Oklahoma scientists experimented with reflection seismography in 1921.


Exploring seismic waves is all about the vital earth science technology — reflection seismography — which revolutionized petroleum exploration in the 1920s. Seismic waves have led to oilfield discoveries worldwide and billions of barrels of oil. 

Seismic technologies evolved from efforts to locate enemy artillery during World War I.

An educational geologic billboard and granite historical marker about seismic waves can be view by travelers on I-35 in Oklahoma.

A tourist site for geologists, a sign and granite marker on I-35 near Ardmore, Oklahoma, commemorates the August 9, 1921, test of seismic technology. Photo by Bruce Wells.

Although the new way of finding petroleum reserves came from several competing post-war inventors, two experiments in the summer of 1921 by an Oklahoma physicist stood out.

“Oklahoma is the birthplace of the reflection seismic technique of oil exploration,” the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS) has proclaimed in granite at a Murray County historic marker off I-35, next to an illustration of the area’s geology sponsored by the Ardmore Geological Society.

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“This geophysical method records reflected seismic waves as they travel through the earth helping to find oil bearing formations,” OHS noted on its marker northeast of Ardmore.

Geologic cross section roadside marker of Oklahoma's Arbuckle Mountains.

The Ardmore Geological Society’s I-35 roadside marker describes how scientists chose the Arbuckle Mountains to test seismic surveying in 1921, “because an entire geologic section from the Basal Permian to the basement mass of granite is exposed.”

Seismic technologies have been responsible for discovering the world’s largest petroleum reserves, many containing billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. The exploration advancement came thanks to pioneering research led by Prof.  John Clarence Karcher.

The first reflection seismograph geologic section was measured during experiments near Oklahoma City and Ardmore in 1921.

University Earth Scientists

Karcher, raised on a farm near Hennessey, received both electrical engineering and physics degrees from the University of Oklahoma in 1916. His early field tests of seismic technologies led to a small Oklahoma mountain range.

“The Arbuckle Mountains of Oklahoma were selected for a pilot survey of the technique and equipment, because an entire geologic section from the Basal Permian to the basement mass of granite is exposed,” the OHS noted, adding that limited testing  previously was done in  June 1921 on the outskirts of Oklahoma City.

John Karcher and fellow O.U. professors William Haseman and David Ohern, were joined by Irving Perrine of Cornell University to continue verification and confirmation testing, beginning on July 4, 1921.

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The pioneering earth scientists were among the first members of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG), founded in 1917 in Tulsa.

A monument commemorates an August 1921 test seismic waves.

A monument on I-35 commemorates an August 1921 test resulting in the first successful measurement of a geologic section.

Funded by an Oklahoma City independent producer, Karcher, Haseman and Ohern formed the Geological Engineering Company. The experiments indicated that their seismograph could reveal subsurface structures capable of holding oil.

“The world’s first reflection seismograph geologic section was measured on August 9, 1921, along vines branch, a few miles north of Dougherty near here,” according to the marker.

“The reflection technique has become the major method of energy exploration throughout the world,” the marker concludes.  “By 1983 more than 70 percent of the 18,600 members of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG) in 112 countries were involved in reflection.”

Seismology finds Seminole Oilfields

Seismic technology first helped find oil in 1928 when Amerada Petroleum Corporation drilled into the Viola limestone formation and struck oil on December 4 near Seminole, Oklahoma. The well was the world’s first oil discovery in a geological structure that had been identified by reflection.

Other discoveries followed as the new exploration technology revealed dozens of oilfields (learn more in Seminole Oil Boom).

The 1928 seismic survey, conducted by subsidiary Geophysical Research, used technology that evolved from the experiments of Karcher and his Oklahoma University colleagues. But they were not alone.

During World War I, inventors Reginald Fessenden and Ludger Mintrop independently contributed to the new earth science.

Work by Fessenden, a Canadian who was chief physicist for the Submarine Signaling Company of Boston, helped make the technology smaller and more practical for the field. Mintrop, a Germann, was equally important.

Illustration of how underground seismic reflection waves work.

Seismic wave paths reflect from the top of bedrock to detectors on the land surface. Image courtesy Geologic Resources.

During World War I, Mintrop had developed portable seismic detection equipment to locate Allied artillery for the German Imperial Army.

But as Oklahoma historians have noted, Karcher’s seismic design dates back to 1917, when he was an employee of the U.S. Bureau of Standards.

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“Both the German and American versions, crude contrivances at best, were intended for use in locating enemy artillery by measuring the seismic vibrations produced by their firing,” OHS explained.

Although both Mintrop and Karcher, who was president of Geophysical Research, would secure patents, Karcher’s apparatus dramatically changed petroleum exploration worldwide. His methodology — and his 1928 Seminole oil discoveries — earned him the title “Father of Reflection Seismography.”

Learn more Sooner State petroleum history by visiting Oklahoma oil and gas museums.



Recommended Reading: Trek of the Oil Finders: A History of Exploration for Petroleum (1975); Oil And Gas In Oklahoma: Petroleum Geology In Oklahoma (2013). 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 bawells@aoghs.org. © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Exploring Seismic Waves.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/technology/exploring-reflection-seismography/. Last Updated: November 27, 2022. Original Published Date: April 29, 2013.


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