As the U.S. petroleum expanded following the 1901 “Lucas Gusher” at Spindletop in Texas, service company pioneers like Carl Baker and Howard Hughes brought new technologies to oilfields.
Baker Oil Tools and Hughes Tools specialized in maximizing oil and natural gas production (competitors would include Schlumberger, a French company founded in 1926 and Halliburton, which began in 1919 as a well-cementing company).
R.C. “Carl” Baker Sr.
Baker Oil Tool Company, later Baker International, was founded by Reuben Carlton “Carl” Baker Sr. of Coalinga, California, who among other inventions patented an innovative cable-tool drill bit in 1903 after founding the Coalinga Oil Company.
“While drilling around Coalinga, Baker encountered hard rock layers that made it difficult to get casing down a freshly drilled hole,” notes a Coalinga historian. “To solve the problem, he developed an offset bit for cable-tool drilling that enabled him to drill a hole larger than the casing.”
Baker also patented a “Gas Trap for Oil Wells” in 1908, a “Pump-Plunger” in 1914, and a “Shoe Guide for Well Casings” in 1920.
Coalinga was “every inch a boom town and Mr. Baker would become a major player in the town’s growth,” reports the Baker Museum. Baker organized small oil companies, a bank and the local power company.
After drilling wells in the Kern River oilfield, Baker added another technological innovation in 1907 when he patented the Baker Casing Shoe, a device ensuring uninterrupted flow of oil through a well. By 1913 Baker organized the Baker Casing Shoe Company (renamed Baker Tools two years later). He opened his first manufacturing plant in Coalinga.
The R.C. Baker Memorial Museum was the 1917 machine shop and office of Baker Casing Shoe. When Baker Tools headquarters moved to Los Angeles in the 1930s, the building remained a company machine shop. It was donated by Baker to Coalinga in 1959 and opened as a museum in 1961. Carl Baker Sr. died in 1957 at age 85 – after receiving more than 150 U.S. patents in his lifetime.
“Though Mr. Baker never advanced beyond the third grade, he possessed an incredible understanding of mechanical and hydraulic systems,” reported the Coalinga museum.
Baker Tools became Baker International in 1976 and Baker Hughes after the 1987 merger with Hughes Tool Company.
Howard R. Hughes Sr.
The Hughes Tool Company began in 1908 as the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company founded by Walter B. Sharp and Howard R. Hughes, Sr.
“Fishtail” rotary drill bits became obsolete in 1909 when the two inventors introduced a dual-cone roller bit. They created a bit “designed to enable rotary drilling in harder, deeper formations than was possible with earlier fishtail bits,” according to a Hughes historian. Secret tests took place on a drilling rig at Goose Creek, south of Houston.
“In the early morning hours of June 1, 1909, Howard Hughes Sr. packed a secret invention into the trunk of his car and drove off into the Texas plains,” notes Gwen Wright of History Detectives. The drilling site was near Galveston Bay. Rotary drilling “fishtail ” bits of the time were “nearly worthless when they hit hard rock.”
The new technology would soon bring faster and deeper drilling worldwide, helping to find previously unreachable oil and natural gas reserves. The dual-cone bit also created many Texas millionaires, explained Don Clutterbuck, one of the PBS show’s sources. “When the Hughes twin-cones hit hard rock, they kept turning, their dozens of sharp teeth (166 on each cone) grinding through the hard stone,” he added.
Although several inventors tried to develop better rotary drill bit technologies, Sharp-Hughes Tool Company was the first to bring it to American oilfields. Drilling times fell dramatically, saving petroleum companies huge amounts of money.
The Society of Petroleum Engineers has noted that about the same time Hughes developed his bit, Granville A. Humason of Shreveport, Louisiana, patented the first cross-roller rock bit, the forerunner of the Reed cross-roller bit.
Biographers note that Hughes met Granville Humason in a Shreveport bar, where Humason sold his roller bit rights to Hughes for $150. The University of Texas’ Center for American History has a rare 1951 recording of Humason’s recollections of that chance meeting. Humason recalls he spent $50 of his sale proceeds at the bar during the balance of the evening.
After Sharp died in 1912, his widow Estelle Sharp sold her 50 percent share in the company to Hughes. It became Hughes Tool in 1915. Despite legal action between Hughes Tool and the Reed Roller Bit Company that occurred in the late 1920s, Hughes prevailed – and his oilfield service company prospered.
By 1934, Hughes Tool engineers design and patented the three-cone roller bit, an enduring design that remains much the same today. Hughes’ exclusive patent lasted until 1951, which allowed his Texas company to grow worldwide. More innovations (and mergers) would follow.
Frank Christensen and George Christensen had developed the earliest diamond bit in the 1941 and introduced diamond bits to oilfields in 1946, beginning with the Rangley field of Colorado. The long-lasting tungsten carbide tooth came into use in the early 1950s.
After Baker International acquired Hughes Tool Company in 1987, Baker Hughes acquired the Eastman Christensen Company three years later. Eastman was a world leader in directional drilling.
When Howard Hughes Sr. died in 1924, he left three-quarters of his company to Howard Hughes Jr., then a student at Rice University. The younger Hughes added to the success of Hughes Tool while becoming one of the richest men in the world. His many legacies include founding Hughes Aircraft Company and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Learn more oilfield history in Making Hole – Drilling Technology.
Oilfield Service Company Competition
A major competitor for any energy service company, today’s Schlumberger Limited can trace its roots to Caen, France. In 1912, brothers Conrad and Marcel began making geophysical measurements that recorded a map of equipotential curves (similar to contour lines on a map). Using very basic equipment, their field experiments led to invention of a downhole electronic “logging tool” in 1927.
After successfully developing an electrical four-probe surface approach for mineral exploration, the brothers lowered another electric tool into a well. They recorded a single lateral-resistivity curve at fixed points in the well’s borehole and graphically plotted the results against depth – creating first electric well log of geologic formations.
Meanwhile another service company in Oklahoma, the Reda Pump Company had been founded by Armais Arutunoff, a close friend of Frank Phllips. By 1938, an estimated two percent of all the oil produced in the United States with artifical lift, was lifted by an Arutunoff pump. Learn more in Inventing the Electric Submersible Pump (also see All Pumped Up – Oilfield Technology).
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Carl Baker and Howard Hughes.” Author: AOGHS.ORG Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/oil-almanac/carl-baker-howard-hughes. Last Updated: May 31, 2020. Original Published Date: December 17, 2017.