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December 16, 2020  –  Oil & Gas History News, Vol. 1, No. 12


Oil & Gas History News


Our last newsletter for 2020 offers more educational events in U.S. petroleum history. One standout is the 1967 detonation of a nuclear device in a New Mexico well to stimulate natural gas production. Another is the use of Civil War cannons to put out oil tank fires. Perhaps on the outer limit of energy education, we also include an amazingly deep fictional well featured in “Superman and the Mole Men” from 1951.


This Week in Petroleum History Monthly Update


Links to summaries from four weeks of U.S. oil and natural gas history, including new technologies, oilfield discoveries, petroleum products, and pioneers. 


December 17, 1884 –  Fighting Oilfield Fires with Cannons 


“Oil Fires, like battles, are fought by artillery,” proclaimed a student newspaper article at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The firsthand account, “A Thunder-Storm in the Oil Country,” described the problem of oilfield lightning strikes. The MIT article not only reported the fiery destruction, but also the practice of using solid shot from cannons to extinguish burning oil tanks…MORE


December 7, 1905 – Helium discovered in Natural Gas


The importance of natural gas for producing helium was revealed when University of Kansas professors discovered helium in a gas well east of Wichita. The Gas, Oil and Developing Company had drilled the well that produced a non-flammable “howling gasser” from a depth of 560 feet. Helium was considered a national strategic resource at the time…MORE


December 1, 1865 – Lady Macbeth arrives at Famous Oil Boom Town


Shakespearean tragedienne Miss Eloise Bridges appeared as Lady Macbeth at the Murphy Theater in Pithole, Pennsylvania, America’s first famously notorious oil boom town. A January 1865 oil discovery had launched the drilling frenzy that created Pithole, which within a year had 57 hotels, a daily newspaper, and the third busiest post office in Pennsylvania…MORE


November 23, 1951 – Superman and the World’s Deepest Oil Well


Public fear of the risk of drilling too deep highlighted the theatrical release of Superman’s first movie, “Superman and the Mole Men.” The sci-fi plot unfolded in the fictional town of Silsby, “Home of the World’s Deepest Oil Well,” when the experimental well drilled “into clear air” at a depth of 32,742 feet. Townspeople feared an invasion when mole men emerged from the well…MORE


Featured Image


Project Gasbuggy experiments began in 1967 when government scientists lowered a 13-foot by 18-inches nuclear device into a well about 60 miles east of Farmington, New Mexico. They wanted to test the feasibility of using nuclear explosions to stimulate release of natural gas trapped in shale deposits. Photo courtesy Los Alamos Lab.


Project Gasbuggy included experts from the Atomic Energy Commission, the Bureau of Mines, and El Paso Natural Gas Company. The team drilled a well 4,240 feet deep near three low-production natural gas wells and lowered a 29-kiloton nuclear device into the borehole. The experimental explosion was part a series of federal projects known as “Plowshare,” created in the late 1950s to explore possible peaceful uses of nuclear devices. Learn more in Project Gasbuggy tests Nuclear “Fracking.”


Energy Education Articles


Updated editorial content on the American Oil & Gas Historical Society website includes these articles:


Two General Motors scientists discovered the antiknock properties of tetraethyl lead on December 9, 1921. When they added it to gasoline, out-of-sequence detonations in an engine cylinder disappeared. But as concerns about health dangers grew, the phase-out of leaded gas in cars began in 1976 (it is still used in aviation fuel). See Ethyl Anti-Knock Gas.


Seismic technologies evolved during World War I from efforts to locate enemy artillery. The new way of finding petroleum reserves came from several competing post-war inventors, but experiments in 1921 by an Oklahoma physicist stood out. See Exploring Seismic Waves.

While drilling for natural gas, William Mills found small amounts of oil at Neodesha in eastern Kansas on November 28, 1892. He took a sample from his Norman No. 1 well and visited experienced oil drillers in Pennsylvania. They convinced him to “shoot” the well with nitroglycerin. See First Kansas Oil Well.



Thank you again for subscribing. The growing number of supporting members helps the American Oil & Gas Historical Society expand its energy education network. Your donations make this possible. Please continue to share our newsletter and help maintain and expand the AOGHS website.


— Bruce Wells


“Any survey of the natural resources used as sources of energy must include a discussion about the importance of oil, the lifeblood of all industrialized nations.” — Daniel Yergin, bestselling author and winner of the Pulitzer Prize

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