oil well pumps

The founding of the Lufkin Foundry and Machine Company in 1902 will lead to creation of an oilfield icon known by many names — nodding donkey, grasshopper, horse-head, thirsty bird, etc.

In a valley in northwestern Pennsylvania in 1859, Edwin Drake drilled America’s first commercial oil well, launching the U.S. petroleum industry. For his oil well pump, he borrowed a common water well hand pump to retrieve the new resource from 69.5 feet.

As the American petroleum industry was born, it wasn’t long before necessity and ingenuity combined to find something more efficient for producing oil from a well.

Industry pioneers realized that by improving oil well pump efficiency they could extend the economic life of far deeper wells by years. The new resource will be refined to meet the phenomenal worldwide demand for an inexpensive lamp fuel: kerosene.

oil well pump

Invented in 1925 in Lufkin, Texas, the counterbalanced pumping unit brought greater efficiency to the oil patch. Photo by Bruce Wells.

The evolution of technology for pumping oil from the ground is reflected in thousands of small, marginally producing oil wells reaching deep into often stubborn reserves.

Although there are almost one-half million wells in the United States that produce less than 15 barrels of oil per day, their total production remains significant.

Stripper Wells

Oil wells will run dry, but advances in “artificial lift systems” technology can put off the inevitable. But even with today’s best technologies, more than half of the oil can remain trapped underground.

Low-volume marginal or “stripper” wells produce no more than 15 barrels a day. The average stripper well produces only about 2.2 barrels per day. These wells comprise 84 percent of U.S. oil wells and produce 18 percent of all domestic oil.

Marginal oil and natural gas wells number about 650,000 of the nation’s 876,000 wells. Once shutdown, they are lost forever. Keeping them in production has long been a challenge for a special breed of oilman, one who combines technical skills with hard work in the field.

“This is an occupation where most of your work is done in all types of weather while working alone, with few thanks, and possibly only a small herd of cattle as company,” notes the Oklahoma Commission on Marginally Producing Oil and Gas Wells.

It was the same in the industry’s earliest oil well pump days.

Eccentric Wheels and Jerk-Lines

Marginal quantities of oil always need help leaving the well. In the early days of the industry, oilmen adapted water-well technology to the problem and used steam-driven walking beam pump systems. At each well, a steam engine rhythmically raised and lowered one end of a sturdy wooden beam, which pivoted on a Samson post.

The walking beam’s other end cranked a long string of sucker-rods up and down to pump oil to the surface. The beam walked and the oil surfaced, but a more efficient system was needed. One of the early oil pumping innovations came from an 1875 patent.

Pumping multiple wells with a single steam engine boosted efficiency in early oilfields when Albert Nickerson and Levi Streeter of Venango County, Pennsylvania, patented their “Improvement In Means For Pumping Wells” on April 20, 1875. The new technology used a system of linked and balanced walking beams to pump the oil wells.

pump jack

America’s oilfield technologies advance in 1875 with this “Improvement In Means For Pumping Wells” invented in Pennsylvania.

“By an examination of the drawing it will be seen that the walking-beam to well No. l is lifting or raising fluid from the well. Well No. 3 is also lifting, while at the same time wells 2 and 4 are moving in an opposite direction, or plunging, and vice versa,” the inventors noted in their patent (no.162,406).

The use of wooden or iron rods instead of rope and pulleys made their system the forerunner of rod-line (or jerk line) systems that will operate well into the 20th century and remain icons of early oilfield production.

Heretofore it has been necessary to have a separate engine for each well, although often several such engines are supplied with steam from the same boiler. The object of our invention is to enable the pumping of two or more wells with one engine.

By it the walking-beams of the different wells are made to move in different directions at the same time, thereby counterbalancing each other, and equalizing the strain upon the engine.

oil well pump

Oilmen quickly adopted the 1913 “Simplex Pumping Jack.”

However, it was not long before a more compact and efficient mechanism replaced the multiple wooden Samson post and walking beam arrangement.

The 1913 Simplex Pumping Jack was a widely popular offering from Oil Well Supply Co. of Oil City, Pennsylvania. A central power source could connect and operate several of these dispersed Simplex units by way of steel rod lines (also called jerk-lines).

Roger Riddle, a local resident and field guide for the Oil & Gas Museum in Parkersburg, West Virginia, was raised around central power units and the rhythmic clanking of rod lines.

Today, Riddle guides visitors through the nearby woods where remnants of these elaborate oil well pump systems quietly rust.

“They pumped with just these steel rods, just dangling through the woods,” says Riddle. “You could hear them banging along – it was really something to see those work. The cost of pumping wells was pretty cheap.”

oil well pump

Machinery at an oilfield “jack plant” included an engine — often a single-cylinder horizontal gas engine powered by natural gas from a nearby well — that rotated one eccentric wheel (wheel with the axle not in the center) that alternately pushed and pulled steel cables — known as jack-lines or jerk-lines) attached to pump jacks at oil wells.

Steam power initially drove many of these eccentric power units, but some engines were converted to burn the natural gas or other inflammables often found with oil.

oil well pump

Examples of supports for jack-lines from the 1925 “Surface Machinery and Methods for Oil-Well Pumping” by H.C. George.

Single-cylinder steam engines converted to gasoline power were called “half-breeds” and remained beloved among collectors of oilfield antiques.

The conversions usually replaced the steam cylinder with a jacketed cylinder and piston assembly, keeping the original frame and flywheel. The new engine was half steam and half internal combustion, hence the name.

Early internal combustion engines produced only a few horsepower and could not replace steam engines in most applications, but by 1890 they were powerful enough for most portable or remote operations.Electrification arrived and the heyday of central power units passed, but not entirely.

Today, a few miles from Flat Rock, two of Illinois’ once abundant central power units still operate in Crawford County. Ninety-five-year-old Herman Tohill still remembers when Ohio Oil Company installed the units and rod lines on his grandfather’s land. Two sturdy 35-horsepower Superior gasoline engines provide the power.

But as efficient as central power units were, time and technology changed the oilfield again.

Walter Trout’s Revolutionary Prototype

oil well pump

Sketched by Walter Trout in 1925, a prototype of his counterbalanced pump jack was in an oilfield before the end of the year.

A new icon of oilfield success appeared and was soon known by many names: Donkey, Grasshopper, Horse-head, Thirsty Bird, and Pump Jack, among others.

As East Texas timber supplies dwindled and the sawmill business declined, the long-established Lufkin Foundry & Machine Company discovered new opportunities in the oilfield. As more oil discoveries were made, the company – in Lufkin, Texas – not only survived, but prospered.

Walter Trout was working in Texas for Lufkin Foundry & Machine in 1925 when he sketched out his idea for the now familiar counterbalanced oil well pump jack. Before the end of the year, the prototype was installed and working near Hull, Texas, in a Humble Oil Company oilfield.

“The well was perfectly balanced, but even with this result, it was such a funny looking, odd thing that it was subject to ridicule and criticism, and it took a long time, nearly a year, before we could convince many the idea was a good one,” Trout explained.

oil well pump

Key to pumping the oil (and often set to run on a timer), an engine turns gears that move a counter weight connected to the walking beam, which moves the sucker-rod up and down to up draw oil. The oil is pumped into nearby holding tanks.

Modern stripper wells still look much like Walter Trout’s original, but they enjoy the reliability and efficiency that 85 more years of evolving technology have produced.

Lufkin Industries produces a variety of oil well pump units designed to meet worldwide needs. More than 200,000 units have been sold.

Advancements in Efficiency

As with nearly every segment of the petroleum industry, artificial lift systems – including the venerable pump jack – are also benefiting from inclusion of “smart” technology, notes a representative from another leading oilfield supply company.

“The computer-based technology is used to monitor and analyze pump systems in realtime from miles away, quickly and with minimal human interference,” says Paul Nelson of Weatherford International Ltd., Houston.

“On pump jacks that means constant monitoring of well production and the lift unit in order to optimize energy usage while maximizing the amount of oil recovered from reluctant zones,” Nelson adds.

Smart well technology is of particular importance to the United States, where a very large portion oil is produced from thousands of stripper wells producing less than 10 barrels a day, Nelson explains. Many of these wells have reached such a depleted pressure state that once they are shut in they can never be economically restarted. The majority of them are being kept alive by oil well pump jacks.

Large crowds turn out for the lighting of the “Rudolph the Red Nosed Pumping Unit” in Lufkin. More than 1,000 Christmas lights decorate the 38-foot Mark 640 and Santa’s sleigh. Photo courtesy the Lufkin Daily News.

“By improving pump efficiencies without adding significantly to operating costs, smart well technology stands to extend by years the economic life of many of these wells and, by extension, add millions of barrels of oil to U.S. reserves,” he concludes.


oil well pump

Edwin L. Drake used a steam engine and cable-tool drilling rig and invented a method of driving a pipe down to protect the integrity of the well bore.

Edwin L. Drake (1819-1880) became the “father of the petroleum industry” when he drilled what most consider America’s first commercial oil well on August 27, 1859, near Titusville, Pennsylvania. He used a steam engine and cable-tool rig.

Drake overcame many financial and technical obstacles to make his historic discovery. He also pioneered new drilling technologies, including using iron casing to isolate his well bore from nearby Oil Creek. Seeking oil for the Seneca Oil Company for refining into a new product (kerosene), Drake’s shallow well created an industry.

Learn more about drilling technology – including how “fishtail” bits became obsolete in 1909 when Howard Hughes Sr. introduced the twin-cone roller bit: Making Hole – Drilling Technology.

For more articles about the evolution of modern petroleum production technologies, read Shooters – A ‘Fracking‘ History and Downhole Bazooka. Another innovative advance came in 1933 with the use of slant drilling to solve a major oilfield crisis – see Technology and the “Conroe Crater.


The many stories of exploration companies trying to join petroleum booms (and avoid busts) can be found in an updated series of research at Is my Old Oil Stock worth Anything?