This Week in Petroleum History, December 4 to December 10
December 4, 1928 – First Oil Discovery using Reflection Seismography
When Amerada Petroleum drilled into a Viola limestone formation in Oklahoma, it was the first successful oil well produced from a geological structure identified by a reflection seismograph. The new exploration technology revealed an oil reservoir near Seminole.
Tested as early as 1921 by pioneering researcher J.C. Karcher of the University of Oklahoma, reflection seismography – seismic surveying – led to many oilfield discoveries. Amerada Petroleum subsidiary Geophysical Research applied the technology, which had evolved from weapons research.
During World War I, Allied scientists developed portable equipment that used seismic reflections to locate sources of enemy artillery fire. Learn more in Exploring Seismic Waves.
December 4, 1928 – Giant Oilfield discovered in Oklahoma City
Henry Foster’s Indian Territory Illuminating Oil Company and Foster Petroleum Corporation completed the Oklahoma City No. 1 well, discovery well for the Oklahoma City oilfield.
Petroleum companies had searched for decades before this successful well just south of the city limits.
The 6,335-foot-deep wildcat well produced 110,000 barrels of oil in its first 27 days, causing a rush of development that extended the field northward toward the capitol building.
Drilling reached the city limits by May 1930, prompting the city council to pass ordinances limiting drilling to the southeast part of the city and allowing only one well per city block.
By 1932, with about 870 producing wells completed, the Oklahoma City oilfield’s production peaked at 67 million barrels.
“From such a beginning the sprawling Oklahoma City oil and natural gas field will become one of world’s major oil-producing areas,” notes a state historical marker. The field’s production ranked eighth in the nation for the next 40 years.
Another major discovery erupted in 1930 thanks to Oklahoma City’s highly prolific Wilcox sands. With blowout-preventer technology still evolving, extreme gas pressure at the Indian Territory Illuminating Oil Company’s well resulted in a gusher.
The well remained uncontrolled for 11 days – making it “the most publicized oil well in world.” Learn more about the World Famous “Wild Mary Sudik.”
December 9, 1921 – Antiknock Leaded Gas invented
Two General Motors scientists discovered a gasoline additive that greatly improved engine performance. American motorists were soon saying, “Fill ‘er up with Ethyl!”
In early internal combustion engines, “knocking” resulted from the out-of-sequence detonations of the gasoline-air mixture in a cylinder. The shock frequently damaged the engine. After five years of lab work, G.M. researchers Thomas Midgely Jr. and Charles Kettering discovered the antiknock properties of tetraethyl lead.
The G.M. scientists examined the properties of knock suppressors such as bromine and iodine. When they used tetraethyl lead (diluted to a ratio of one part per thousand) in a one-cylinder engine, the knocking abruptly disappeared. The powerful additive proved vital during World War II, but tetraethyl lead’s health dangers resulted in its phase-out for use in cars beginning in 1976. Learn more in Ethyl “Anti-Knock” Gas. It is still used in aviation fuels.
December 10, 1844 – “Coal Oil Johnny” adopted
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 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 oil 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
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
Government scientists detonated an underground 29-kiloton nuclear warhead about 60 miles east of Farmington, New Mexico. It was “fracking” late 1960s style.
The experiment was 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.
“Geologists had discovered years before that setting off explosives at the bottom of a well would shatter the surrounding rock and could stimulate the flow of oil and gas,” explained historian Wade Nelson. (Learn more in Shooters – A “Fracking” History).
“It was believed a nuclear device would simply provide a bigger bang for the buck than nitroglycerin, up to 3,500 quarts of which would be used in a single shot,” he added.
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 Gasbuggy tests Nuclear “Fracking.”
Recommended Reading: The Oklahoma City Oil Field in Pictures (2005); General Motors: A Photographic History (1999); The Legend of Coal Oil Johnny (2007); Stella Dysart of Ambrosia Lake: Courage, Fortitude and Uranium in New Mexico (1959); Project Plowshare: The Peaceful Use of Nuclear Explosives in Cold War America (2012).
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