Secret History of Drill Ship Glomar Explorer

Offshore technologies and how Howard Hughes and a covert CIA project raised a lost Soviet sub in the early 1970s.


The Glomar Explorer left behind two remarkable offshore exploration histories — a clandestine submarine recovery vessel and the world’s most advanced deep water drill ship for the petroleum industry. The CIA’s former “ocean mining” vessel ended its offshore career in a Chinese scrap yard in 2015. 

Considered the pioneer of modern drill ships, the Glomar Explorer was decades ahead of its time working at extreme depths for the U.S. offshore petroleum industry. Relaunched in 1998 as an offshore technological phenomenon, the original Glomar Explorer had been constructed decades earlier as a top-secret project of the Central Intelligence Agency. 

CIA Project Azorian began soon after a U.S.S.R. ballistic missile submarine K-129 mysteriously sank somewhere in the deep Pacific Ocean northeast of Hawaii on March 8, 1968.  The wreckage of the lost sub could never be found — or so it seemed.

Unknown to the Soviets, sophisticated U.S. Navy sonar technology would locate the K-129 on the seabed at a depth of 16,500 feet. But a salvage operation more than three miles deep was impossible with any known technology (see ROV – Swimming Socket Wrench).

Central Intelligence Agency's secret ship, the Hughes Glomar Explorer,

The Central Intelligence Agency’s Hughes Glomar Explorer, a custom-built “magnesium mining vessel,” in 1974 recovered part of a Soviet submarine that had sunk off Hawaii in 1968. Photo courtesy American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

The K-129 sinking presented the CIA with such an espionage opportunity that the agency convinced President Richard Nixon to approve a secret operation to attempt raising the vessel — intact — from the ocean floor.

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Secretive billionaire Howard Hughes Jr. of Hughes Tool Company joined the mission, code-named Project Azorian (mistakenly called Project Jennifer in news media accounts).

The recovery effort would involve years of deception: Deep ocean mining would be the cover story for construction of the Hughes Glomar Explorer.

Howard Hughes and Ocean Mining

Scientists and venture capitalists had long seen potential in ocean mining, but when Hughes appeared to take on the challenge, the world took notice. The well-publicized plan described harvesting magnesium nodules from record depths with a custom-built ship that would push engineering technology to new limits, typical of Hughes’ style. The story spread.

But from concept to launch, the Hughes Glomar Explorer really had only one purpose: raise the sunken Soviet Golf-II class submarine from 1968 – and any ballistic missiles. In 1972, construction began in a Delaware River dry-dock south of Philadelphia. The $350 million (about $2.37 billion in 2023), Hughes’ high-tech ship was ostensibly built to mine the sea floor.

On August 8, 1974, the “magnesium mining vessel” secretly raised part of the 2,000-ton K-129 through a hidden well opening in the hull and a “claw” of mechanically articulated fingers that used sea water as a hydraulic fluid. News about Project Azorian leaked within six months.

On February 7, 1974, the Los Angeles Times broke the story: “CIA Salvage Ship Brought Up Part Of Soviet Sub Lost In 1968, Failed To Raise Atom Missiles.” 

The L.A. Times article by Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh ended the high-tech vessel’s spying career. The government transferred Hughes Glomar Explorer to the Navy in 1976 for an extensive $2 million preparation for storage in dry dock. With its CIA days over, Hughes Glomar Explorer spent almost two decades mothballed at Suisun Bay, California.

 Los Angeles Times revealed the clandestine Glomar Explorer project on February 7, 1974.

Seymour Hersh of the Los Angeles Times revealed the clandestine project on February 7, 1974. An investigative reporter, he had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for exposing the My Lai massacre.

Pioneer Drill Ship

London-based Global Marine had converted the CIA vessel for commercial use. The company hired Electronic Power Design of Houston, Texas, to work on the advanced electrical system. After almost 20 years in storage, condition of equipment inside the ship surprised Electronic Power Design CEO John Janik.

“Everything was just as the CIA had left it,” Janik explained, “down to the bowls on the counter and the knives hanging in the kitchen. Even though all the systems were intact, this was by no means an ordinary ship.”

Janik noted in 2015 for The Maritime Executive that his company’s retrofit was “a tough job because the ship’s wiring was unlike anything we had ever seen before,” although preservation had been helped by nitrogen pumped into the ship’s interior for two decades.

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Conversion work later included a Mobile, Alabama, shipyard adding a derrick, drilling equipment, and 11 positioning thrusters capable of a combined 35,200 horsepower.

Completed in 1998 as the world’s largest drillship, Glomar Explorer began a long-term lease from the U.S. Navy to Global Marine Drilling for $1 million per year.

The advanced drilling ship spent the next 17 years working in deep-water sites around the globe, including Africa’s Nigerian delta, the Black Sea, offshore Angola, Indonesia, Malta, Singapore, and Malaysia.

Following a series of corporate mergers, Glomar Explorer became part of the largest offshore drilling contractor, the Swiss company Transocean Ltd. When it entered that company’s fleet, the ship was renamed GSF Explorer, and in 2013 was re-flagged from Houston to the South Pacific’s Port Vila in Vanuatu.

Glomar Explorer, former CIA vessel, began a record-setting career in 1998

The formerly top secret CIA vessel Glomar Explorer began a record-setting career in 1998 as a technologically advanced deep water drill ship. Photo courtesy American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

When GSF Explorer arrived at the Chinese ship breaker’s yard in 2015, many offshore industry trade publications took notice of the ship’s demise after years of exceptional deep drilling service. The ship was “decades ahead of its time and the pioneer of all modern drill ships,” declared the Electronic Power Design CEO in The Maritime Executive article.

“It broke all the records for working at unimaginable depths and should be remembered as a technological phenomenon,”  Janik concluded.

Soon after the former Glomar Explorer was sold for scrap, Tom Speight of the engineering firm O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun, reflected in a company post, “This is a shame, not only because of the ship’s nearly unbelievable history, but also because in 2006 the American Society of Mechanical Engineers designated this technologically remarkable ship a historic mechanical engineering landmark.”

The ASME award ceremony, which took place on July 20, 2006, in Houston, included members of the original engineering team and ship’s crew among the attendees. Past President Keith Thayer noted the important contributions the ship made to the development of mechanical engineering and innovations in offshore drilling technology.

The historic ship’s name will be forever be linked to the ship’s CIA brief service during the Cold War. For many veteran journalists, the agency’s chronic response to inquiries, “We can neither confirm nor deny,” is still known as the “Glomar response.”


Recommended Reading: The CIA’s Greatest Covert Operation: Inside the Daring Mission to Recover a Nuclear-Armed Soviet Sub (2012); Project Azorian: The CIA and the Raising of the K-129 (2012). 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 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 © 2023 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Secret Offshore History of Drill Ship Glomar Explorer.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: January 30, 2023. Original Published Date: February 8, 2020.


Buffalo Bill Shoshone Oil Company

Col. William F. Cody searched for Wyoming black gold.


Col. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s legacy extends beyond his famous Wild West show. A Wyoming town named for him preserves his Big Horn Basin heritage. Lesser known is his adventure into the oil business.

In his day, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World” made W.F. Cody the most recognized man in the world. His fanciful Indian attacks on wagon trains, the marksmanship by Annie Oakley, and other attractions drew audiences in America and Europe. (more…)

End of Oil Exchanges

Curbing unruly speculators trading oil and pipeline certificates.


In a sign of the growing  power of John D. Rockefeller at the end of the 19th century, Standard Oil Company brought a decisive end to Pennsylvania’s highly speculative  — and often confusing — trading markets at oil exchanges.

On January 23, 1895, the Standard Oil Company’s purchasing agency in Oil City, Pennsylvania, notified independent oil producers it would only buy their oil at a price “as high as the markets of the world will justify” — and not necessarily “the price bid on the oil exchange for certificate oil.”

Standard Oil’s drastic action would bring an end to a popular “paper oil” market of brokers and buyers.


Oil Riches of Merriman Baptist Church

The North Texas church once declared the richest in America.


In the fall of 1917, the Eastland County cotton-farming town of Merriman was inhabited by “ranchers, farmers, and businessmen struggling to survive an economic slump brought on by severe drought and boll weevil-ravaged cotton fields.”

Everything changed on October 17, when a Texas & Pacific Coal Company wildcat well struck oil near Ranger, four miles from Merriman. The J.H. McCleskey No. 1 well produced 1,600 barrels of oil a day.

The rush to acquire leases and drill became legendary among oil booms, even for Texas, home of the 1901 “Lucas Gusher” at Spindletop Hill near Beaumont.

As drilling continued in Eastland County, yield of the Ranger oilfield led to peak production reaching more than 14 million barrels in 1919. Production from “Roaring Ranger” and its giant North Texas oilfield helped win World War I.

McCleskey No. 1 cable-tool oil well, the "Roaring Ranger" gusher of 1917.

McCleskey No. 1 cable-tool oil well, the “Roaring Ranger” gusher of 1917, brought an oil boom to Eastland County, Texas, about 100 miles west of Dallas.

Texas & Pacific Coal Company had taken a great risk by leasing acreage around Ranger, but the risk paid off when lease values soared. The company quickly added “oil” to its name, becoming the Texas Pacific Coal and Oil Company.

The price of the oil company stock jumped from $30 a share to $1,250 a share as a host of landmen, “scanned the landscape to discover any fractions in these holdings. A little school and church, before too small to be seen, now looked like a sky scraper.”

Oil wells at Merriman Merriman Baptist Church near Ranger, Texas, circa 1920.

“So as we could not worship God on the former acre of ground, we decided to lease it and honor God with the product,” explained Merriman Baptist Church Deacon J.T. Falls. Photo courtesy Robert Vann, “Lone Star Bonanza, the Ranger Oil Boom of 1917-1923.”

Warren Wagner, driller of the McCleskey discovery well, leased the local school lot and in August 1918 completed a well producing 2,500 barrels of oil a day. Merriman Baptist Church was a different kind of challenge.

Deacon J.T. Falls complained in February 1919 that the drilling boom’s oil wells, “ran us out, as all of the land around our acre was leased, producing wells being brought in so near the house we were compelled to abandon the church because of the gas fumes and noisy machinery.”


Deacon J.T. Falls and congregation of Merriman Baptist Church in 1919.

Deacon J.T. Falls (second from left) was not amused when the Associated Press reported in 1919 that his church had refused a million dollars for the lease of the cemetery.

Falls added that, “So as we could not worship God on the former acre of ground, we decided to lease it and honor God with the product.”

A Texas State Historical Society marker erected in 1999 records when the well on the church’s lease struck oil, earning the congregation a royalty of between $300 and $400 a day. Merriman Baptist Church, “kept a small amount for operating expenses and gave the rest to various Baptist organizations and charities.”

However, drilling in the church graveyard was a different matter.

Respecting the Dead

At the cemetery, a second, less seen Texas Historical Society marker notes the oil boom’s fierce competition to find property without a well already drilling on it: “Oil speculators reportedly offered members of the Merriman Baptist Church a large sum of money to lease the cemetery grounds for drilling.”

When local newspapers reported the church had refused an offer of $1 million, the Associated Press picked it up and newspapers from New York to San Francisco ran the story. Literary Digest even featured, “the Texas Mammon of Righteousness” with a photograph of the “The Congregation That Refuses A Million.”

A 1999 Texas State Historical Society marker for Merriman Baptist Church oil royalties.

A 1999 Texas State Historical Society marker explains how members of the Merriman Baptist Church generously shared oil royalties.

Deacon J.T. Falls was not amused. “A great many clippings have been sent to us from many secular papers to the effect that we as a church have refused a million dollars for the lease of the cemetery. We do not know how such a statement started,” the deacon opined.

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“The cemetery does not belong to the church. It was here long before the church was. We could not lease it if we would and we would not if we could,” the cleric added.

 “If any person’s or company’s heart has become so congealed as to want to drill for oil in this cemetery, they could not – for the dead could not sign a lease and no living person has any right to do so,” Falls proclaimed.

The church deacon concluded with an ominous admonition to potential drillers, “Those that have friends buried here have the right and the will to protect the graves and any person attempting to trespass will assume a great risk.”

Merriman Baptist Church oil well featured in trade journal of 1918.

A 1918 article noted a “Merriman school house” oil well drilled to 3,200 feet in record time for North Central Texas.

Roaring Ranger’s oil production dropped precipitously because of dwindling reservoir pressures brought on by unconstrained drilling. Many exploration and production companies failed (including fraudulent ones like Hog Creek Carruth Oil Company).

In the decades since the McCleskey No. 1 well, advancements in horizontal drilling technology have presented more legal challenges to mineral rights of the interred, according to Zack Callarman of Texas Wesleyan School of Law.

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Callarman wrote an award-winning analysis of laws concerning drilling to extract oil and natural gas underneath cemeteries. “Seven Thousand Feet Under: Does Drilling Disturb the Dead? Or Does Drilling Underneath the Dead Disturb the Living?” was published in the Real Estate Law Journal in 2014.

Despite yet another North Texas oilfield discovery at Desdemona, by 1920 the Eastland County drilling boom was over. The faithful still gather at Merriman Baptist Church every Sunday.


Recommended Reading: Early Texas Oil: A Photographic History, 1866-1936 (2000); Texas Oil and Gas, Postcard History (2013) Wildcatters: Texas Independent Oilmen (1984). 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 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 © 2023 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Oil Riches of Merriman Baptist Church.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: January 12, 2023. Original Published Date: January 18, 2019.


Carl Baker and Howard Hughes

Inventive founders of oilfield service company giants Baker Oil Tools and Hughes Tools.


As the U.S. petroleum industry expanded following the January 1901 “Lucas Gusher” at Spindletop Hill in Texas, service company pioneers like Carl Baker and Howard Hughes brought new technologies to oilfields.

Baker Oil Tools and Hughes Tools specialized in maximizing petroleum production, as did oilfield service company competitors Schlumberger, a French company founded in 1926, and Halliburton, which began in 1919 as a well-cementing company

Baker Oil Tool Company (later Baker International) had been founded by Reuben Carlton “Carl” Baker Sr., who among other inventions patented a cable-tool drill bit in 1903 after founding the Coalinga Oil Company in Coalinga, California.

R.C. “Carl” Baker Sr.

Oil wells Carl Baker had drilled near Coalinga encountered hard rock formations that caused problems with casing, so he developed an offset cable-tool bit allowing him to drill a hole larger than the casing.

Baker also patented a “Gas Trap for Oil Wells” in 1908, a “Pump-Plunger” in 1914, and a “Shoe Guide for Well Casings” in 1920.

Coalinga was “every inch a boom town and Mr. Baker would become a major player in the town’s growth,” according to the Baker Museum. Baker organized small oil companies, a bank and the local power company.

Baker Tools Company founder R.C. "Carl" Baker in 1919.

Baker Tools Company founder R.C. “Carl” Baker in 1919.

After drilling wells in the Kern River oilfield, Baker added another technological innovation in 1907 when he patented the Baker Casing Shoe, a device ensuring uninterrupted flow of oil through a well. By 1913 Baker organized the Baker Casing Shoe Company (renamed Baker Tools two years later). He opened his first manufacturing plant in Coalinga.

The R.C. Baker Memorial Museum was the 1917 machine shop and office of Baker Casing Shoe. When Baker Tools headquarters moved to Los Angeles in the 1930s, the building remained a company machine shop. It was donated by Baker to Coalinga in 1959 and opened as a museum in 1961.

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By the time Carl Baker Sr. died in 1957 at age 85, he had been awarded more than 150 U.S. patents in his lifetime. “Though Mr. Baker never advanced beyond the third grade, he possessed an incredible understanding of mechanical and hydraulic systems,” reported the Coalinga museum.

Baker Tools became Baker International in 1976 and Baker Hughes after the 1987 merger with Hughes Tool Company.

 The Houston, Texas, manufacturing operations of Sharp-Hughes Tool at 2nd and Girard Streets in 1915. Today, the site is on the campus of University of Houston–Downtown. Photo couttesy Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library.

The Houston manufacturing operations of Sharp-Hughes Tool at 2nd and Girard Streets in 1915. Today, the site is on the campus of University of Houston–Downtown. Photo courtesy Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library.

Howard R. Hughes Sr.

The Hughes Tool Company began in 1908 as the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company founded by Walter B. Sharp and Howard R. Hughes, Sr.

“Fishtail” rotary drill bits became obsolete in 1909 when the two inventors introduced a dual-cone roller bit. They created a bit “designed to enable rotary drilling in harder, deeper formations than was possible with earlier fishtail bits,” according to a Hughes historian. Secret tests took place on a drilling rig at Goose Creek, south of Houston.

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“In the early morning hours of June 1, 1909, Howard Hughes Sr. packed a secret invention into the trunk of his car and drove off into the Texas plains,” noted Gwen Wright of History Detectives in 2006. The drilling site was near Galveston Bay. Rotary drilling “fishtail ” bits of the time were “nearly worthless when they hit hard rock.”

The new technology would soon bring faster and deeper drilling worldwide, helping to find previously unreachable oil and natural gas reserves. The dual-cone bit also created many Texas millionaires, explained Don Clutterbuck, one of the PBS show’s sources.

“When the Hughes twin-cones hit hard rock, they kept turning, their dozens of sharp teeth (166 on each cone) grinding through the hard stone,” he added.

Although several inventors tried to develop better rotary drill bit technologies, Sharp-Hughes Tool Company was the first to bring it to American oilfields. Drilling times fell dramatically, saving petroleum companies huge amounts of money.

Howard Hughes Sr. of Houston, Texas.

Howard Hughes Sr. of Houston, Texas, received a 1901 patent for a dual-cone drill bit.

The Society of Petroleum Engineers has noted that about the same time Hughes developed his bit, Granville A. Humason of Shreveport, Louisiana, patented the first cross-roller rock bit, the forerunner of the Reed cross-roller bit.

Biographers have noted that Hughes met Granville Humason in a Shreveport bar, where Humason sold his roller bit rights to Hughes for $150. The University of Texas’ Center for American History has a rare 1951 recording of Humason’s recollections of that chance meeting.

Humason recalled he spent $50 of his sale proceeds at the bar during the balance of the evening.

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After Sharp died in 1912, his widow Estelle Sharp sold her 50 percent share in the company to Hughes. It became Hughes Tool in 1915. Despite legal action between Hughes Tool and the Reed Roller Bit Company that occurred in the late 1920s, Hughes prevailed – and his oilfield service company prospered.

By 1934, Hughes Tool engineers design and patented the three-cone roller bit, an enduring design that remains much the same today. Hughes’ exclusive patent lasted until 1951, which allowed his Texas company to grow worldwide. More innovations (and mergers) would follow.

1914 advertisement for the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company.

A February 1914 advertisement for the Sharp-Hughes Tool Company in Fuel Oil Journal.

Frank Christensen and George Christensen had developed the earliest diamond bit in 1941 and introduced diamond bits to oilfields in 1946, beginning with the Rangley field of Colorado. The long-lasting tungsten carbide tooth came into use in the early 1950s.

After Baker International acquired Hughes Tool Company in 1987, Baker Hughes acquired the Eastman Christensen Company three years later. Eastman was a world leader in directional drilling.

When Howard Hughes Sr. died in 1924, he left three-quarters of his company to Howard Hughes Jr., then a student at Rice University. The younger Hughes added to the success of Hughes Tool while becoming one of the richest men in the world. His many legacies include founding Hughes Aircraft Company and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Learn more in Making Hole – Drilling Technology.

Oilfield Service Company Competition

A major competitor for any energy service company, today’s Schlumberger Limited can trace its roots to Caen, France. In 1912, brothers Conrad and Marcel began making geophysical measurements that recorded a map of equipotential curves (similar to contour lines on a map). Using very basic equipment, their field experiments led to invention of a downhole electronic “logging tool” in 1927.

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After developing an electrical four-probe surface approach for mineral exploration, the brothers lowered another electric tool into a well. They recorded a single lateral-resistivity curve at fixed points in the well’s borehole and graphically plotted the results against depth – creating first electric well log of geologic formations.

Meanwhile another service company in Oklahoma, the Reda Pump Company had been founded by Armais Arutunoff, a close friend of Frank Phillips. By 1938, an estimated two percent of all the oil produced in the United States with artificial lift, was lifted by an Arutunoff pump.

Learn more in Inventing the Electric Submersible Pump (also see All Pumped Up – Oilfield Technology).


Recommended Reading:  History Of Oil Well Drilling (2007); Trek of the Oil Finders: A History of Exploration for Petroleum (1975). 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 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 © 2022 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Carl Baker and Howard Hughes.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: December 14 2022. Original Published Date: December 17, 2017.


Ironing with Gasoline

Patented in 1903, “Self-Heating Sad Irons” used gasoline to help make ironing easier.


Before electricity, a row of sad irons could be found in the kitchen where the family’s cast iron stove kept them hot on ironing day. Three or four sadirons (named from the old English word sad, which meant solid), cycled between the stove and a nearby ironing board.

With each sad iron weighing five to nine pounds, smoothing clothes led to an exhausting ironing routine. In 1872, Mary Florence Potts from Ottumwa, Iowa, patented a sad iron design with two pointed ends and a quick-change detachable walnut handle.

Advertisement for Mrs. Potts Sad Irons.

The 19-year-old housewife’s invention offered relief from blistered palms and was instantly popular nationwide. Thirty-years later, a Civil War veteran brought another innovation to ironing.

Gasoline-fueled Sad Iron

John C. Lake, who served in the 16th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the Civil War, patented (No. 725,261) a gasoline-fueled “Self-Heating Sad Iron” on April 14, 1903.

Lake’s invention made the family fortune and brought prosperity to Big Prairie, Ohio, where he established the Monitor Sad Iron Company on the Pennsylvania Railroad line. The manufacturing company in Amish country would make petroleum-fueled sad irons for the next 50 years.

1903 patent for Self-heating sad-iron.

The 61-year-old inventor earlier had shared three wood-working tool patents with his father Abraham, but none led to production. Lake’s new gasoline-fired sad iron would bring easier ironing to households without electrical service, which in 1903 meant most of America.

As advertised, “Monitor Self-Heating Sad Irons” did not need the kitchen stove, maintained a steady temperature, and turned on and off with a knob. Two tablespoons of alcohol started the process and charged the reservoir delivery system.

Advertisment and two photos of gasoline-fueled "self-worming sad irons.

“Save Half the Time, Half the Labor, and All the Worry of Laundry Day,” the ads proclaimed as consumers warmly welcomed the gasoline-fueled sad irons, which sold for $3.50 each.

Monitor Sad Iron Company expanded by licensing an army of sales agents. As the factory in Big Prairie grew, by 1920 the company could proclaim 850,000 in cumulative sales. In the 1930s, Monitor added a new brand (Royal) as Lake’s son Bertus received three patents for improvements.

Geologist Iron Man

Antique iron collector Prof. Kevin McCartney knows a lot about Monitor Sad Iron Company and its early competitors like Jubilee and Ideal. A professor of Geology at University of Maine at Presque Isle, he also serves as director of the Northern Maine Museum of Science.

Since 2013, McCartney has posted more than 50 YouTube videos, “to educate and entertain the avid collector, antique shop owner, pickers and novices alike. Each video is a mini lesson on a different topic about irons.”

In his Kevin Talks Irons number 54, “Firing up the 1903 Monitor gasoline iron,” McCarthy described how consumers preferred Monitor’s gasoline appliance, made with just three durable assemblies, because it was “simple, utilitarian, and economical.”

The Monitor Sad Iron Company’s patented self-hearting design became “most common of the early gasoline irons.”


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Gasoline, formerly a byproduct of kerosene refining, also had begun its transformation into an automobile fuel long before Anti-Knock Ethyl and additives added color. Until then, it was just “white gas.”

Monitor manufactured Coleman Lamp Company’s first entry into the gasoline-fueled iron business in the 1920s. Based in Wichita, Kansas, Coleman began manufacturing a self-heating iron and secured additional patents in 1940.

For years products from Monitor, Royal, Coleman and others competed in catalog offerings and ads, especially those sent to rural, unelectrified regions. The self-heating appliances burned white gas (naphtha). Coleman later branded and sold the petroleum product in one-gallon containers as Coleman Fuel.

Coleman Company quit manufacturing gasoline sad irons after World War II, and the Monitor Sad Iron Company factory closed in 1954 as electricity relegated most such artifacts to antique shops.

When Mary Florence Potts originally patented her innovative sad iron (today commonly spelled sadiron), she used her own name instead of Mrs. Joseph Potts, according to a 2021 “Out of the Attic” article by Julie Martineau of Des Moines County Historical Society (DMCHS).


The American Oil & Gas Historical Society 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 © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Ironing with Gasoline.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: November 5, 2022. Original Published Date: November 5, 2022.


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