Oil and Natural Gas History, Education Resources, Museum News, Exhibits and Events

Archive for the 'Offshore History' Category


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. Read the rest of this entry »


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

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. Read the rest of this entry »


Offshore petroleum platforms act as artificial reefs, creating ideal marine habitats. Beginning with an Exxon experimental subsea structure in 1979, the “Rigs to Reefs” program has formed the world’s largest artificial reef habitat in the world.

rigs to reefs

Offshore platforms make good artificial reefs. The open design attract fish – and divers – where they can swim easily through the circulating water.

In 1984, the U.S. Congress signed the National Fishing Enhancement Act, “because of increased interest and participation in fishing at offshore oil and gas platforms and widespread support for effective artificial reef development by coastal states,” according to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). This led to the development of the National Artificial Reef Plan the next year.

Gulf of Mexico federal offshore oil production in 2016 accounted for 17 percent of total U.S. crude oil production and five percent of natural gas production, notes the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“Over 45 percent of total U.S. petroleum refining capacity is located along the Gulf coast, as well as 51 percent of total U.S. natural gas processing plant capacity,” EIA reports. Read the rest of this entry »


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 company had ever risked drilling beyond the sight of land.

offshore oil history

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. Read the rest of this entry »


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 operating in the Gulf of Mexico’s outer continental shelf routinely provide the government with sonar data for areas with potential archaeological potential 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, scientists at the Minerals Management Service noted that “a German submarine definitely got our attention.” Read the rest of this entry »


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. Read the rest of this entry »


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). Read the rest of this entry »


Offshore Ohio wells were drilled on a lake as early as the 1890s, perhaps the very first of the U.S. offshore petroleum industry. Mercer County historians report that wells pumped oil from far out in Grand Lake St. Marys.

 ohio offshore wells

Grand Lake St. Marys – hand-dug from 1837 to 1845 – originally was nine miles long by three miles wide. It supplied water to central Ohio’s Miami and Eric Canal until designated a “public recreation and pleasure resort” in 1915.

America’s first offshore drilling has been generally acknowledged to be over Louisiana’s Caddo Lake in 1911 – although historians in Mercer and Auglaize counties in Ohio have said otherwise.

Mercer County documents record oil wells pumping far out in the waters of Grand Lake St. Marys 20 years before drillers ventured into the waters of Caddo Lake.

Work on the Ohio reservoir that would become known as Grand Lake St. Marys – about 60 miles north of Dayton – began in 1837 to support construction of the Miami and Erie Canal near the towns of Celina and St. Marys. To maintain the canal’s water levels, the reservoir was excavated over nine years by more than 1,700 men earning 30 cents a day. Read the rest of this entry »


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.  Read the rest of this entry »


Ever since a 1947 oil well drilled 10 miles off the Louisiana coast, offshore exploration has demanded new technologies – and the skills of deep sea roughnecks.

deep sea roughnecks

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

Kerr-McGee Corp. made petroleum history in 1947 by drilling 10 miles off the Louisiana coast.

Although its Kermac 16 was a milestone in offshore drilling technology, the water was only 20 feet deep. Read the rest of this entry »