December 10, 1844 – “Coal Oil Johnny” adopted

petroleum history december

John Washington Steele

The future “Coal Oil Johnny” was adopted as an infant by Culbertson and Sarah McClintock. John Steele (adopted with his sister Permelia) was brought home to the McClintock farm on the banks of Oil Creek in Venango County, Pennsylvania.

The petroleum boom prompted by Edwin L. Drake’s discovery 15 years later – America’s first commercial oil well – would lead to the widow McClintock making a fortune in oil royalties. She left the money to Johnny when she died in 1864. At age 20, he inherited $24,500 and $2,800 a day in royalties.

“Coal Oil Johnny” Steele earned his name in 1865 after such a legendary year of extravagance that the New York Times later reported: “In his day, Steele was the greatest spender the world had ever known…he threw away $3 million ($45 million in 2013 dollars) in less than a year.” Learn about his extraordinary life in Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny.

December 10, 1955 – Life features Stella Dysart’s Uranium Well

Stella Dysart in December 1955.

Mrs. Stella Dysart spent decades fruitlessly searching for oil in New Mexico. Some questionable business dealings led to bankruptcy in the late 1930s (and serving 15 months in jail). But in 1955, a radioactive uranium sample from one of her dry holes made her a very wealthy woman.

Dysart was 78 years old when Life magazine featured her picture with the caption: “Wealthy landowner, Mrs. Stella Dysart, stands before an abandoned oil rig which she set up on her property in a long vain search for oil. Now uranium is being mined there and Mrs. Dysart, swathed in mink, gets a plump royalty.”

Just three years earlier, Dysart had been $25,000 in debt when cuttings from one of her unsuccessful wells in McKinley County showed impressive Geiger counter readings. Test wells confirmed that she owned the world’s richest deposit of high-grade uranium ore. Learn more in Mrs. Dysart’s Uranium Well.

December 10, 1967 – “Gasbuggy” tests Nuclear Fracturing

Petroleum History December

Scientists in December 1967 lowered a 29-kiloton nuclear device into a New Mexico gas well.

Government scientists detonated an underground 29-kiloton nuclear warhead about 60 miles east of Farmington, New Mexico. It was “fracking” late 1960s style, designed to test the feasibility of using nuclear explosions to stimulate release of natural gas trapped in dense shale deposits.

“Project Gasbuggy” in 1967 included experts from the Atomic Energy Commission, the Bureau of Mines and a leading natural gas company. Near three low-production natural gas wells, the team drilled to a depth of 4,240 feet and lowered a 13-foot by 18-inch diameter nuclear device into the borehole.

The experimental explosion was part a series of federal projects known as “Plowshare” created in the late 1950s to explore possible uses of nuclear devices for peaceful purposes.

The detonation created a molten glass-lined cavern 160 feet wide and 333 feet tall that collapsed within seconds. Although the well produced 295 million cubic feet of natural gas, the gas was radioactive and useless. Learn more in Project Gasbuggy tests Nuclear “Fracking.”

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

december petroleum history

Professional geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt examined a boulder at the Apollo 17 Taurus-Littrow Valley lunar landing site in December 1972. Photo courtesy NASA.

Apollo 17’s Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, a geologist, stepped on the moon, joining  Eugene Cernan. The mission’s experiments included a lunar surface gravimeter to measure buried geological structures near the landing site. Schmitt returned with the largest lunar sample ever collected.

Schmitt, who had received a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard in 1964, was the first and last scientist on the moon, Cernan explained in a 2007 NASA oral history project. On December 14, Cernan followed Schmitt back into the Lunar Module. Cernan and the geologist were the last of 12 men who ever walked on the moon.

December 13, 1905 – Hybrids evolve with Gas Shortage Fears

Petroleum History December

An early hybrid, this 1902 Porsche used a gas engine to generate electricity to power motors mounted on the front wheel hubs.

“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 17, 1884 –  Fighting Oilfield Fires with Cannons

petroleum history december

In the Great Plains, frequent lightening strikes caused oil tank fires. This rare photograph is from the collection of the Kansas Oil Museum in El Dorado.

“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. 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 noted cannons were “kept at various stations throughout the region for this purpose.” Learn more in Oilfield Artillery fights Fires.

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___________________________________________________________________________________ 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 and Volunteer Contributing Editor Kris Wells call in on the last Wednesday of each month. Support our energy education mission with a contribution today. Contact bawells@aoghs.org for membership information. © 2018 Bruce A. Wells.