on all the nuclear test projects, the U.S. Department of Energy concluded:

By 1974, approximately 82 million dollars had been invested in the nuclear gas stimulation technology program (i.e., nuclear tests Gasbuggy, Rulison, and Rio Blanco). It was estimated that even after 25 years of gas production of all the natural gas deemed recoverable, that only 15 to 40 percent of the investment could be recovered. At the same time, alternative, non-nuclear technologies were being developed, such as hydrofracturing. Consequently, under the pressure of economic and environmental concerns, the Plowshare Program was discontinued at the end of FY 1975.

Project Gasbuggy

Government scientists believed a nuclear device would provide “a bigger bang for the buck than nitroglycerin” for fracturing dense shales and releasing natural gas. Los Alamos Lab photo.

“There was no mushroom cloud, but on December 10, 1967, a nuclear bomb exploded less than 60 miles from Farmington,” explains historian Wade Nelson in an article written three decades later, “Nuclear explosion shook Farmington.”

The 4,042-foot-deep detonation created a molten glass-lined cavern about 160 feet in diameter and 333 feet tall. It collapsed within seconds. Subsequent measurements indicated fractures extended more than 200 feet in all directions – and significantly increased natural gas production.

A September 1967 Popular Mechanics article had described how nuclear explosives could improve previous fracturing technologies, including gunpowder, dynamite, TNT – and fractures “made by forcing down liquids at high pressure.”

An illustration from Popular Mechanics shows how a nuclear explosive would improve earlier technologies by creating bigger fractures and a “huge cavity that will serve as a reservoir for the natural gas.”

Scientists predicted that nuclear explosives would create more and bigger fractures “and hollow out a huge cavity that will serve as a reservoir for the natural gas” released from the fractures.

“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,” Nelson explains.

“It was believed a nuclear device would simply provide a bigger bang for the buck than nitroglycerine, up to 3,500 quarts of which would be used in a single shot,” Nelson notes.

The underground detonation was part of a bigger program begun in the late 1950s to explore peaceful uses of nuclear explosions.

“Today, all that remains at the site is a plaque warning against excavation and perhaps a trace of tritium in your milk,” Nelson adds in his 1999 article.

Nelson quotes James Holcomb, site foreman for El Paso Natural Gas, who saw a pair of white vans that delivered pieces of the disassembled nuclear bomb.

“They put the pieces inside this lead box, this big lead box…I (had) shot a lot of wells with nitroglycerin and I thought, ‘That’s not going to do anything,” reported Holcomb.

A series of three production tests, each lasting 30 days, was completed during the first half of 1969. Nelson notes that records indicate the Gasbuggy well produced 295 million cubic feet of gas.

“Nuclear Energy: Good Start for Gasbuggy,” proclaimed the December 22, 1967, TIME magazine.

The Department of Energy, which had hoped for much higher production, determined that Tritium radiation contaminated the gas. It  flared – burned off – the gas during production tests that lasted until 1973.

Tritium is a naturally occurring radioactive form of hydrogen. A 2012 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission report noted, “Tritium emits a weak form of radiation, a low-energy beta particle similar to an electron. The tritium radiation does not travel very far in air and cannot penetrate the skin.”

A plaque marks the site of Project Gasbuggy in the Carson National Forest, 90 miles northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

According to Nelson, radioactive contamination from the flaring “was miniscule compared to the fallout produced by atmospheric weapons tests in the early 1960s.” From the well site, Holcomb called the test a success. “The well produced more gas in the year after the shot than it had in all of the seven years prior,” he said.

In 2008, the Energy Department’s Office of Legacy Management assumed responsibility for long-term surveillance and maintenance at the Gasbuggy site. A marker placed at the Gasbuggy site by the Department of Energy in November 1978 reads:

Site of the first United States underground nuclear experiment for the stimulation of low-productivity gas reservoirs. A 29 kiloton nuclear explosive was detonated at a depth of 4227 feet below this surface location on December 10, 1967.

No excavation, drilling, and/or removal of materials to a true vertical depth of 1500 feet is permitted within a radius of 100 feet of this surface location.

Nor any similar excavation, drilling, and/or removal of subsurface materials between the true vertical depth of 1500 feet to 4500 feet is permitted within a 600 foot radius of t 29 n. R 4 w. New Mexico principal meridian, Rio Arriba County, New Mexico without U.S. Government permission.

Today, hydraulic fracturing – pumping a mixture of fluid and sand down a well at extremely high pressure – stimulates production of natural gas wells. Read more in Shooters – A “Fracking” History. 

Parker Drilling Rig No. 114

oil museums

Parker Drilling Rig No. 114 – among those used to drill wells for nuclear detonations, was later modified to drill conventual wells. Since 1991 the 17-story rig has welcomed visitors to Elk City, Oklahoma, and the now shuttered Anadarko Museum of Natural History.

In 1969, Parker Drilling Company signed a contract with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to drill a series of holes up to 120 inches in diameter and 6,500 feet in depth in Alaska and Nevada for additional nuclear bomb tests. Parker Drilling’s Rig No. 114 was one of three special rigs built to drill the wells.

Founded in Tulsa in 1934 by Gifford C. Parker, by the 1960s Parker Drilling had set numerous world records for deep and extended-reach drilling. According to the Baker Library at the Harvard Business School, the company “created its own niche by developing new deep-drilling technology that has since become the industry standard.”

Following completion of the nuclear-test wells, Parker Drilling modified Rig No. 114 and its two sister rigs to drill conventual wells at record-breaking depths. After retiring Rig No. 114 from service, Parker Drilling loaned the giant to Elk City, Oklahoma, as an energy education exhibit next to the Anadarko Museum of Natural History. Since 1991 the has welcomed visitors to traveling on Route 66 or I-40 and the now closed oil museum. Learn more about deep drilling in Anadarko Basin in Depth.


AOGHS.org welcomes sponsors to help us preserve petroleum history. Please support this energy education website with a tax-deductible donation today. Contact bawells@aoghs.org for information on levels and types of available sponsorships.  © 2017 AOGHS.


An earth science technology – reflection seismography – revolutionized petroleum exploration in the 1920s. Seismic waves soon led to oilfield discoveries worldwide. 

seismic waves

A tourist site for geologists, a sign and historic marker on I-35 near Ardmore, Oklahoma, commemorates the August 9, 1921, test of seismic technology.

Seismic technologies evolved from efforts to locate enemy artillery during World War I. Read the rest of this entry »


making hole

Often used for drilling brine wells, a “spring-pole” well discovered oil in Appalachia. Photo from “The World Struggle for Oil,” a 1924 film by the Department of the Interior.

Oil well drilling technology has evolved from the ancient spring pole to percussion cable-tools to the modern rotary rigs that can drill miles into the earth.

“A good cable-tool man is just about the most highly skilled worker you’ll find,” historian note.

“Besides having a feel for the job, knowing what’s going on thousands of feet under the ground just from the movement of the cable, he’s got to be something of a carpenter, a steam-fitter, an electrician, and a damned good mechanic.”

– From a 1939 interview in “Voices from the Oilfield” by Paul Lambert and Kenny Franks.

“A cable tool driller knows more knots and splices than any six sailors you can find,” Lambert and Franks added during the interview. Cable-tool rigs, powered by a steam engine and boiler, included the bullwheel and drilling cable – often high-quality manila rope.

oil well drilling technology

Standard cable-tool derricks stood 82 feet tall and were powered by a steam boiler and engine using a “walking beam” to raise and lower drilling tools. Image from The Oil-Well Driller, 1905.

Drilling or “making hole” began long before oil or natural gas were anything more than flammable curiosities found seeping from the ground.

For centuries, digging by hand or shovel was the best technologies that existed to pry into the earth’s secrets. Oil seeps provided a balm for injuries. Natural gas seeps – when ignited – created folklore and places called “burning springs.” Read the rest of this entry »


blue flame

The Blue Flame made a spectacular debut at the Bonneville Salt Flats on October 23, 1970, setting a new world land speed record of 630.388 mph.

The quest for speed perhaps began when Mrs. Karl Benz secretly took her husband’s car on the first road trip in 1882. Steam and electric vehicles would soon compete with the cantankerous combustion of gasoline engines.

As engine technologies evolved, high-octane but dangerous enhancers like tetraethyl gas were adopted for aviation. On the ground, as competition intensified for a land speed record, kerosene-based rocket fuel powered blistering, new milestones.

But in 1970, a sleek blue feat of engineering set the world record of 630 mph. The Blue Flame was powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG). In recent years, a growing abundance of U.S. natural gas supplies promises innovation for applying what is often called the “fuel of the future.” Read the rest of this entry »


Offshore Rocket Launcher

Russian-built rockets once launched satellites from the Ocean Odyssey, a modified semi-submersible drilling platform. Photo courtesy Sea Launch.

Many offshore oil and natural gas platforms have found use after retirement. Hundreds of former platforms today serve as aquatic habitats in the Gulf of Mexico (see Rigs to Reefs). Two historic jack-up drilling rigs are museums and energy education centers in Texas and Louisiana. One retired self-propelled platform once launched rockets.

Ten percent (about 450) of decommissioned production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico have been converted to permanent reefs, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A retired jack-up drilling rig in Galveston Bay, Texas, the Ocean Star, opened as a petroleum museum in 1997 after drilling more than 200 wells. Another offshore museum, Mr. Charlie of Morgan City, Louisiana, was the first submersible drilling rig in 1953.

The Ocean Odyssey, a self-propelled, semi-submersible drilling platform designed to endure 110 foot North Atlantic waves, became a floating equatorial launch pad.

In March 1999, a Russian Zenit-3SL rocket – fueled by kerosene and liquid oxygen – placed a demonstration satellite into geostationary orbit from the Ocean Odyssey’s remote Pacific Ocean launch site (Latitude 0° North, Longitude 154° West).

Sea Launch, a Boeing-led consortium of companies from the United States, Russia, Ukraine and Norway, began commercial launches on October 9, 1999, using a Russian Zenit-3SL rocket with a DirecTV satellite payload.

By 2014 the Ocean Odyssey had made 36 such launches for XM Satellite Radio, Echo Star and communication companies.

offshore rocket launher

Constructed in Japan in 1982, the Ocean Odyssey was designed to endure 110 foot North Atlantic waves before it became a floating equatorial launch pad. Photo courtesy Sea Launch.

Originally to have been named Ocean Ranger II, the $110 million platform was under construction in Yokosuka, Japan, on February 15, 1982, when its namesake and predecessor tragically capsized in a North Atlantic storm off Newfoundland, killing all 84 men aboard. Renamed Ocean Odyssey, the new offshore drilling platform went to work that same year.

Between April 1983 and September 1985 the platform drilled off the coasts of Alaska and California before a two-year hiatus. In early 1988, the Ocean Odyssey was contracted to Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) for North Sea explorations. All was well until September 1988 when a blow-out and fire ended the rig’s career in oilfields.

After spending the several years as a rusting hulk in the docks of Dundee, Scotland, advancing aerospace technologies came to the rescue of the self-propelled platform, 436 feet long and about 220 feet wide.

The advantages of space launches from the equator – and the availability of the Ocean Odyssey – prompted Boeing to convert the rig into a launch platform. According to experts, the speed of earth’s rotation is greatest at the equator, providing a minor extra launch “boost.”

offshore rocket launcher

Led by a Boeing, the Sea Launch consortium of international companies used Russian Zenit-3SL rockets to carry communications satellites into geosynchronous orbits. Photo courtesy Sea Launch.

By April 1995, Boeing (with 40 percent ownership) led a four-country joint partnership, Sea Launch LLC. The venture included: Russia (25 percent), Norway (20 percent), and Ukraine (15 percent).

The consortium established its U.S. home port in Long Beach, California, near satellite, aerospace and maritime supply companies. Before the end of 1995, Hughes Space and Communications had contracted for 10 launches.

Thanks to Ocean Odyssey, a new industry was “launched.”

However, economic and legal troubles emerged. After almost 40 launches (with three failures), operating costs and a declining world economy led to Sea Launch’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy and reorganization in 2009. Russia emerged with 95 percent ownership.

offshore rocket launcher

Ocean Odyssey’s last launch on May 26, 2014, came as civil war broke out in Ukraine. Bankruptcy and years of litigation followed. Photo courtesy Steve Jurvetson.

Another decomissioned offshore platform, the Ocean Star, opened as a museum in 1997 in Galveston Bay.

Another platform, the Ocean Star, opened as a museum in 1997 in Galveston Bay.

Then began litigation, claims and counter-claims within the Sea Launch consortium. Ocean Odyssey’s last launch in May 2014 came as civil war broke out in Ukraine.

According to financial reports, the company’s debt when it filed for bankruptcy was estimated at $1 billion, with assets of $100 million to $500 million. The cost per launch was more than $80 million. Boeing sued to recoup $356 million of a reported $978 million loss in loans, trade debt and partner liabilities.

At the end of 2014, the Ocean Odyssey and its command ship, Sea Launch Commander, remained at port in Long Beach.

According to Bloomberg News, in September 2016, a Russian airline owner announced plans to purchase the offshore rocket launcher.

Learn about America’s Offshore Petroleum History and visit the Ocean Star Offshore Energy Center in Galveston and Mr. Charlie in Morgan City.


AOGHS.org welcomes sponsors to help us preserve petroleum history. Please support this energy education website with a tax-deductible donation today. Contact bawells@aoghs.org for information on levels and types of available sponsorships.  © 2017 AOGHS.


Inventor Henry Mohaupt used his World War II anti-tank weapon to develop a downhole bazooka technology for safely perforating petroleum well casings.

downhole bazooka

In 1951, Henry Mohaupt applied for a U.S. patent for his “Shaped Charge Assembly and Gun,” based on anti-tank technology he had patented a decade earlier – a conically hollowed out explosive fired from bazookas.

Cement casing, a key oilfield technolgy developed in 1919 by Erle Halliburton’s New Method Oil Well Cementing Company, Duncan, Oklahoma, isolates wellbore zones and guards against collapse.

But far down the borehole, a newly completed well’s cemented casing stands between the petroleum company’s massive investment and the production of oil or gas.

In the early days of well “perforating” technology, a variety of mechanical means of penetrating casings were used. Read the rest of this entry »


Visitors to the scenic Allegheny National Forest Region on U.S. 62 near Tidioute, Pennsylvania, will discover this Warren County roadside marker.

Second-place finishers often dwell in the fine print of history. Consider America’s first oil well.

Edwin L. Drake drilled his famous well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859. As a result, each year the Drake Well Museum draws thousands of visitors from all over the world. The discovery’s sesquicentennial in 2009 was commemorated for a week in the “valley that changed the world.”

Although August 27, 1859, marks the date of America’s first commercial well drilled specifically for oil, August 31 – just four days later – is less known. It was on that day that a well was spudded by a young man named John Livingston Grandin.

This well, America’s second to be drilled for oil, will produce petroleum industry firsts, including:

♦ First Dry Hole
♦ First Well in Which Tools Stuck
♦ First Well in Which an                  Explosive Charge Was Used Read the rest of this entry »


 The founder and president of the REDA Pump Company, Armais Arutunoff, once lived in this house at 1200 Cherokee Avenue - across from the home of Phillips Petroleum founder Frank Phillips, whose home today is a Bartlesville museum. Courtesy Kathryn Mann, Only in Bartlesville.

The founder and president of the Reda Pump Company, Armais Arutunoff, once lived in this house at 1200 Cherokee Avenue – across from Phillips Petroleum founder Frank Phillips, whose home today is a Bartlesville, Oklahoma, museum. Photo courtesy Kathryn Mann, Only in Bartlesville.

Armais Arutunoff will obtain 90 patents. Above, a 1934, patent for an improved submersible well pump – and “submersible electric cable and method for making same.” At right, a 1951 Reda Pump advertisement.

Today’s petroleum industry owes a lot to Armais Sergeevich Arutunoff.

With the help of a prominent Oklahoma oil company president, he built the first practical electric submersible pumps (ESPs) – and revolutionized production from America’s oilfields.

A 1936 Tulsa World article described his downhole pump as “An electric motor with the proportions of a slim fencepost which stands on its head at the bottom of a well and kicks oil to the surface with its feet.”

By 1938, an estimated two percent of all the oil produced in the United States with artifical lift, was lifted by an Arutunoff pump.

According to an October 2014 article in the Journal of Petroleum Technology, the first patent for an oil-related electric pump was issued in 1894 to Harry Pickett. His invention used a downhole rotary electric motor with “a Yankee screwdriver device to drive a plunger pump.”

Armais Arutunoff, inventor of the modern electric submersible pump.

Armais Arutunoff, inventor of the modern electric submersible pump.

More than two decades later, Robert Newcomb received a 1918 patent for his “electro-magnetic engine” driving a reciprocating plunger pump. “Heretofore, in very deep wells the rod that is connected to the piston, and generally known as the ‘sucker’ rod, very often breaks on account of its great length and strains imposed thereon in operating the piston,” notes Newcomb in his patent application.

Although several patents followed those of Picket and Newcomb, the Journal reports, “it was not until 1926 that the first patent for a commercial, operatable ESP was issued – to ESP piorneer Armais Arutunoff. The cable used to supply power to the bottomhole unit was also invented by Arutunoff.”

Russian Electrical Dynamo of Arutunoff

Arutunoff built his first ESP in 1916 in Germany, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. “Suspended by steel cables, it was dropped down the well casing into oil or water and turned on, creating a suction that would lift the liquid to the surface formation through pipes,” notes historian Dianna Everett.

After immigrating to the United States in 1923, in California Arutunoff could not find financial support for manufacturing his pump design. He moved to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, in 1928 at the urging of a new friend – Frank Phillips, head of Phillips Petroleum Company.

“With Phillips’s backing, he refined his pump for use in oil wells and first successfully demonstrated it in a well in Kansas,” says Everett. The device was manufactured by a small company that soon became Reda Pump.

The name Reda – Russian Electrical Dynamo of Arutunoff – was the cable address of the company that Arutunoff originally started in Germany. The inventor would move his family into a Bartlesville mansion across the street from Phillips.

A holder of more than 90 patents in the United States, Arutunoff was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1974. “Try as I may, I cannot perform services of such value to repay this wonderful country for granting me sanctuary and the blessings of freedom and citizenship,” he said at the time.

A modern ESP applies artificial lift by spinning the impellers on the pump shaft, putting pressure on the surrounding fluids and forcing them to the surface. It can lift more than 25,000 barrels of fluids per day. Courtesy Schlumberger.

A modern ESP applies artificial lift by spinning the impellers on the pump shaft, putting pressure on the surrounding fluids and forcing them to the surface. It can lift more than 25,000 barrels of fluids per day. Courtesy Schlumberger.

Arutunoff died in February 1978 in Bartlesville. At the end of the twentieth century, Reda was the world’s largest manufacturer of ESP systems. It is now part of Schlumberger.

Son of a Soap Maker

Armais Sergeevich Arutunoff was born to Armenian parents in Tiflis, part of the Russian Empire, on June 21, 1893. His home town, in the Caucasus Mountains between the Caspian and Black Sea, dated back to the 5th Century.

According to an online electrical submersible pump history at ESP Pump, his father was a soap manufacturer and his grandfather a fur trader. In his youth, Arutunoff lived in Erivan (now Yerevan) the capital of Armenia.

ESP Pump, which includes a profile of his extensive scientific career, says Arutunoff’s research convinced him that electrical transmission of power could be efficiently applied to oil drilling and improve the antiquated methods he saw in use in the early 1900s in Russia.

“To do this, a small, yet high horsepower electric motor was needed,” ESP Pump explains. “The limitation imposed by available casing sizes made it necessary that the motor be relatively small.”

However, a motor of small diameter would necessarily be too low in horsepower. “Such a motor would be inadequate for the job he had in mind so he studied the fundamental laws of electricity to find the basis for the answer to the question of how to build a higher horsepower motor exceedingly small in diameter,” explains ESP Power.

By 1916, Arutunoff was designing a centrifugal pump to be coupled to the motor for de-watering mines and ships. To develop enough power it was necessary the motor run at very high speeds. He successfully designed a centrifugal pump, small in diameter and with stages to achieve high discharge pressure.

“In his design, the motor was ingeniously installed below the pump to cool the motor with flow moving up the oil well casing, and the entire unit was suspended in the well on the discharge pipe,” ESP Pump says. “The motor, sealed from the well fluid, operated at high speed in an oil bath.”

Upside Down Well Motor

Although Arutunoff built the first centrifugal pump while living in Germany, he built the first submersible pump and motor in the United States while living in Los Angeles.

“Before coming to the U.S. he had formed a small company of his own, called Reda, to manufacture his idea for electric submersible motors,” notes ESP Pump. “He later settled in Germany and then came with his wife and one-year-old daughter to the United States to settle in Michigan, then Los Angeles.”

However, after emigrating to America in 1923, Arutunoff could not find financial support for his down-hole production technology. Everyone he approached turned him down, saying the unit was “impossible under the laws of electronics.”

No one would consider his inventions until friends at Phillips Petroleum Company in Bartlesville encouraged him to form his own company there.

The Reda Company manufacturing plant in Bartlesville will cover nine acres and employ hundreds.

Arutunoff’s manufacturing plant in Bartlesville will cover nine acres, employing hundreds during the Great Depression.

In 1928 Arutunoff moved to Bartlesville, where formed Bart Manufacturing Company, which changed its same to the Reda Pump Company in 1930. He soon demonstrated a working model of an oilfield electric submersible pump.

One of his pump-and-motor devices was installed in an oil well in the El Dorado field near Burns, Kansas – the first equipment of its kinds to be used in a well. One reporter telegraphed his editor, “Please rush good pictures showing oil well motors that are upside down.”

By end of the 1930s Arutunoff’s company held dozens of patents for industrial equipment, leading to decades of success and even more patents. His “Electrodrill” aided scientists in penetrating the Antarctic ice cap for the first time in 1967.

“Arutunoff’s ESP oilfield technology quickly had a significant impact on the oil business,” concludes ESP Pump. “His pump was crucial to the successful production over the years of hundreds of thousands of oil wells.”

Also see All Pumped Up – Oilfield TechnologyVisit the Frank Phillips Home in Bartlesville. Read more in an article about the Conoco & Phillips Petroleum Museums.



AOGHS.org welcomes sponsors to help us preserve petroleum history. Please support this energy education website with a tax-deductible donation today. Contact bawells@aoghs.org for information on levels and types of available sponsorships.  © 2017 AOGHS.


A 1933 disaster at a giant oilfield near Conroe, Texas, brought together the inventor of a revolutionary portable drilling rig and the father of directional drilling. 

Although the Conroe well’s producing sands proved to be dangerously gas-charged, shallow and unstable, the giant oilfield – the third largest in the United States at the time – soon had 60 successful wells producing more than 65,000 of barrels of oil a day.

The region north of Houston boomed as the Great Depression worsened.

Disaster came in January 1933 when one of the wells blew out and erupted into flame. The runaway well cratered – completely swallowing nearby drilling rigs. Read the rest of this entry »


Oil patch lore says the yellow dog lantern was so named because its two burning wicks resembled a dog’s glowing eyes at night. Some say the lamp casts a dog’s head shadow on the derrick floor.

Jonathan Dillen’s lantern was “especially adapted for use in the oil regions…where the explosion of a lamp is attended with great danger by causing destructive conflagration and consequent loss of life and property.”

Rare is the community oil and natural gas museum that doesn’t have a “yellow dog” in its collection. The two-wicked lamp is an oilfield icon.

Some say that the unusual design originated with whaling ships – but neither the Nantucket nor New Bedford whaling museums can find any such evidence.

Railroad museums have collections of cast iron smudge pots, but nothing quite like these heavy, odd shaped, crude-oil burning lanterns once prevalent on petroleum fields from Pennsylvania to California.

Although many companies manufactured the iron or steel lamps, the yellow dog’s origins remain in the dark.

Oil patch lore says these lanterns were so named because their two burning wicks resembled a dog’s glowing eyes at night.

Others say the lamps cast a dog’s head shadow on the derrick floor.

Inventor Jonathan Dillen of Petroleum Centre, Pennsylvania, was first to patent what became the “yellow dog” of the early oil patch. The U.S. patent was awarded on May 3, 1870. Read the rest of this entry »


Ever since America’s earliest oil discoveries, detonating dynamite or nitroglycerin downhole helped increase a well’s production. The technology – commonly used in oilfields for almost a century – would be greatly improved when hydraulic fracturing arrived in 1949. 

hydraulic fracking

Hydraulic fracturing has been used to increase production on millions of oil and natural gas wells since 1949.

Modern hydraulic “fracking”” can trace its roots to April 1865, when Civil War Union veteran Lt. Col. Edward A. L. Roberts received the first of his many patents for an “exploding torpedo.”

In May 1990, Pennsylvania’s Otto Cupler Torpedo Company “shot” its last oil well using liquid nitroglycerin – abandoning nitro but continuing to pursue a fundamental oilfield technology. President Rick Tallini says today’s widely used  fracturing systems are much advanced from Col. Roberts’ original patents.

hydraulic fracking

When Col. E.A.L. Roberts founds his company in 1865, his many patents give him a monopoly on torpedoes needed by the oil industry. The stock certificate – with oilfield vignettes – is worth about $300 to collectors.

“Our business since Colonel Roberts’ day has concerned lowering high explosives charges into oil wells in the Appalachian area to blast fractures into the oil bearing sand,” says Tallini. His company is based in Titusville – where the American petroleum industry began in August 1859 (learn more in First American Oil Well). Read the rest of this entry »



Henry D. Rogers, (1808 – 1866) was one of the first professional U.S. geologists.

When crude oil burst onto western Pennsylvania’s marketplace as a major commercial opportunity following an 1859 well drilled by Edwin L. Drake, the art and science of petroleum geology was born.

The mining industry had long provided employment for geologists and the oil boom presented a new kind of mineral wealth for America and a new challenge for geologists. But Pennsylvania’s first oilmen soon found that hiring geologists didn’t significantly improve their chances of success in an already risky business.

Decades before the Civil War, the pursuit and mining of coal prompted many geological surveys, studies, and assessments of potential mineral resources. Railroads stretching westward needed good quality coal supplies and routes always considered the availability of nearby sources.

In search of high-quality bituminous coal, geologists had often reported oil seeps and the associated landforms, but mostly as a curiosity and in relation to their proximity to coal beds.

In Kentucky, Ohio, and the western part of what is now West Virginia, the salt business also gave geologists important insights into formations called “structural traps.”

Drilling commercial brine wells and salt manufacturing was a lucrative industry. Geologists’ surveys found that strata of sedimentary rock fractured, faulted, and folded, sometimes producing salt domes and valuable brine deposits.

Geologists also noted that oil and natural gas was occasionally trapped in porous deposits sandwiched between impermeable rock layers. Such contamination fouled commercial brine wells and was an unwelcome intrusion, but cottage industry entrepreneurs skimmed it off and sold it for patent medicine, lubrication, and other novel purposes.


In Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia, geologists studied landforms associated with salt brine and coal “structural traps.” These anticlinal traps held oil and natural gas because the earth had been bent, deformed or fractured. Unsuccessfully applying structural trap theories to Pennsylvania’s differing geology undermined early petroleum geologists’ credibility.

A pioneering Ohio physician and natural scientist named Samuel Hildreth examined and recorded details of the salt business in southeastern Ohio, noting structural traps as a geologic feature associated with brine, coal, and oil. In 1836, he published his extensive “Observations on the Bituminous Coal Deposit for the Valley of the Ohio, and the Accompanying Rock Strata.” It was America’s first petroleum geology primer.

Hildreth was a strong advocate for Ohio’s first geological survey and later served as the state geologist. His observations of the structural trapping of petroleum were later affirmed by Pennsylvania’s state geologist, Henry D. Rogers, who erroneously declared that Pennsylvania’s oilfields were likewise based on structural trapping of petroleum in anticline formations.

Pennsylvania’s oilfields were in fact found predominantly in another kind of formation altogether, the “sandstone stratigraphic trap,” but Rogers’ prestigious endorsement, circulated widely in an 1863 Harper’s Magazine article, convinced geologists to the contrary.

The frenzied search for oil prompted the first petroleum geologists to impose Hildreth and Rogers’ structural trapping theory on Pennsylvania’s differing geology. It didn’t work and their failures in Pennsylvania hindered the acceptance of petroleum geologists for decades.

Although structural trapping remains a dominant characteristic for many of America’s most prolific oil and natural gas fields, ironically it wasn’t so in Pennsylvania’s Oil Creek region, where the petroleum industry was born. As noted by author and geologist Ray Sorenson, “theories of trapping did not work in the absence of anticlines.”


The dominant oil bearing feature in Pennsylvania’s oil region is a sedimentary geologic formation known as a “stratigraphic trap” and differs significantly from a structural trap. It is formed in place by erosion, usually in porous sandstone enclosed in shale. The impermeable shale keeps the oil and gas from escaping.

It took until the turn of the century before successful geologically driven discoveries in the Mid-Continent and Gulf regions encouraged exploration companies to use petroleum geologists.

Although the science of geology had revealed the 34-square-mile El Dorado oilfield in central Kansas in 1915, many companies still had little confidence in geologists.

James C. Donnell, president of the Ohio Oil Company (later Marathon Oil) proclaimed, “The day The Ohio has to rely on geologists, I’ll get into another line of work.” But after the company’s first geologist, C.J. “Charlie” Hares found 19 oil and natural gas fields, Donnell changed his mind and declared Hares to be “the greatest geologist in the world.”

Increasing understanding and acceptance of petroleum geology as a valued tool in exploration led to the 1917 formation of the Southwestern Association of Petroleum Geologists, precursor to today’s American Association of Petroleum Geologists. Since then, AAPG has fostered scientific research, advanced the science of geology, promoted technology, and inspired professional conduct amongst its more than 30,000 members.

Petroleum geology has come a long way since taking its first steps and stumbles in the Ohio River Valley and Pennsylvania’s early oilfields. Geologists today grapple with enormous amounts of data and technological innovations in pursuit of petroleum.


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