This Week in Petroleum History, December 11 to December 17
December 11, 1950 – Federal Offshore grows beyond Cannon Shot
After decades of controversy and a 1947 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the federal government’s “paramount rights” offshore were established beyond a three nautical mile limit – the 18th century precedent based on the theoretical maximum range of smooth-bore cannon.
The court issued a supplemental decree that prohibited any further offshore development without federal approval. The first Outer Continental Shelf lease sale held by the Bureau of Land Management and Geological Survey’s Conservation Division in 1954 earned the government almost $130 million.
Learn more in Offshore Petroleum History.
December 11, 1972 – Geologist walks on the Moon
Apollo 17 Lunar Module Pilot Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, a geologist, stepped on the moon, joining Mission Commander Eugene Cernan in the Taurus-Littrow Valley. The mission’s experiments included a lunar surface gravimeter to measure buried geological structures near the landing site. Schmitt, who had worked at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Center in Flagstaff, Arizona, returned with the largest lunar sample ever collected.
Schmitt had received a B.S. degree in geology from the California Institute of Technology in 1957 and a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard in 1964. He was a new kind of NASA astronaut, according to Cernan. “He was not a professional aviator. He was the only scientist. No scientist had ever flown at that point in time,” Cernan explained in a 2007 NASA oral history project. On December 14, Schmitt followed Cernan back into the Lunar Module after the third and final lunar excursion. The geologist was the last of the 12 men who walked on the moon.
December 13, 1905 – Hybrids evolve with Gas Shortage Fears
“The available supply of gasoline, as is well known, is quite limited, and it behooves the farseeing men of the motor car industry to look for likely substitutes,” declared a 1905 article in the Horseless Age.
The popular monthly journal, first published in 1895, described the earliest motor technologies, including the use of compressed air propulsion systems, electric cars, steam and diesel power – as well as hybrids.
About the same time as the first American auto show in 1900, engineer Ferdinand Porsche introduced his “Mixte” in Europe. This gas-electric hybrid used a four-cylinder gasoline engine to generate electricity. The engine powered two three-horsepower electric motors mounted on the front wheel hubs. It could achieve a top speed of 50 mph.
December 13, 1931 – Oilfield discovered in Conroe, Texas
After many dry holes, independent oilman George Strake Sr. completed the South Texas Development Company No. 1 well eight miles southeast of Conroe, Texas, where he had leased 8,500 acres. By the end of 1932 the field was producing more than 65,000 of barrels of oil a day.
Disaster struck at the Conroe oilfield in 1933, when several wells collapsed into a burning crater of oil. The crisis came to an end thanks to relief wells drilled by George Failing and his newly patented truck-mounted drilling rig. Learn about him and other oilfield technologies in Technology and the Conroe Crater.
December 14, 1981 – Dowsing does not Help in Minnesota Oil Search
Seeking oil investors, a Minnesota promoter proclaimed that dowsing (using copper wires) had located petroleum deposits in Nobles County, according to a report in the Minneapolis Tribune.
The Tribune story noted the promoters had hired a “Texas oilman and evangelist to lead a prayerful search for oil.” Despite a lack of geological evidence, some local investors paid $175,000 to drill an exploratory well. It found no indication of oil or natural gas after drilling 1,500 feet deep.
A year earlier, the Minnesota Geological Survey had reported that of the state’s 17 exploratory wells drilled “in suitable geologic settings,” none had found commercial quantities of oil. By 1984, the survey concluded, “the geologic conditions for significant deposits of oil and gas do not exist in Minnesota.”
December 17, 1884 – Fighting Oilfield Fires with Cannons
“Oil fires, like battles, are fought by artillery” was the reporter’s catchy phrase in a New England magazine article in 1884.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology published “A Thunder-Storm in the Oil Country” – a firsthand account of the problem of lightning strikes in America’s oilfields.
MIT not only reported on the fiery results of a lightning strike, but also the practice of using Civil War cannons to fight such conflagrations.
Especially in the Great Plains, where new oil discoveries had begun following the Civil War, lightning strikes were igniting oil tanks. It was a technological challenge for the rapidly expanding petroleum industry. Improvising in the oilfields, operators learned that shooting cannon balls into the base of burning tanks allowed oil to drain safely into a holding pit until the fire died out.
The MIT article explained that “it is usually desirable to let (oil) out of the tank to burn on the ground in thin layers; so small cannon throwing a three inch solid shot are kept at various stations throughout the region for this purpose.” Learn more in Oilfield Artillery fights Fires.
December 17, 1903 – The Wright Workshop and Natural Gas
A homemade engine burning 50-octane gasoline for boat engines powered Wilbur and Orville Wright’s historic 59-second flight into aviation history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. The brothers’ “mechanician” Charlie Taylor had fabricated the 150-pound, 13-horsepower engine in their Dayton, Ohio, workshop. “We didn’t make any drawings,” Taylor later recalled.
The Wright brothers used Ohio natural gas to power their workshop. A “one lunger” (single cylinder) three-horsepower natural gas engine drove the overhead shaft and belts that turned a lathe, drill press – and a rudimentary wind tunnel.
Natural gas had reached the brothers’ printing business from Mercer County, about 50 miles northwest. Learn about advances in high-octane aviation fuel in Flight of the Woolaroc.
December 17, 1910 – Oil and Helium found in Texas
Although traces of oil had been found since 1904 in Clay county, Texas, a 1910 gusher revealed an oilfield to be named after one of America’s earliest oil boom towns, Petrolia, Pennsylvania. The Dorthulia Dunn No. 1 erupted southeast of Wichita Falls, producing 700 barrels of oil a day from a depth of 1,600 feet. The field’s annual oil production peaked in 1914, and production declined as discoveries at Electra and Burkburnett overtook Petrolia.
However, drilling continued and the field proved to hold a large reserve of natural gas containing helium. The U.S. Army built the first helium extraction plant in the United States at Petrolia in 1915, notes historian David Minor in “Petrolia Oilfield.” A decade earlier, a University of Kansas professor had found helium in a natural gas well drilled by the Gas, Oil and Developing Company.
Recommended Reading: Offshore Pioneers: Brown & Root and the History of Offshore Oil and Gas (1997); Apollo and America’s Moon Landing Program: Apollo 17 Technical Crew Debriefing with Unique Observations about the Final Lunar Mission – Astronauts Cernan, Schmitt, and Evans (2017); Electric and Hybrid Cars: A History (2010); Texas Oil and Gas, Postcard History (2013); The Wright Brothers (2016).
Listen online to Remember When Wednesdays on the weekday morning radio show Exploring Energy from 9:05 a.m to 10 a.m. (Eastern Time). Executive Director Bruce Wells calls in on the last Wednesday of each month. AOGHS welcomes sponsors to maintain this website and preserve U.S. petroleum heritage. Please support our energy education mission with a tax-deductible donation today. Contact email@example.com for information on levels and types of sponsorships. © 2017 Bruce A. Wells.