The gas that wouldn’t burn: A University of Kansas professor extracted helium from a natural gas well in 1905.
Drilling for natural gas in May 1903, an exploratory well of the Gas, Oil and Developing Company found helium on William Greenwell’s farm near Dexter, Kansas. The discovery came at a depth of just 560 feet as the company drilled into a geologic formation that produced “a howling gasser” flowing an estimated nine million cubic feet of natural gas a day.
Today, an old stock certificate from the Gas, Oil and Developing Company is noteworthy to collectors — but not for producing great wealth for the company’s investors. More interesting is the small exploration venture’s connection to “The Gas That Wouldn’t Burn.”
The discovery of natural gas promised immediate economic growth for the small farming community of Dexter. Envisioning its prosperous future, the town planned to advertise its gas field to attract new industries. Excited residents had read newspaper accounts of petroleum wealth ever since the first Kansas oil well of 1892 at Neodesha.
At the discovery well, “Crowds gathered to see the well fired, then watched in dismay as the roaring gas blew out every flame brought near it,” notes a Kansas State Historical Marker.
There was a problem. The flowing well produced another kind of gas with the natural gas. As the Cowley County marker explains, the well was disappointing because it produced, “The Gas That Wouldn’t Burn.”
For the next two years, the Dexter well was scornfully called the “Wind Gas” well by disappointed residents. The Gas, Oil and Developing Company disappeared by the time scientific analysis revealed the natural gas contained almost two percent helium.
Scientists determined that Dexter’s gas wouldn’t burn because it contained mostly nitrogen with some methane, but for the first time in history, they found helium as a constituent of natural gas.
“This primary discovery of helium in natural gas is credited to Professors H. P. Cady and D. F. McFarland of the University of Kansas” explains the historical marker 12 miles west of Cedar Vale at the K-15 junction. The Dexter discovery would help launch the first U.S. Navy airships.
According to the American Chemical Society, any practical use for helium was years away. “In the decade that followed, helium remained a curiosity and the entire U. S. supply rested in three glass tubes on a shelf.”
The historical marker outside Dexter continues: Helium was first used in balloons during World War I. For a few years, beginning in 1927, a privately owned commercial plant at Dexter supplied gas for Navy dirigibles. Later valuable uses developed in industry.
In the 1950’s, demand soared when helium became essential to the operation of nuclear reactors and ballistic missiles. Though Dexter’s well no longer produces, the torch that wouldn’t burn lighted the way to a multi-million dollar industry.
Although the United States would become the world’s largest producer of helium, the Gas, Oil and Developing Company disappeared into thin air. Modern industrial extraction plants today draw helium from natural gas with annual global production of about 175 million cubic meters. It all began where helium was discovered in natural gas, Dexter, Kanas, a place with a rare small town atmosphere.
Learn more Kansas petroleum history, which began in 1892, in Kansas Well reveals Mid-Continent.
Recommended Reading: Helium: The Disappearing Element (2015). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2021 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Gas, Oil and Developing Company.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/stocks/gas-oil-and-developing-company-the. Last Updated: December 5, 2021. Original Published Date: February 14, 2013.