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 Sweeny’s 1866 rotary rig for drilling wells – 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.

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