Technologies for exploring, producing, and using oil and natural gas.
“So the major obstacle to the development of new supplies is not geology but what happens above ground: international affairs, politics, investment and technology.” – Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power, 1990.
Walter Trout was working in Texas for the Lufkin Foundry & Machine Company in 1925 when he sketched his idea for a new way for extracting oil from a well. His counterbalanced pumping unit – the “nodding donkey” – would bring far greater efficiency to U.S. oilfields.
When technological advances (and natural gas prices) allowed it, Anadarko Basin wells in Oklahoma began to be drilled more than two miles deep in search of highly pressurized gas zones. Parker Drilling Rig No. 114 today stands on display to welcome Route 66 travelers to Elk City.
The earliest land speed records were set with vehicles powered by steam, electricity, and all kinds of petroleum distillates. On October 23, 1970, the Blue Flame made a spectacular debut at the Bonneville Salt Flats by setting a new world land speed record of 630.388 mph. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) fueled the 38-foot rocket car.
The revenue possibilities of self-service gasoline pumps prompted a number of innovators to develop coin-operated systems in the early 20th Century. Several companies experimented with the unusual self-service gasoline dispensing technology; some of their “gas pump slot machines” survive in museums.
Although down tools that shot steel bullets through well casing had been invented in the 1930s, Swiss inventor Henry Mohaupt used his experience from creating a World War II anti-tank weapon to develop a better technology for improving oil and gas production. He used conically hollowed-out explosive charges to focus each detonation’s energy.
As the number of oil wells grew in the early days of America’s petroleum industry, simple water-well pumping technologies began to be replaced with advanced, steam-driven walking beam pump systems.
“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,” noted James Abercrombie and Harry Cameron a 1922 U.S. patent application for their hydraulic ram-type blowout preventer, an invention that would revolutionize the petroleum industry.
Seismic technology has been responsible for discovering many of the world’s largest oil and natural gas fields. The technology came about thanks to pioneering research led by Oklahoma Univeristy’s John C. Karcher. The first reflection seismograph geologic section was measured during an experiments near Oklahoma City and Ardmore in 1921.
Just four days after completion of America’s first commercial oil well in Pennsylvania in 1859, a second well drilled nearby resulted in the first unsuccessful well for a young U.S. petroleum industry. The attempt to find oil did produce other technology firsts.
The challenge of retrieving broken equipment obstructing a well – “fishing” – has tormented exploration companies since the first tool stuck irretrievably in 1859 at 134 feet deep and ruined a Pennsylvania well, the industry’s first dry hole. Well fishing tools have been constantly improved ever since.
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.
America’s first public street lamp (fueled by manufactured gas) illuminated Market Street in Baltimore, Maryland, in early 1817, making the Gas Light Company of Baltimore the first U.S. commercial gas lighting company.
With help from Frank Phillips of Phillips Petroleum, Armais Arutunoff built the first practical electric submersible pumps (ESPs) in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The invention revolutionized production from America’s oilfields. A 1936 Tulsa World article described Arutunoff’s downhole pump as “An electric motor with the proportions of a slim fence post which stands on its head at the bottom of a well and kicks oil to the surface with its feet.”
Kansas oilfield workers struggled for weeks trying to cap the 1906 burning well at Caney, Kansas. 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 1930, Walter Wells and another enterprising oilfield tool salesman, Bill Lane, came up with a practical way of using remotely controlled guns downhole to increase a well’s production. They envisioned a tool which would shoot steel bullets through casing and into the formation.
“A good cable-tool man is just about the most highly skilled worker you’ll find,” one historian noted as early drilling technologies evolved from the ancient spring pole to percussion cable-tools to the modern rotary rigs that can drill miles into the earth. A dual-coned bit introduced by Howard Hughes Sr. in 1909 was a game changer for the industry.
Especially in the Great Plains, lightening frequently struck oil derricks and storage tanks. The burning oil tank could be drained by a muzzle-loading cannon firing solid shot at the tank’s base. “Oil Fires, like battles, are fought by artillery,” proclaimed a December 1884 article from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The Ocean Odyssey, a self-propelled, semi-submersible drilling platform designed to endure 110 foot North Atlantic waves, became a floating equatorial launch pad.Sea Launch, a Boeing-led consortium of companies from the United States, Russia, Ukraine and Norway, began commercial launches in 1999. By 2014 the former oilfield platform had made 36 such launches for XM Satellite Radio and communication companies.
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. In 1969, a 43-kiloton nuclear device was detonated; a few years later more detonations took place designed to increase natural gas production from low-permeability sandstone. Radioactivity ended these tests for the peaceful use of nuclear explosions.
A circa 1914 oil pumping jack, gears and flywheels remain intact less than a mile east of Powder Mill Creek in Butler County, Pennsylvania. On the site, a Bream Oil Company cable-tool drilling rig reached 1,566 feet – and struck an oil-producing “pay sand” six feet thick. The oilfield in Butler County was one of the state’s top producing counties from 1889 into the 1920s.
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.” The Titusville Morning Herald newspaper reported: “Our attention has been called to a series of experiments that have been made in the wells of various localities by Col. Roberts, with his newly patented torpedo. The results have in many cases been astonishing.”
Peter Sweeney’s innovative 1866 “Stone Drill” patent included a roller bit using “rapid rotary motion” similar to modern rotary drilling technologies. 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.
As the Great Depression worsened and oil exploration and production expanded north of Houston, a 1933 oilfield disaster near Conroe, Texas, brought together the inventor of a portable drilling rig and the father of directional drilling. George Failing earlier had mounted a drilling rig on a Ford farm truck with an assembly to transfer power from the engine to the drill.
In 1962, Long Beach, California, voters approved “controlled exploration and exploitation of the oil and gas reserves” underlying their harbor. The city’s charter had prohibited such drilling since a 1956 referendum, but advances in oilfield technologies enabled the town, which literally had been sinking, to stay afloat. Five oil companies formed a Long Beach company called THUMS and saved the day.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.