Mr. Charlie, First Mobile Offshore Drilling Rig

The 1954 platform design and technologies declared a mechanical engineering landmark.


Mr. Charlie originated with Navy World War II veteran Alden “Doc” LaBorde, who believed a self-sufficient oil rig could be placed on a barge for deeper offshore drilling. LaBorde’s Mr. Charlie — the world’s first mobile offshore drilling unit (MODU) — has since served as a “glimpse into the past” of the modern energy industry. (more…)

Offshore Oil Piers, Platforms, and Barges

America’s offshore petroleum industry began with drilling and production from platforms constructed on lakes in Ohio and Louisiana, and on California oil piers. In Ohio, state geologists reported oil wells drilled on Grand Lake as early as 1891. Dozens of wells  on Louisiana’s Caddo Lake also produced oil in 1911. 

By 1897, Henry Williams  had successfully pursued the giant Summerland, California, oilfield to the scenic cliff side beaches of Santa Barbara.

California Oil Piers

With reports of “tar balls” on the beaches from natural offshore oil seeps, Williams recognized that the highly productive field extended into the Pacific Ocean. He and his associates constructed a 300 foot pier, mounted a cable-tool derrick, and began drilling. (more…)

Offshore Rig Patent of 1869

Thomas Rowland’s Continental Iron Works produced gas fittings, welded oil storage tanks, and a famous ironclad.


The origins of the modern offshore oil exploration and production industry must include the 1869 offshore rig patent “Rock Drill” design of a skilled New York engineer. 

On May 4, 1869, Thomas Fitch Rowland, owner of Continental Iron Works in Greenpoint, New York, received a U.S. patent for an unusual “submarine drilling apparatus.” His patent (No. 89,794) for a fixed, offshore drilling platform came just 10 years after America’s first commercial oil discovery in Titusville, Pennsylvania.


Rigs to Reefs

Thousands of offshore petroleum structures provide energy — and marine habitats.


Offshore petroleum platforms act as artificial reefs, creating important marine habitats, according to scientists. Beginning with an Exxon experimental subsea structure in 1979, the U.S. government’s “Rigs to Reefs” program established the largest artificial habitat in the world.

The Gulf of Mexico, both onshore and offshore, has continued to be a key contributor to U.S. oil and natural gas resources and energy infrastructure. Federal offshore oil production in 2023 accounted for 15 percent of total U.S. crude oil and five percent of natural gas production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).  

Diver swims between pylons of offshore oil platform.

Offshore platforms make good artificial reefs. The open design attracts fish — and divers — where they can swim easily through the circulating water. Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.


Deep Sea Roughnecks

Post-WWII offshore technologies advanced petroleum exploration and production.


Following World War II, the U.S. offshore oil and natural gas industry achieved an important technological milestone in the Gulf of Mexico when Kerr-McGee drilled the first well out of sight of land.

The Kerr-McGee Kermac No. 16 platform began drilling 10 miles from the Louisiana shore on September 10, 1947, in continental shelf waters just 20 feet deep. With the season’s biggest hurricane arriving a week later, the experimental platform constructed by Brown & Root withstood 140 mph winds — another of its contributions to offshore technology.

Oil platform offshore diver "stabbing in" a drill pipe in painting by Clyde Olcott for 2007 book by Christopher Swann.

“Stabbing in,” once a deadly hazard for offshore divers, has been replaced with technologies like remotely operated vehicles. Painting by Clyde Olcott from the 2007 book, “The History of Oilfield Diving: An Industrial Adventure,” by Christopher Swann.

The pursuit of offshore oil demanded technological innovation as exploration led to deeper and more inhospitable waters. Offshore divers faced new challenges, including one hazard called “stabbing in” a drill bit at the well.

“Because re-inserting a drill pipe from a moving, heaving barge into the subsea wellhead was a difficult maneuver, each time a worn bit had to be replaced, a diver had to be called,” noted Underwater magazine in a May 2000 article.

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“The hard-hat diver effected the ‘stab-in’ by straddling the top of the 24-inch hole between his legs, physically pulling the drill string over the target and at just the right moment instructing the drill floor, 250 feet overhead, to ‘let go.’”

Modern deep sea roughneck technology spares divers this dangerous task, reported Christopher Swann, author of The History of Oilfield Diving, published in 2007. Instead of air, divers began breathing mixtures of helium and oxygen during deep descents and carefully managed decompression ascents.

Swann’s 2007 book includes a painting by Clyde Olcott showing a diver guiding a drill pipe into the wellhead — “stabbing in.”

As an illustrator of pioneering underwater operations, Olcott (1927 – 2009) produced accurate images of commercial divers at work. His artwork documented diving technologies, beginning in the late 1950s at Santa Barbara, California, including oxygen-helium diving.

With many diving companies originating on the U.S. West Coast, Olcott’s illustrations have appeared worldwide in technical manuals, advertisements, company brochures — and as art on boardroom walls. His artwork for company presentations often introduced new offshore diving concepts, according to Leslie Leaney, a past president of the Historical Divers Society.

“When future historians want to review what was happening underwater during the pioneering days of oilfield diving, Clyde’s paintings will be ‘the picture that is worth a thousand words’,” Leaney noted in the Spring 2009 issue of the Journal of Diving History.

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Saturation diving and decompression chambers were developed by the offshore industry to further increase bottom times and improve safety. With deep saturation diving, every 100 feet of depth required 24 hours of decompression and like today, time was money.

The extreme cold of deep water prompted Taylor Diving & Salvage of Belle Chasse, Louisiana, to adapt space suits designed for Nasa astronaut John Glenn to deep sea diving. Hot water pumped down from the surface and through dive-suit tubing extended bottom times.

NASA astronaut John Glenn seen in Friendship 7 capsule.

Deep sea diving companies adapted space suits designed for astronaut John Glenn in Friendship 7 capsule. Photo courtesy NASA.

Taylor also developed an underwater welding habitat pressurized with nitrogen that greatly facilitated the critical business of laying pipeline, tie-ins and repairs.

In 1948, Shell Oil Company and others pioneered the use of underwater television cameras for survey, inspection, and repair work. The Navy also developed deep sea technologies for submarine rescue. Technologies for underwater robots began to evolve.

By the early 1960s, Hughes Aircraft Company had built the first marine “Manipulator Operated Robot” — MOBOT — for Shell Oil Company. The underwater robot used sonar and television cameras for navigation, propellers for propulsion, and an umbilical cable for control. For more about MOBOT, see ROV – Swimming Socket Wrench.

Despite state-of-the-art robotics, offshore petroleum industry and scientific needs for manned deep sea diving continued.

An advertisement for petroleum diving technologies in the 1960s.

Diving technologies evolved to meet petroleum industry needs as drilling depths increased in the 1960s. Ad image courtesy JoAnn Cowans.

Hughes Aircraft engineer Ken Cowen in the 1960s analyzed heat domes of missiles traveling at speeds of up to Mach 3. After more cryogenics work related to heat transfer, he established offshore technology company Kinergetics, where he worked with NASA astronaut-turned-aquanaut Scott Carpenter.

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As Cowans’ wife JoAnn painted award-winning oilfield scenes of Southern California (see Petroleum & Oilfield Artists), he patented sub-sea products, including diving safety equipment. The Kinergetics “Stranded Bell Diver Survival System” provided life-prolonging survival in a cold hyperbolic environment. 

Early Technologies and CUSS

Along California’s coastline, the need for divers (man or mechanical) had begun as petroleum exploration followed known oilfields offshore. Drilling contractors developed special platforms and constructed drilling piers, but productive fields extended into Pacific Ocean depths far from the shoreline.

Until remotely operating devices were invented, drilling in depths of 200 feet and beyond required the endurance and capabilities of experienced hard-hat divers.

Patent drawing of Harry Houdini deep sea diver's suit of 1921.

The dangers of deep sea diving prompted famed magician and escape artist Harry Houdini to patent his 1921 invention of a quick release mechanism to help divers exit their cumbersome suits.

Production methods and equipment would demand new technologies invented by offshore pioneers — including a diver’s suit patented by escape artist Harry Houdini.

In the early days of West Coast petroleum exploration, Albacore divers found new opportunities around numerous California oil seeps, especially at Santa Barbara. The geologic region there has remained active because of the movement of the San Andreas and other faults. The numerous oil seeps led to discovery of the Los Angeles City oilfield in 1892.

Faced with developing new and expensive offshore technologies, in 1948, Continental Oil Company (today’s Conoco-Phillips) partnered with Union Oil, Shell Oil and Superior Oil in a joint venture – using company initials to form the CUSS Group. 

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The CUSS objective was to pursue deep-water drilling and for the first time develop motion-restricted drilling ships. Experiments began with  Submarex, a modified U.S. Navy submarine chaser, followed in 1956 by the CUSS I, a converted World War II barge 260 feet long with a 48 -foot beam.

CUSS I pioneered the use of underwater television cameras to assist in survey, inspection and repair work. In 1965, the vessel drilled a well in 635 feet of water, setting and cementing multiple strings of casing without using divers.

However, most offshore petroleum work still required the skills of traditional hard-hat divers.

Highly advanced at the time, CUSS I used four steering propellers and six mooring buoys to hold the ship in position. During this same period, the U.S. Navy was developing its own deep sea technology for both submarine rescue and Cold War antisubmarine purposes.

Tethered to a mother ship by umbilical cables, remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) in 1963 helped find the the nuclear attack submarine USS Thresher, which had sunk with all hands during deep a diving test. The recovery vessel included a 95-foot derrick amidships over a diamond shaped sea opening, still known today as a “moon pool.”

Offshore Engineering

Tapping into the prolific oilfields that extended offshore from popular California beaches brought strict state regulations.

“With leasing from the state of California to explore and produce oil and gas, well control and the ability to run multiple strings of casing became mandatory and required a totally new, unproven technology,” explained the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) in a 1987 study.

CUSS 1, a converted World War II barge, built by Continental, Union, Shell, and Superior oil companies for offshore drilling.

Built in 1956 by a partnership of four companies, Continental, Union, Shell, and Superior, the offshore drilling vessel CUSS 1 was a converted World War II barge.

“The first floating drilling rig to use subsea well control was the Western Explorer owned by Chevron, which spudded its first well in 1955 in the Santa Barbara Channel,” the society noted.

Other offshore drilling rigs and production platform innovations followed. Petroleum engineers developed technologies to allow deep drilling in the roughest weather. But even with advanced undersea robotics, the petroleum industry has continued to rely on manned diving.

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Modern atmospheric diving systems enclose the operator at one-atmosphere pressure, regardless of depth, thereby eliminating the necessity for decompression.

The modern offshore oil industry “Hardsuit 2000” includes 16 rotary joints.

The modern deep sea “Hardsuit 2000” includes 16 rotary joints and two thrusters for mobility.

The “Hardsuit 2000” with 16 rotary joints and two thrusters for mobility, bears little resemblance to its traditional hard-hat ancestors. The suit can operate at depths up to 2,000 feet and remain for six hours on the bottom with no decompression required.

Women Pioneers

As the offshore petroleum industry continued to expand worldwide, it needed all the skilled workers it could find — of any gender. Journalist and professional landman Rebecca Ponton in 2019 published a collection of personal accounts from women who challenged oil industry stereotypes.

Ponton interviewed a diverse collection of energy professionals for Breaking the Gas Ceiling: Women in the Offshore Oil and Gas Industry, preserving the underrecognized accomplishments of “WOW — Women on Water,” her introductory chapter’s title.

Among the stories are experiences of an offshore helicopter pilot, logistics superintendent, photographer, federal agency director, and mechanical and chemical engineers. Among her sources, Ponton interviewed Marni Zabarski, who in 2001 became the first female saturation diver in the Gulf of Mexico.

Offshore safety pioneer Margaret McMillan in the late 1980s helped establish the Marine Survival Training Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. In 2004, McMillan was the first woman to be inducted into the Houston-based Oilfield Energy Center’s Hall of Fame.

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Pursuit of U.S. offshore oil and natural gas has continued to generate advanced  technologies. Innovators and underwater oil patch roughnecks continue to push both science and offshore industry to new, deeper frontiers.

By 2011, more than 4,500 offshore petroleum platforms supplied 25 percent of the United States’ production of natural gas and 10 percent of its oil. An industry-government partnership has used offshore structures no longer producing to form the world’s largest artificial reef complex (see Rigs to Reefs).

Learn more about the evolution of offshore exploration and production technologies in Offshore Petroleum History.


Recommended Reading: Diving & ROV: Commercial Diving offshore (2021); Breaking the Gas Ceiling: Women in the Offshore Oil and Gas Industry (2019); The History of Oilfield Diving: An Industrial Adventure (2007); The Offshore Imperative: Shell Oil’s Search for Petroleum in Postwar America (2009); Offshore Pioneers: Brown & Root and the History of Offshore Oil and Gas (1997). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society (AOGHS) preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact Copyright © 2024 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Deep Sea Roughnecks.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: February 1, 2024. Original Published Date: January 13, 2011.

Oil Seeps and Santa Barbara Spill

Exploring the 1969 offshore disaster and the geology of ancient natural petroleum seeps.


A 1969 oil spill from a California offshore platform transformed the public’s view of the U.S. petroleum industry and helped launch the modern environmental movement — and the Environmental Protection Agency. Ancient natural seeps continue to produce thousands of tons of oil every day.

On January 28, 1969, after drilling 3,500 feet below the ocean floor, a Union Oil Company drilling platform six miles off Santa Barbara, suffered a blowout. Between 80,000 and 100,000 barrels of oil flowed into the Pacific Ocean and onto beaches, including at Summerland, where the U.S. offshore industry began in 1896 with drilling on oil well piers. (more…)

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