Petroleum Survey discovers U-boat

Routine scan of Gulf of Mexico seabed for new petroleum pipelines reveals shipwrecks.


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

Today’s petroleum companies 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.

oil industry sonar and photo images of U-boat in Gulf of Mexico

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.

In 2001, the Minerals Management Service (superseded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management a decade later) noted that “a German submarine definitely got our attention.”


Mr. Charlie, First Mobile Offshore Drilling Rig

The 1954 platform’s design and technology would be declared a mechanical engineering landmark.


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 Mr. Charlie 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, the first mobile offshore drilling platform.

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.

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 (also see Offshore Oil Piers, Platforms, and Barges). (more…)

Offshore Rig Patent of 1869

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


The origins of the modern offshore oil exploration and production industry must include the 1869 offshore “Rock Drill” patent 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 his “submarine drilling apparatus.” The patent (No. 89,794) for a fixed, working platform for drilling offshore to a depth of almost 50 feet came just 10 years after America’s first commercial oil discovery in Titusville, Pennsylvania.


ROV – Swimming Socket Wrench

Atomic Energy Commission 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. 

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.

Popular Science article shows scientist testing early remotely operated robot.

“Manipulator operated robots” were built for the Atomic Energy Commission to work in a radioactive environment. Photo courtesy September 1960 Popular Mechanics article, “Marvelous Mobot Will Do Work Too Hot For Man.”

In 1960, Popular Science magazine described the advanced technology in “Marvelous Mobot Will Do Work Too Hot For Man.” The article, which reflected the era’s fascination with science fiction and new technologies, began: “With electronic nerves, hydraulic muscles, and TV eyes, a robot whose arms are quite capable of playing golf or snuggling a blonde is ready to live far more dangerously than that.”

The accompanying photograph showed the “murderous impluse” of a mobot stalking a scientist, but as the caption explained, “Never fear, he (the scientist) has it all under control” by watching three TV screens. The U.S. offshore oil industry quickly saw the potential of underwater electronic nerves, hydraulic muscles, and TV eyes. (more…)

Ohio Offshore Wells

Oil was produced from platforms on Grand Lake St. Marys as early as early as 1887.


As the turn of the century approached, oil producing Ohio wells drilled far out over a reservoir mark the beginning of America’s offshore petroleum industry, according to Mercer County historians.

America’s first offshore drilling once was generally acknowledged to be over Louisiana’s Caddo Lake in 1911 – until researchers in Mercer and Auglaize counties in Ohio said otherwise. The oil patch sleuths pointed to Mercer County documents recording wells producing oil above the waters of Grand Lake St. Marys at least 20 years before drillers ventured over the waters of Caddo Lake above the giant Caddo-Pine Island field. (more…)

Rigs to Reefs

Thousands of offshore petroleum platforms provide energy and habitats.


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 largest artificial reef habitat in the world.

Diver swims between pylons of offshore oil platform.

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. (more…)

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