This Week in Petroleum History, July 30 – August 5
July 30, 1942 – U-Boat sunk in Gulf of Mexico, not identified until 2001
The U-166 was attacked and sunk by a Navy patrol boat just hours after the submarine had torpedoed and sunk a U.S. freighter. Despite being depth charged, the U-boat was believed to have escaped – until a natural gas pipeline survey revealed it decades later.
The U-166’s identity was not learned until advanced geophysical survey technologies arrived in 2001, explains the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The discovery resulted from an archaeological survey prior to construction of a natural gas pipeline by the British company BP and Shell Offshore Inc.
An autonomous underwater vehicle using side scan sonar revealed the U-166 separated from its last victim, the Robert E. Lee, by less than a mile. As a result of the discovery, BP and Shell altered their proposed pipeline to preserve the site.
Six other World War II vessels have been discovered in the course of Gulf of Mexico oil and natural gas surveys. The industry remains a principle user of advanced underwater technologies for seafloor mapping. Learn more in Petroleum Survey discovers U-Boat.
August 1, 1872 – First Modern Natural Gas Pipeline
The first recorded large-scale delivery of natural gas by pipeline began when gas was delivered to Titusville, Pennsylvania. A two-inch, wrought-iron pipeline carried the gas from a well five miles away. The well’s production – four million cubic feet of natural gas a day – was the largest in the quickly growing petroleum region.
Keystone Gas & Water Company constructed the pipeline to deliver “the most powerful and voluminous gas well on record” to more than 250 residential and commercial customers in Titusville, where Edwin Drake had drilled America’s first oil well in 1859.
August 2, 1938 – Petroleum Product replaces Hog Bristles
Weco Products Company of Chicago, Illinois, promoted its “Dr. West’s Miracle-Tuft” – the earliest toothbrush to use synthetic nylon developed by DuPont chemists just three years earlier. Americans would soon be brushing their teeth with nylon bristle toothbrushes instead of hog bristles, declared the New York Times.
“Until now, all good toothbrushes were made with animal bristles,” noted a 1938 Weco Products advertisement in Life magazine. “Today, Dr. West’s new Miracle-Tuft is a single exception. It is made with ‘EXTON,’ a unique bristle-like filament developed by the great DuPont laboratories, and produced exclusively for Dr. West’s.”
Pricing its toothbrush at 50 cents, Weco Products guaranteed “no bristle shedding.” Before the invention of nylon, “the world relied on toothbrush bristles made from the neck hairs of wild pigs from Siberia, Poland and China,” notes the Royal Society of Chemistry. Learn more in Nylon, a Petroleum Polymer.
August 2, 1956 – First U.S. Interstate Highway
Missouri became the first state to award a contract with interstate construction funding authorized two months earlier by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. The Missouri highway commission signed the contract for work on the already historic Route 66.
The Highway-Aid Act provided 90 percent federal funding for a “system of interstate and defense highways.” It made it possible for states to afford construction of the network of national limited-access highways eventually reaching more than 40,000 miles.
Missouri had agreed to begin work on part of Route 66 – now Interstate 44. “There is no question that the creation of the interstate highway system has been the most significant development in the history of transportation in the United States,” proclaimed the state’s leaders. Learn more in America on the Move.
August 3, 1769 – La Brea Asphalt Pits discovered
The La Brea – “the tar” – pits were discovered during a 1769 Spanish expedition on the West Coast. “We debated whether this substance, which flows melted from underneath the earth, could occasion so many earthquakes,” noted the expedition’s Franciscan friar in his diary.
The friar, Juan Crespi, was the first person to use the term “bitumen” in describing these sticky pools in southern California – where crude oil has been seeping from the ground through fissures in the coastal plain sediments for more than 40,000 years. Native Americans used the substance for centuries to waterproof baskets and caulk canoes.
Although commonly called the “tar pits,” the pools at Rancho La Brea are actually asphalt – not tar, which is a by-product made by the distillation of woody materials, such as peat. Asphalt is a naturally formed substance comprised of hydrocarbon molecules – petroleum. Learn more about California oil seeps in Discovering the Le Brea Tar Pits. For a history of the asphalt, see Asphalt Paves the Way.
August 3, 1942 – War brings “Big Inch” and “Little Big Inch” Pipelines
War Emergency Pipelines Inc. began construction on the “Big Inch” line – the longest petroleum pipeline project ever undertaken in the United States.
Conceived to supply wartime fuel demands – and in response to U-boat attacks on oil tankers along the eastern seaboard and Gulf of Mexico, the “Big Inch” and “Little Big Inch” lines were extolled as “The most amazing government-industry cooperation ever achieved.”
With a goal of transporting 300,000 barrels of oil per day, the $95 million project called for construction of a 24-inch pipeline (Big Inch) from East Texas to Illinois, and a 20-inch line (Little Big Inch) as far as New York and Philadelphia – more than 1,200 miles. Today’s Trans-Alaska pipeline system is 800 miles long. Learn more in Big Inch Pipelines of WWII.
August 4, 1913 – Discovery of Oklahoma’s “Poor Man’s Field”
The Crystal Oil Company completed its Wirt Franklin No. 1 well 20 miles northwest of Ardmore, Oklahoma. The well revealed the giant Healdton field, which became known as the “poor man’s field,” because of its shallow depth and consequent low cost of drilling. The area attracted many independent producers with limited financial backing.
Another major discovery in 1919 revealed the Hewitt field, which extended oil production in a 22-mile swath across Carter County. The Greater Healdton-Hewitt oilfield produced “an astounding 320,753,000 barrels of crude by the close of the first half of the 20th century,” noted historian Kenny Franks.
In 1929, Wirt Franklin became the first president of the then Tulsa-based Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA). Among others who benefited from the “poor man’s field” were Lloyd Noble, Robert Hefner, and Charles Haskell. Erle Halliburton perfected his method of cementing oil wells in the Healdton field. Visit the Healdton Oil Museum.
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