ROV – Swimming Socket Wrench

1950s Atomic Energy Commission experimental robot inspired offshore industry’s remotely operated vehicles.


In 1960, Shell Oil and Hughes Aircraft companies began modifying a landlocked “Manipulator Operated Robot” – known as MOBOT – into one that could operate underwater. The result led to the ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle), which revolutionized offshore petroleum exploration and production. 

offshore robot ROV early image of MOBOT

The Manipulator Operated Robot (MOBOT) was built for the Atomic Energy Commission to work in environments too radioactive for humans.

Much of today’s offshore oil and natural gas industry relies on remotely operated vehicles that can trace their roots back to Howard Hughes, Jr.

In the late 1950s, Hughes Aircraft Company developed its Manipulator Operated Robot – MOBOT – for the Atomic Energy Commission. Working on land, the robot performed tasks in environments too radioactive for humans.

Weighing 4,500 pounds with hydraulically powered steel claws and television eyes, MOBOT was linked by a 200-foot cable to the operator, who used pistol grips and levers to control it.

In 1960, Popular Science magazine declared, “Marvelous MOBOT Will Do Work Too Hot For Man.” The offshore petroleum industry quickly recognized the robot’s underwater potential. (more…)

Offshore Petroleum History

Exploration and production drilling technologies evolved from lake platforms and California piers.


The exploration history of the U.S. offshore oil and natural gas industry began in the Pacific Ocean at the end of the 19th century. As recently as 1947 no offshore drilling company had ever risked drilling beyond the sight of land.

offshore oil history California oil piers

Many of the earliest offshore oil wells were drilled from piers at Summerland in Santa Barbara County, California. Circa 1901 photo by G.H. Eldridge courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

In 1896, as enterprising businessmen pursued California’s prolific Summerland oilfield all the way to the beach, the lure of offshore production enticed Henry L. Williams and his associates to build a pier 300 feet out into the Pacific – and mount a standard cable-tool rig on it. (more…)

California Oil Seeps and Santa Barbara

Understanding the tragic 1969 California offshore oil spill at Santa Barbara and the daily natural seeps that have produced oil for thousands of years.

california oil seeps

California’s major petroleum fields are included in this 2010 U.S. Geological Survey map. Natural seeps dominate the coastline.

A 1969 oil spill from a California offshore platform transformed the public’s view of the American petroleum industry and helped launch the modern environmental movement and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Natural California seeps leak thousands of tons of petroleum every day – and have for several hundred thousand years.

On January 28, 1969,  after drilling 3,500 below the ocean floor, a Union Oil Company drilling platform six miles off Santa Barbara, suffered a blowout.

Between 80,000 barrels and 100,000 barrels of oil flowed into the Pacific Ocean and onto beaches, including Summerland – where the U.S. offshore industry began in 1896 with wells drilled from piers.

Problems at the Union Oil platform began when roughnecks began to retrieve the pipe in order to replace a drill bit and pressure became dangerously low,  according to a report by the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). (more…)

Petroleum Survey discovers U-boat

Gulf of Mexico data for natural gas pipeline reveal historic shipwreck.

During World War II, U-boats prowled the Gulf of Mexico to disrupt the vital flow of oil carried by tankers departing ports in Louisiana and Texas.

A 2001 archaeological survey by BP and Shell prior to construction of a natural gas pipeline confirmed discovery of U-166 about 45 miles off the Louisiana coast.

Petroleum companies today operating in the Gulf of Mexico’s outer continental shelf routinely provide government scientists with sonar data for areas with potential archaeological value.

Several federal agencies review oil and natural gas-related surveys every year, and over the years the data have revealed more than 100 historic shipwrecks in U.S. waters. In 2001, the Minerals Management Service noted that “a German submarine definitely got our attention.” (more…)

Mr. Charlie, First Mobile Offshore Drilling Rig

Advanced 1954 design declared a mechanical engineering landmark.


june 15 petroleum history

Beginning in 1954 and capable of drilling wells in water up to 40 feet in depth, Mr. Charlie was the first mobile offshore drilling platform. Photos courtesy Murphy Oil Corporation.

When the barge drilling platform Mr. Charlie left its New Orleans shipyard for the Gulf of Mexico on June 15, 1954, it became the world’s first mobile offshore drilling unit (MODU). Using advanced technology, the self-sufficient rig went to work for Shell Oil Company in a new oilfield in East Bay, near the mouth of the Mississippi River.

A reporter from LIFE magazine covered the launch, noting the new “singularly monstrous contraption” could drill “a 12,000-foot hole at a different location every month.”

Mr. Charlie offered an exploration alternative to erecting permanent, pile-supported offshore drilling platforms to be tendered by utility boats. Kerr-McGee had pioneered this approach with the Kermac No. 16 in 1947, but Mr. Charlie could drill in water twice as deep and then move to another site. (more…)

Offshore Rig Patent


first offshore rig

In 1861, inventor John Ericsson hired Thomas Rowland (1831-1907) to build an “iron-clad battery” for the Union.

For many experts, the beginning of the modern offshore petroleum industry can be traced to an 1869 offshore rig patent by New York engineer Thomas Rowland, who had helped build the USS Monitor during the Civil War. (more…)