This Week in Petroleum History, January 7 to January 13
January 7, 1913 – “Cracking” Patent to bring Cheap Gasoline
William Burton of the Standard Oil Company’s Whiting, Indiana, refinery received a patent for a process that effectively doubled the amount of gasoline produced from each barrel of oil. Because commercial (coal-fueled) electricity was being made available to more homes and businesses, demand on the petroleum industry for kerosene had plummeted. Burton’s invention came as consumer demand for gasoline was growing with the popularity – and affordability – of automobiles. His thermal cracking idea was a key breakthrough, although the process would be superseded by catalytic cracking in 1937.
January 9, 1862 – Union exports Oil to England during Civil War
The brig Elizabeth Watts arrived at London’s Victoria dock after a six-week voyage from Philadelphia. The small brig carried 901 barrels of oil and 428 barrels of kerosene from northwestern Pennsylvania oilfields. It was the first time America exported oil.
Anxious sailors had feared the vessel would explode before casting off on November 19, 1861. Within a year Philadelphia would export 239,000 barrels of oil – without the technology of railroad tank cars or “tanker” ships. The United States became an importer of oil in 1948.
According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2017, U.S. net imports (imports minus exports) of petroleum from foreign countries were equal to about 19 percent of U.S. petroleum consumption, the lowest percentage since 1967.
January 10, 1870 – Rockefeller incorporates Standard Oil Company
John D. Rockefeller and five partners formed the Standard Oil Company in Cleveland, Ohio. The new oil and refining company immediately focused on efficiency and growth. Instead of buying oil barrels, it bought tracts of oak timber, hauled the dried timber to Cleveland on its own wagons, and built the barrels in its own cooperage. Standard’s cost per wooden barrel dropped from $3 to less than $1.50.
The company’s improved refineries extracted more kerosene per barrel of oil (there was no market for gasoline). By purchasing properties through subsidiaries and using local price-cutting, Standard Oil captured 90 percent of America’s refining capacity.
January 10, 1901 – Texas Well launches Modern Petroleum Industry
The modern oil and natural gas industry was born on a hill in southeastern Texas, when a wildcat well erupted on Spindletop Hill in Beaumont. The new oilfield produced 3.59 million barrels in its first year alone.
The “Lucas Gusher” changed the future of American transportation and industry – and brought many new technologies. It came just four months after the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history devastated nearby Galveston. The prolific well’s salt dome had been predicted by Patillo Higgins, the Prophet of Spindletop.
January 10, 1919 – Elk Hills Oilfield discovered in California
Standard Oil of California discovered the Elk Hills field in Kern County, and the San Joaquin Valley soon ranked among the most productive oilfields in the country. It became embroiled in the 1920s Teapot Dome lease scandals and yielded its billionth barrel of oil in 1992. Visit the “Black Gold” exhibit of the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield and at the West Kern Oil Museum in Taft.
January 10, 1921 – Oil Boom begins in El Dorado, Arkansas
“Suddenly, with a deafening roar, a thick black column of gas and oil and water shot out of the well,” noted one observer in 1921 when the Busey-Armstrong No. 1 well struck oil near El Dorado, Arkansas.
H.L. Hunt would soon arrive from Texas (with $50 he had borrowed) and join lease traders and speculators at the Garrett Hotel – where fortunes were soon made – and lost.
“Union County’s dream of oil had come true,” reported the local paper. The 68-square-mile field would lead U.S. oil output in 1925 – with production reaching 70 million barrels. Learn more in First Arkansas Oil Wells.
January 11, 1926 – “Ace” Borger discovers Oil in North Texas
Thousands of people rushed to the Texas Panhandle in 1926 after Dixon Creek Oil and Refining Company completed the Smith No. 1 well, which flowed at 10,000 barrels a day in southern Hutchinson County.
A.P. “Ace” Borger of Tulsa, Oklahoma, leased a 240-acre tract and by September his Borger oilfield had more than 800 producing wells, yielding 165,000 barrels a day. Borger himself would lay out streets for the town, which grew to a city of 15,000 in just 90 days.
Dedicated in 1977, the Hutchinson County Boom Town Museum in Borger today celebrates “Oil Boom Heritage” every March. Special exhibits, events and school tours occur throughout the Borger celebration, about 40 miles northeast of Amarillo.
January 12, 1904 – Henry Ford sets Speed Record
Seeking to prove his cars were built better than most, Henry Ford set a speed record on a frozen Michigan lake in 1904. At the time his Ford Motor Company was struggling to get financial backing for its first car, the Model T. It was just four years after America’s first auto auto show.
Ford “bounces” his No. 999 Ford Arrow across the Lake St. Clair, which separates Michigan and Ontario, Canada, at a top speed of 91.37 mph.
January 12, 1926 – Texans patent Ram-Type Blowout Preventer
Seeking to end dangerous and wasteful oil gushers, James Abercrombie and Harry Cameron received a patent for a hydraulic ram-type blowout preventer.
Oil and natural gas companies embraced the new technology, which the inventors improved in the 1930s. Their concept used rams – hydrostatic pistons – to close on the drill stem and form a seal against the well pressure.
Abercrombie had taken his idea for the ram-type preventer to Cameron’s machine shop in Humble, Texas, where the two men sketched out details on the sawdust floor. Learn more in Ending Oil Gushers – BOP.
Recommended Reading: Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. (2004); Giant Under the Hill: A History of the Spindletop Oil Discovery at Beaumont, Texas, in 1901 (2008); Early Texas Oil: A Photographic History, 1866-1936 (2000); The Ford Century: Ford Motor Company and the Innovations that Shaped the World (2002).
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