It took the ingenuity of a skilled machinist and a Texas wildcatter to invent a device to stop gushers.
Petroleum drilling and production technologies, among the most advanced of any industry, evolved as exploratory wells drilled deeper into highly pressurized geologic formations. One idea began with a sketch on the sawdust floor of a Texas machine shop.
In January 1922, James Abercrombie and Harry Cameron sought their first U.S. patent for the hydraulic ram-type blowout preventer. The invention would become a vital technology for ending dangerous oil and natural gushers.
“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,” they noted in their patent application, which was finalized and approved four years later. The design revolutionized the petroleum industry.
Technologies for controlling wells evolved since the first U.S. oil well of 1859, which produced oil from 69.5 feet deep. The advancements continued as wells reach beyond several miles deep. The image of James Dean celebrating in a rain of oil may have been dramatic in 1956, but most oilfield gushers ended much earlier. By the time the movie “Giant” was made, the technology of well control and blowout prevention had been in place decades.
Perhaps the most famous high-pressure blowout occurred at Spindletop Hill near Beaumont, Texas. Shortly after 10 a.m. on January 10, 1901, a three-man crew was drilling when a six-inch stream of oil and natural gas erupted 100 feet into the air. It was the first U.S. well to produce 100,000 barrels oil per day. The giant oilfield it revealed would prove significant for an increasingly gasoline-hungry nation.
A Beaumont newspaper described the discovery well drilled by Anthony F. Lucas (and long predicted by Pattillo Higgins of the Gladys City Oil, Gas, and Manufacturing Company) as an “Oil Geyser – Remarkable Phenomenon South of Beaumont – Gas Blows Pipe from Well and a Flow of Oil Equaled Nowhere Else on Earth.”
It took nine days and 500,000 barrels of oil before a shut off valve for the well could be affixed to the casing to stop the powerful flow of oil and natural gas. The record-setting producing came from a salt dome geologic formation, as Lucas had predicted. News and images of the “Lucas Gusher” would circulate nationwide, attracting more investors and creating new exploration, production and refining companies. Learn more by visiting the Spindletop/Gladys City Boomtown Museum in Beaumont.
Patent records abound with inventors’ efforts to find a solution to controlling the underground pressure encountered when drilling. It took a successful wildcatter’s ingenuity to finally devise a workable “blowout preventer.”
James Abercrombie of Huntsville, Texas, had personal experience with the dangers of uncontrollable blowouts, having narrowly escaped one himself:
“With a roar like a hundred express trains racing across the countryside, the well blew out, spewing oil in all directions,” notes one account. “The derrick simply evaporated. Casings wilted like lettuce out of water, as heavy machinery writhed and twisted into grotesque shapes in the blazing inferno.”
Abercrombie started in the oilfields as a roustabout in 1908 working for the Goose Creek Production Company and by 1920 owned several rigs in south Texas. He met Harry Cameron in the machine shops of the Cameron-Devant Company, where Abercrombie was a frequent customer. The two men soon became friends and business partners.
In 1920, Abercrombie and Cameron formed Cameron Iron Works to repair drilling rigs and sell supplies and parts to oilmen. They employed five men with two lathes, a drill press, and hand tools. They named the company Cameron because Abercrombie already had two companies with his name. Abercrombie said of his friend, “Harry Cameron was a great machine-tool man. You could give him a piece of iron and he could make just about anything you wanted.”
James Abercrombie came up with the idea for a “ram-type” blowout preventer – using rams (hydrostatic pistons) to close on the drill stem and form a seal against the well pressure. He sketched his idea on the sawdust floor of the Cameron Iron Works machine shop in Humble, Texas.
Abercrombie and Cameron worked out the details, fabricating simple, rugged parts at the shop. When installed on a wellhead, the rams could be closed off, allowing full control of pressure during drilling and production. In 1922, their Type MO blowout preventer (BOP) could withstand pressures of up to 3,000 psi. Subsequent improvements continued to increase the device’s capability.
According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Abercrombie and Cameron filed a patent application for their MO BOP on April 14, 1922. The simple, straightforward design of the MO was summed up in words from the application, “Another object is to provide a blowout preventer of the kind described, which will be composed to a minimum number of parts of simple and rugged construction.”
The application was acknowledged and the basic patent was granted January 12, 1926 – U.S. patent number 1,569,247. In December 1931, Abercrombie patented an improved blowout preventer (patent No. 1,834,922, reissued in 1933), that set a new standard for safe drilling during the Oklahoma City oilfield boom.
The blowout preventer saved lives and quickly became an industry standard. An original Abercrombie and Cameron blowout preventer was displayed in the Smithsonian Institution for many years before returning to Cooper Cameron headquarters in Houston, where it is now on display in the lobby.
Modern blowout preventers include not only ram-types using steel rams to seal the borehole as in Abercrombie’s patents, but also annular BOPs (Granville Knox – 1952) and spherical BOPs (Ado Vujasinovic – 1972) stacked for redundancy and capable of withstanding pressures of 20,000 pounds per square inch.
The early contributions of pioneers like James Abercrombie, Harry Cameron, and others made the search safer, more productive, and more sensitive to the environment. In 2003, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers recognized the Cameron Ram-Type Blowout Preventer as an “Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.”
Since the History and Heritage Program began in 1971, more than 235 landmarks have been designated as “historic mechanical engineering landmarks, heritage collections or heritage sites. Each represents a progressive step in the evolution of mechanical engineering and its significance to society in general.”
James Abercrombie died January 7, 1975. His success in the oilfields and philanthropy made him one of Houston’s leading citizens. – Article adapted from the July 2003 ASME designation ceremony.
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. Copyright © 2021 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Ending Oil Gushers – BOP.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/technology/end-of-gushers. Last Updated: January 11, 2021. Original Published Date: February 1, 2010.