January 2, 1866 – Patent describes Early Rotary Rig

Peter Sweeney’s innovative 1866 “Stone Drill” patent included a roller bit using “rapid rotary motion” similar to modern rotary drilling technologies.

An “Improvement in Rock Drills” patent application for the first time included basic elements of the modern rotary rig. The inventor described his idea as a “peculiar construction particularly adapted for boring deep wells.”

Peter Sweeney of New York City received the 1866 patent, which improved upon an 1844 British patent by Robert Beart. Sweeney’s patent included a roller bit with replaceable cutting wheels such “that by giving the head a rapid rotary motion the wheels cut into the ground or rock and a clean hole is produced.”

The rig’s “drill-rod” was hollow and connected with a hose through which “a current of steam or water can be introduced in such a manner that the discharge of the dirt and dust from the bottom of the hole is facilitated.” The petroleum industry soon improved upon Sweeney’s 1866 rotary rig.

January 2, 1882 – Rockefeller organizes the Standard Oil Trust

John D. Rockefeller continued expanding his Standard Oil Company empire by reorganizing his assets into the Standard Oil Trust, which controlled much of the oil industry though 40 producing, refining and marketing affiliates. The trust controlled all of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s tank cars (also see Densmore Oil Tank Cars) until a U.S. Supreme Court ruling broke it up in 1911.

January 2, 1932 – Union “76” Brand

The Union Oil Company “76” brand was launched at gas service stations in western states. The orange circle with blue type logo was adopted in the 1940s. The “76” orange orb appeared at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle and proved so popular that millions of smaller versions were given away for car antennas. Today, the California Oil Museum in Santa Paula is in the original Union Oil headquarters of the 1890s.

January 4, 1948 – Wildcatters make Deep Permian Discovery

petroleum history january

Tom Slick Jr. of Oklahoma helped Michael Benedum of Pennsylvania discover a deep Permian Basin field in Texas. Image from February 16, 1948, LIFE magazine.

After years of frustration, exploration of the Permian Basin suddenly intensified in 1948 after an exploratory well found oil about 50 miles southeast of Midland, Texas.

The Slick-Urschel Oil Company drilled the well to about 12,000 feet deep in partnership with “King of the Wildcatters” Michael L. Benedum of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. More than two decades earlier, another West Texas well, Santa-Rita No. 1, had produced oil from about 440 feet deep.

Although Benedum had drilled 10,000 feet in less than five months, it had taken seven months to penetrate another 384 feet of hard rock. Help came from Tom Slick Jr., the son of Oklahoma’s King of the Wildcatters, who branched off the well using a “whipstock” and reached the prolific limestone formation.

January 7, 1864 – Discovery at Pithole Creek creates Oil Boom Town

petroleum history january

Visitors today walk grass paths of Pithole’s former streets.

The once famous Pithole Creek oilfield was discovered in Pennsylvania. The United States Petroleum Company’s well reportedly had been located with a witch-hazel dowser. It initially produced 250 barrels of oil a day.

Pithole would make history as a boom town for America’s petroleum industry, which had begun just five years earlier in nearby Titusville.  Adding to the boom were Civil War veterans eager to invest in the new industry. Newspapers stories added to the oil fever – as did the Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny.” 

Tourists have long since visited Oil Creek State Park and its educational visitor center on the  grassy expanse that was once Pithole.

January 7, 1905 – Humble Oilfield Discovery rivals Spindletop

C.E. Barrett discovered the Humble oilfield in Harris County, Texas, with his Beatty No. 2 well, which quickly brought another drilling frenzy to Texas four years after Spindletop launched the modern petroleum industry. The Beatty well produced 8,500 barrels of oil per day from a depth of 1,012 feet.

petroleum history january

An embossed postcard circa 1905 from the Postal Card & Novelty Company, courtesy the University of Houston Digital Library.

The town of Humble grew from 700 to 20,000 in a few months as production from the field – the largest in Texas in 1905 – reached almost 16 million barrels of oil. The field would lead to the founding of the Humble Oil and Refining Company in 1911 by a group that included Ross Sterling, a future governor of Texas.

“Production from several strata here exceeded the total for fabulous Spindletop by 1946,” notes a 1972 historical marker. “Known as the greatest salt dome field, Humble still produces and the town for which it was named continues to thrive.”

Humble Oil Company later consolidated operations with Standard Oil of New Jersey, eventually leading to today’s ExxonMobil. Another oilfield discovery in 1903 at nearby Sour Lake established Texaco.

January 7, 1913 – “Cracking” helps fuel Automobile’s Popularity

William Burton of the Standard Oil Company in Whiting, Indiana, received a patent for a refining 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. But consumer demand for gasoline was growing with the popularity – and affordability – of internal combustion automobiles.

Burton’s innovation, called thermal cracking, was a key breakthrough, although his process would be superseded by catalytic cracking in 1937.

petroleum history january

Ferne Houseknecht of Michigan.

January 7, 1957 – Michigan Dairy Farmer finds Giant Oilfield

After two years of drilling, a wildcat well on Ferne Houseknecht’s Michigan dairy farm discovered the state’s largest oilfield. The 3,576-foot-deep well produced from the Black River formation of the Trenton zone.

The Houseknecht No. 1 discovery well at “Rattlesnake Gulch” revealed a producing region 29 miles long and more than one mile wide. It prompted a drilling boom that led to production of more than 150 million barrels of oil and 250 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

“The story of the discovery well of Michigan’s only ‘giant’ oil field, using the worldwide definition of having produced more than 100 million barrels of oil from a single contiguous reservoir is the stuff of dreams, and of oilfield legends,” explains Michigan historian Jack Westbrook. Learn more in Michigan’s “Golden Gulch” of Oil.


Recommended Reading: Making Hole – Drilling Technology (AOGHS); John D. Rockefeller: The Wealthiest Man In American History (2017); Sign of the 76: The fabulous life and times of the Union Oil Company of California (1977); The Great Wildcatter (1953); Cherry Run Valley: Plumer, Pithole, and Oil City, Pa., Images of America (2000); Humble, Images of America (2013); Handbook of Petroleum Refining Processes (2016); Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund 1976-2011: A 35-year Michigan Oil and Gas Industry Investment Heritage in Michigan’s Public Recreation Future (2011).



The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2018 Bruce A. Wells.