This Week in Petroleum History, March 5 to March 11
March 5, 1895 – First Wyoming Refinery produces Lubricants
Near the Chicago & North Western railroad tracks in Casper, Civil War veteran Philip “Mark” Shannon and his Pennsylvania investors opened Wyoming’s first refinery. It could produce 100 barrels a day of 15 different grades of lubricant, from “light cylinder oil” to heavy grease. Shannon and his associates incorporated as Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Company.
By 1904, Shannon’s company owned 14 small wells in the Salt Creek field, 45 miles from the refinery (two days by wagon.) Each well produced 10 to 40 barrels of oil per day – more than the Casper refinery or the market could accommodate.
Despite Casper’s growing population (1900 census counted 92,531) and improved railroad access, transportation costs meant that Wyoming oil could not successfully compete for the distant eastern markets. The Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Company struggled for 11 years before being sold for $350,000. Wyoming’s first real petroleum boom would have to wait until 1908, when Salt Creek’s “Big Dutch” well was completed, bringing entrepreneurs and investors in search of oil wealth. Learn more in First Wyoming Oil Wells.
March 5, 1963 – Popular Petroleum Product patented
Arthur “Spud” Melin, co-founder of Wham-O, received a patent for the Hula Hoop, a 42-inch toy manufactured with a newly invented petroleum product, the world’s first high-density polyethylene plastic.
While searching for the right material to make Frisbees and Hula Hoops in the 1950s, Melin and partner Richard Kerr chose Marlex, a plastic invented by chemists at Phillips Petroleum Company in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
Although Phillips Petroleum had introduced Marlex in 1954, the transition from the laboratory to mass production proved difficult. Customers for the new, hard plastic failed to materialize. Marketing executives were relieved in 1957 when demand for Wham-O’s “Pluto Platter” – today’s Frisbee – began to empty warehouses full of Marlex pellets.
When Wham-O introduced Hula Hoops in 1958, the company reportedly sold 25 million in four months. “The great obsession of 1958 – the undisputed granddaddy of American fads…the hoop rewrote toy merchandising history,” notes Richard Johnson in his book, American Fads. Learn more in Petroleum Product Hoopla.
March 7, 1902 – Oil discovered at Sour Lake, Texas
Adding to giant Texas oilfields, the Sour Lake oilfield was revealed just a few miles from the world-famous Spindletop field discovered about one year earlier. The spa town of Sour Lake soon became a boom town where many oil companies, including Texaco, got their start.
Originally settled in 1835 and called Sour Lake Springs because of its “sulphureus spring water” known for healing, the sulfur wells attracted petroleum exploration companies. As the science of petroleum geology evolved, some geologists predicted a Sour Lake salt dome formation similar to that predicted by Pattillo Higgins, the Prophet of Spindletop.
Sour Lake’s 1902 discovery well was the second attempt of the Great Western Company. The well, drilled “north of the old hotel building,” penetrated 40 feet of oil sands before reaching a total depth of about 700 feet. The well was the first of many to bring riches to Hardin County, whose oilfield yielded almost nine million barrels of oil within a year. The Texas Company made its first major oil find at Sour Lake in 1903 (see Sour Lake produces Texaco).
March 7, 2007 – National Artificial Reef Plan updated
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, approved a comprehensive update of the 1985 National Artificial Reef Plan, popularly known as the Rigs to Reefs program.
Exploiting 20 years of offshore experience, NMFS worked closely with interstate marine fisheries commissions and state artificial reef programs, “to promote and facilitate responsible and effective artificial reef use based on the best scientific information available.”
The revised National Artificial Reef Plan included guidelines for siting, construction, development, and assessment of artificial reefs. Today, more than 500 decommissioned petroleum platforms in the Gulf of Mexico are home to thousands of diverse marine species. A typical former oil platform provides almost three acres of habitat, also attracting charter fishing boats and scuba divers.
March 9, 1930 – Prototype Texaco Tanker completed
The first electrically welded commercial vessel, the Texas Company (Texaco) tanker M/S Carolinian, was completed in Charleston, South Carolina. The 226-ton vessel was a prototype design by naval architect Richard F. Smith, according to historian Zachary Liollio.
“The wartime shipbuilding boom of World War I led American and British shipbuilders to explore the advantages of electric welding in depth,” he notes in a 2017 article for the International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage (TICCIH).
The Texaco oil products tanker was “the first truly electrically welded ship,” Liollio explains in “The M/S Carolinian: The First Welded Commercial Vessel.” The welding eliminated the need for about 85,000 pounds of rivets, he adds. The success of the prototype led to orders for similar ships by 1931, and “the standard of welded hulls and internal combustion engines would become universal in construction of new vessels.”
March 9, 1959 – Barbie is a Petroleum Doll
Mattel revealed the Barbie Doll at the American Toy Fair in New York City. More than one billion “dolls in the Barbie family” have been sold worldwide since then, according to the company. Barbie is a petroleum doll; she owes her existence to the science of polymerization, including several plastic acronyms: ABS, EVA, PBT, and PVC.
Acrylonitrile-Butadiene-Styrene (ABS) is known for it strength and flexibility. The thermoplastic polymer is used in Barbie’s torso to provide impact resistance, toughness, and heat resistance. EVA (Ethylene-Vinyl Acetate), a copolymer made up of ethylene and vinyl acetate, protects Barbie’s smooth surface. She also includes Polybutylene Terephthalate (PBT), a thermoplastic polymer often used as an electrical insulator. Barbie uses a custom PBT with 30 percent mineral component to facilitate injection molding (the proportions of her figure remain controversial).
Polyvinyl-Chloride (PVC ) is unlike most synthetic polymers because it is not solely based on the feedstock, ethylene, which comes from “cracking” natural gas or another petroleum. Chlorine is the additional elemental substance, which has resulted in Barbie’s PVC formulation evolving with modern concerns. Her hair comes from the world’s first synthetic fiber, Hexamethylenediamine Adipate – nylon, invented in a DuPont Corporation lab in 1935 (see Nylon, a Petroleum Polymer).
March 11, 1829 – Kentucky’s Great American Oil Well
Boring for salt brine with a simple spring-pole device on a farm near Burkesville, Kentucky, Martin Beatty in 1829 found an oilfield only 171 feet deep. Some historians consider this the earliest commercial oil well in North America.
Beatty, an experienced driller from Pennsylvania, had drilled brine wells to meet growing demand from settlers needing salt to preserve food. He bored his wells by percussion drilling – raising and dropping a chisel from a sapling, an ancient technology for making hole.
According to historian Sheldon Baugh, prior to the Cumberland County oilfield discovery, Beatty first found oil in a McCreary County brine well in 1819. That well “provided very little of the useless stuff” and was soon forgotten. The historian described the scene of Beatty’s oil well of March 11, 1829:
On that day, well-driller Beatty bragged to bystanders “Today I’ll drill her into salt or else to Hell.” When the gusher erupted he apparently thought he’d succeeded in hitting “hell”! As the story goes “he ran off into the hills and didn’t come back,” quite terrorized by the situation.
A later newspaper account reported Beatty’s well was neglected for years, “until it was discovered that the oil possessed valuable medicinal qualities.” Oil from Kentucky’s Great American Oil Well eventually found its way to Pittsburgh, where Samuel Kier sold it as medicine until he started refining kerosene from oil production of the first American well.
March 11, 1930 – Society of Exploration Geophysicists founded
The Society of Exploration Geophysicists was founded by 30 men and women in Houston as the Society of Economic Geophysicists. Based in Tulsa since the mid-1940s, SEG fosters “the expert and ethical practice of geophysics in the exploration and development of natural resources.”
SEG began publishing the award-winning journal Geophysics in 1936 and in 1958 formed a trust to provide scholarships for students of geophysics. The society today has more than 27,000 members in 128 countries.
Recommended Reading: Kettles and Crackers – A History of Wyoming Oil Refineries (2016); American Fads (1985); Sour Lake, Texas: From Mud Baths to Millionaires, 1835-1909 (1995); Rigs-to-reefs: the use of obsolete petroleum structures as artificial reefs (1987); Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century Hardcover (1996); A Geophysicist’s Memoir: Searching for Oil on Six Continents (2017).
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