This Week in Petroleum History, January 21 to January 27
January 21, 1865 – First Roberts Torpedo detonated
Civil War veteran Col. Edward A.L. Roberts detonated eight pounds of black powder 465 feet deep in a well south of Titusville, Pennsylvania. The “shooting” of the well increased daily production from a few barrels of oil to more than 40 barrels, according to Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine. The Titusville Morning Herald in 1866 reported, “Our attention has been called to a series of experiments that have been made in the wells of various localities by Col. Roberts, with his newly patented torpedo. The results have in many cases been astonishing.” Learn more in Shooters – A “Fracking” History.
January 22, 1861 – Pennsylvania Refinery produces Kerosene
The first U.S. multiple-still refinery was brought on-stream in Pennsylvania, one mile south of Titusville along Oil Creek. William Barnsdall, who drilled the first successful well to follow Edwin Drake’s historic 1859 oil discovery, and partners James Parker and W.H. Abbott spent about $15,000 to build six basic stills for refining a new fuel for lamps: kerosene. Much of the equipment was purchased in Pittsburgh and shipped up the Allegheny River to Oil City. The refinery produced two grades of kerosene, white and the less the expensive yellow.
January 22, 1910 – Standard Oil of California strikes Oil
After several attempts, Standard Oil Company of California drilled its first successful oil well. The discovery came in the Midway-Sunset field after a consolidation between Pacific Coast Oil Company and Standard Oil Company of Iowa created the Standard Oil Company of California. The new company, Socal (now Chevron), needed more oil since it had “stepped up its marketing efforts, particularly in gasoline sales, which nearly doubled between 1906 and 1910,” notes a company history. “Until now, Standard had left the hunt for oil to others.” The Kern County gusher produced 1,500 barrels of oil a day.
January 23, 1895 – Standard Oil of New Jersey closes Oil Exchanges
The Standard Oil Company of New Jersey’s purchasing agency in booming Oil City, Pennsylvania, notified independent oil producers it would only buy their oil at a price “as high as the markets of the world will justify” – and not “the price bid on the oil exchange for certificate oil.”
Oil City’s exchange had become the third largest financial exchange of any kind in America, behind New York and San Francisco. But with the Standard Oil Company buying 90 percent of production and setting its own price for certificates, all other oil exchanges soon closed. Learn more in End of Oil Exchanges.
January 23, 1957 – Wham-O launches a New Petroleum Product
One of the earliest mass-produced products made from plastic, the “Frisbee” was introduced by Wham-O Manufacturing Company of California. The toy originated in 1948 when a company called Partners in Plastic sold its “Flyin’ Saucers” for 25 cents each. In 1955, Richard Knerr and Arthur “Spud” Melin’s Wham-O bought the rights.
The Wham-O founders discovered that Phillips Petroleum had invented a high-density polyethylene (called Marlex). They used the new plastic to meet phenomenal demand for manufacturing Frisbees – and Hula Hoops beginning in 1958. Learn more in Petroleum Product Hoopla.
January 23, 1991 – Gulf War Oil Spill
The world’s largest oil spill began in the Persian Gulf when Saddam Hussein’s retreating Iraqi forces opened pipeline valves at oil terminals in Kuwait. An estimated 11 million barrels of oil soon covered an area reaching as far as 101 miles by 42 miles. The oil spill, which remains the largest in history, was five inches thick in some areas.
Iraqi soldiers sabotaged Kuwait’s main supertanker loading pier, dumping millions of gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf. By February, about 600 Kuwaiti wells had been set ablaze. It would take months to put out the fires. The last burning well was extinguished in early April 1991.
January 24, 1895 – Pure Oil Company founded by Independent Producers
Pure Oil Company was formed by Pennsylvania independent producers, refiners and pipeline operators. It soon became a major Chicago-based oil and gas company. Originally based in Pittsburgh, the company was formed to counter Standard Oil Company’s market dominance. It was just the second vertically integrated oil company after Standard Oil.
Beginning in March 1896, Pure Oil marketed illuminating oil by tank wagon in Philadelphia and New York – successfully competing with Standard Oil’s monopoly. The Ohio Cities Gas Company of Columbus acquired Pure Oil and in 1920 adopted the former Pennsylvania company’s name. In 1938, Pure Oil built one of the first freestanding offshore drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.
January 25, 1930 – North Texas Independents form Association
After meeting a week earlier at the Wichita Club in Wichita Falls to protest “the recent drastic price cut in crude oil, inaugurated by some of the major purchasing companies,” a group of 50 independent producers organized the North Texas Oil and Gas Association. The association’s agenda included fighting oilfield theft and supporting a tariff on oil imports. In 1998, it became the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers.
January 26, 1931 – Third Well reveals Giant East Texas Oilfield
As the Great Depression worsened and East Texas farmers struggled to survive, a third major oil discovery miles from two earlier producing wells confirmed the size of the largest oilfield in the lower-48 states at the time. W.A. “Monty” Moncrief of Fort Worth, Texas, and two partners completed the Lathrop No. 1 well, which produced 7,680 barrels of oil a day from 3,587 feet deep. The Moncrief well was 25 miles north of Rusk County’s national headline-making October 1930 Daisy Bradford No. 3 well drilled by Columbus Marion “Dad” Joiner. It was 15 miles north of the Lou Della Crim No. 1 well completed near Kilgore three days after Christmas 1930.
The 130,000-acre East Texas oilfield, the largest in the contiguous United States, attracted a large number of independent producers, including H.L. Hunt, who had found oil in Arkansas. By the end of 1933, almost 12,000 producing wells were owned by 1,715 different operators, all finding oil in the Woodbine Sand formation. Overproduction drove oil prices from $1.25 per barrel to less than 25 cents. Learn more at the newly renovated East Texas Oil Museum.
Next week in petroleum history: The Santa Barbara oil spill, which began on January 28, 1969, helped launch the modern environmental movement. In September 2018, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum opened a new exhibit, a “History of Oil in the Santa Barbara Channel,” also educating visitors about California’s ancient oil seeps and early development of offshore drilling.
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