Oklahoma scientists first used reflection and refraction technologies in the 1920s.


Exploring seismic waves is all about a vital earth science technology — reflection seismography — which first 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.

Educational historic marker about seismic waves on I-35 in Oklahoma.

A tourist site for geologists, a sign and historic 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 later proclaimed.

“This geophysical method records reflected seismic waves as they travel through the earth helping to find oil bearing formations,” the historical society noted on a granite monument erected northeast of Ardmore.

seismic waves

Scientists chose Oklahoma’s Arbuckle Mountains to test a new technology in 1921, seismic surveying, “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 oil and natural gas fields, 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 an experiments near Oklahoma City and Ardmore in 1921.

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.

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“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 historical society explains, adding that limited testing  previously was done in  June 1921 on the outskirts of Oklahoma City.

“Verification and confirmation testing was conducted in the Arbuckles beginning July 4, 1921, by Karcher and fellow O.U. professors William Haseman and David Ohern, and Irving Perrine of Cornell University,” All were early members of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, which was 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 oilman, the men 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,” the marker explains before concluding: “The reflection technique has become the major method of energy exploration throughout the world. By 1983 more than 70 percent of the 18, 600 members of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists in 112 countries were involved in reflection.”

Seismic finds Oklahoma Oil

Seismic technology first helped find oil in 1928 when 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. Others soon followed as the new exploration technology revealed dozens of oilfields. Learn more at Greater 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 (or 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 the Oklahoma Historical Society is steadfast that Karcher’s seismic design dates back to 1917, when he was an employee of the U.S. Bureau of Standards. “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,” the historical society explains.

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

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


Recommended Reading:  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 supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2021 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: August 7, 2021. Original Published Date: April 29, 2013.


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