This Week in Petroleum History, June 3 – 9
June 3, 1979 – Bay of Campeche Oil Spill
Drilling in about 150 of water, the semi-submersible rig Sedco 135 suffered a devastating blowout 50 miles off Mexico’s Gulf Coast. State-owned company Pemex succeeded in reducing the flow to about 20,000 barrels of oil a day, but the well spilled 3.4 million barrels of oil before being brought under control with two relief wells nine months later. Considering the size of the spill, its environmental impact was surprisingly limited, according to a 1981 report by the Coordinated Program of Ecological Studies in the Bay of Campeche. “Nature played the biggest role in attacking the slicks as they floated across the Gulf. Ultraviolet light broke down the oil as it crept toward land. So did oil-eating microorganisms. Hot temperatures spurred evaporation.” Hurricane Federic also helped disperse the oil at the end of August.
June 4, 1872 – Robert Chesebrough invents Petroleum Jelly
A young chemist living in New York City, Robert Chesebrough, patented “a new and useful product from petroleum,” which he named “Vaseline.” His patent proclaimed the virtues of this purified extract of petroleum distillation residue as a lubricant, hair treatment, and balm for chapped hands.
Earlier, when the 22-year-old chemist visited the new Pennsylvania oilfields in 1865, he had noted that drilling was often confounded by a waxy paraffin-like substance that clogged the wellhead. The only virtue of this “rod wax” was as an immediately available “first aid” for the abrasions, burns and other wounds routinely afflicting oilfield drilling crews.
Chesebrough returned to New York, where he began working in his laboratory to purify the oil well goop, which he first dubbed “petroleum jelly.” He experimented by inflicting minor cuts and burns on himself, then applying his new product.
Chesebrough’s female customers soon found that mixing lamp black with Vaseline made an impromptu mascara. In 1913, Miss Mabel Williams employed just such a concoction. Her idea helped create a giant company. Learn more in A Crude History of Maybel’s Eyelashes.
June 4, 1892 – Pennsylvania Oil Region devastated by Flood and Fire
After weeks of heavy rain in Pennsylvania’s Oil Creek Valley, a dam on Oil Creek burst, sending torrents of water that killed more than 100 people and destroyed homes and businesses in Titusville and Oil City. The disaster was compounded when fires broke out.
“This city during the past twenty-four hours has been visited by one of the most appalling fires and overwhelming floods in the history of this country” reported the New York Times. Oilfield photographer John A. Mather, whose studio and 16,000 glass-plate negatives would be destroyed, documented the devastation. When Mather died in 1915, the Drake Well Memorial Association purchased the surviving negatives. The Drake Well Museum preserves his rare record of America’s early petroleum industry.
June 4, 1896 – Henry Ford test drives his First Car
Driving the first car he ever built, Henry Ford left a workshop behind his home on Bagley Avenue in Detroit. He had designed his 500-pound “Quadricycle” in his spare time while working as an engineer for Edison Illuminating Company. Ford chose the name because his hand-built “horseless carriage” ran on four bicycle tires. Inspired by advancements in gasoline-fueled engines – in 1903 he founded the Henry Ford Company (later the Ford Motor Company). Also see Cantankerous Combustion – 1st U.S. Auto Show.
June 4, 1921 – First petroleum seismograph tested
On a farm three miles north of Oklahoma City (now at the site of the Belle Isle Library), a team of scientists tested the seismograph and determined that it could reveal subsurface structures.
Led by Dr. John C. Karcher and W.P. Haseman, the group from the University of Oklahoma proved that reflection seismology could be a useful aid for oil and natural gas exploration. Karcher had designed a device to record artillery blasts during World War I. When he returned from the war, he recorded dynamite blasts in a rock quarry to measure seismic reflections. Learn more in Exploring Seismic Waves.
June 6, 1932 – First Federal Tax on Gasoline
The United States government taxed gasoline for the first time when the Revenue Act of 1932 added a one-cent per gallon excise tax to gas sales. By 1993, the tax was raised to $18.4 cents, where it remains today. About 60 percent of federal gas taxes are used for highway and bridge construction. The first state to tax gasoline was Oregon (one cent per gallon in February 1919), followed by Colorado, New Mexico and other states. The first federal tax on oil was enacted during the Civil War.
June 6, 1944 – Top Secret Operations help fuel WWII Victory after D-Day
The D-Day invasion began along 50 miles of fortified French coastline in Normandy. The logistics of supplying the beaches included two top-secret engineering triumphs: construction of artificial harbors followed by the laying pipelines across the English Channel.
Codenamed Mulberrys and using a design similar to today’s jack-up offshore rigs, the artificial harbors used barges with retractable pylons to provide platforms to support floating causeways extending to the beaches.
To fuel the Allied advance into Nazi Germany, Operation PLUTO (Pipe Line Under The Ocean) would design pipelines wound onto giant floating “conundrums” designed to spool off when towed. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower acknowledged the significance of this oil pipeline engineering feat when he said, “Second in daring only to the Mulberry Harbours, was PLUTO.” Learn more in PLUTO, Secret Pipelines of WW II.
June 6, 1976 – Petroleum Billionaire J. Paul Getty dies
With a fortune as high as $4 billion, J. Paul Getty died at 83 at his country estate near London. Born into his father’s oil wealth from the Oil Company of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Getty made his first million in oil leasing by the time he was 23. “I started in September 1914, to buy leases in the so-called red-beds area of Oklahoma,” Getty told the New York Times. “The surface was red dirt and it was considered impossible there was any oil there,” he added. “My father and I did not agree and we got many leases for very little money which later turned out to be rich leases.” After World War II, Getty bought oil rights in Saudi Arabia and soon became the richest man in the world. He established the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles — leaving more than $661 million of his estate to the museum.
June 9, 1894 – Water Well launches Texas Oil Industry
The first major oilfield in Texas was discovered on 12th Street in Corsicana by a contractor hired by the city to drill a water well. Although the 1894 well eventually attracted thousands and brought great prosperity, the city paid the contractor only half his $1,000 fee because the contract was for a water well. Drilled with cable-tools, the well produced just 2.5 barrels of oil a day from 1,035 feet deep, but nevertheless launched the Lone Star State’s first exploration and production boom (a well in May 1896 yielded 22 barrels of oil a day). Less than a year later the field was producing 65,975 barrels of oil from 47 wells.
By 1898 there were almost 300 producing wells in the Corsicana, which became a center for technological innovation. One company began manufacturing its newly patented rotary drilling machine. A Corsicana rig would drill the 1901 “Lucas Gusher” at Spindletop. Corsicana has hosted an annual derrick days and chilli cook-off and is home to Wolf Brand Chili, established there in 1895 during the First Texas Oil Boom.
Recommended Reading: The Maybelline Story: And the Spirited Family Dynasty Behind It (2010); Around Titusville, Pennsylvania, Images of America (2004); I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford (2014); Code Name MULBERRY: The Planning Building and Operation of the Normandy Harbours (1977); The Great Getty: The Life and Loves of J. Paul Getty – Richest Man in the World (1986); Corsicana, Images of America (2010).
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