Shooters – A “Fracking” History

The evolution of technologies for fracturing geologic formations to increase oil and natural gas production.

Ever since America’s earliest oil discoveries, detonating dynamite or nitroglycerin down-hole helped increase a well’s production. The technology – commonly used in oilfields for almost a century – would be greatly improved when hydraulic fracturing arrived in 1949. 

history of hydraulic fracking E.A.L. Roberts portrait and frac drawing

In 1862, E.A.L. Roberts was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the Union Army. In December he “conceived the idea of opening the veins and crevices in oil-bearing rock by exploding an elongated shell or torpedo therein.” Images courtesy Drake Well Museum, Early Days of Oil, Princeton University Press.

Modern hydraulic fracturing – “fracking” – can trace its roots to April 1865, when Civil War Union veteran Lt. Col. Edward A. L. Roberts received the first of his many patents for an “exploding torpedo.”

In May 1890, Pennsylvania’s Otto Cupler Torpedo Company “shot” its last oil well using liquid nitroglycerin – abandoning nitro but continuing to pursue a fundamental oilfield technology. President Rick Tallini says today’s widely used fracturing systems are much advanced from Col. Roberts’ original patents.

“Our business since Colonel Roberts’ day has concerned lowering high explosives charges into oil wells in the Appalachian area to blast fractures into the oil bearing sand,” says Tallini. His company is based in Titusville – where the American petroleum industry began in August 1859 (learn more in First American Oil Well). (more…)

THUMS – California’s Hidden Oil Islands

Reversing an earlier ban, in 1962 voters in Long Beach, California, approved petroleum exploration in their harbor. Five oil companies formed a company called THUMS and built four artificial islands to produce the oil.

California’s headline-making 1921 oil discovery at Signal Hill launched a drilling boom that transformed the quiet, residential area. So many derricks sprouted it became known as “Porcupine Hill.”

THUMS island hidden oil derricks in landscape

Island Grissom, one of the four THUMS islands at Long Beach, California, was named after Nasa astronaut Col. Virgil “Gus” Grisson, who died in 1967 in the Apollo spacecraft fire. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Energy.

Many homeowners became aspiring oil drillers and speculators. Much of the hill’s land was sold and subdivided in real estate lots of a size described as “big enough to raise chickens.”

THUMS island illustration of oil reservoir beneath Long Beach

The islands are among the most innovative oilfield designs in the world. Circa 1965 illustration courtesy Oxy Petroleum.

Derricks were so close to one cemetery that graves “generated royalty checks to next-of-kin when oil was drawn from beneath family plots,” noted one historian. By 1923, oil production reached more than one-quarter million barrels of oil per day.

At the time, “the law of capture” for petroleum production ensured the formerly scenic landscape would be transformed. Competitors crowded around any new well that came in, chasing any sign of oil to the Pacific Ocean.

Naturally produced California oil seeps led to many discoveries south of the 1892 Los Angeles City field.

By the early 1930s, the massive Wilmington oilfield extended through Long Beach as reservoir management concerns remained in the future.

Long Beach oil derricks circa 1923 panorama

Petroleum reserves brought drilling booms to southern California. By 1923, oil production reached more than one-quarter million barrels of oil per day from Signal Hill, seen in the distance in this detail from a panorama from the Library of Congress.

Onshore and offshore tax revenues generated by production of more than one billion barrels of oil and one trillion cubic feet of natural gas helped underwrite much of the Los Angeles area’s economic growth. But not without consequences. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported, “Subsidence, the sinking of the ground surface, is typically caused by extracting fluids from the subsurface.”

Although Californians had experience dealing with groundwater induced subsidence and the building damage it caused, by 1951 Long Beach was sinking at the alarming rate of about two feet each year. Earth scientists noted that between 1928 and 1965, the community sank almost 30 feet. TIME magazine call the bustling port “America’s Sinking City.”

After decades of prospering from petroleum production, the city prohibited “offshore area” drilling to slow the subsidence as the community looked for a solution.

Petroleum Production in Plain Sight

On February 27, 1962, Long Beach voters approved “controlled exploration and exploitation of the oil and gas reserves” underlying their harbor. The city’s charter had prohibited such drilling since a 1956 referendum, but advances in oilfield technologies enabled Long Beach to stay afloat.

THUMS Long Beach CA sinking image

The prospering but “sinking city” of Long Beach would solve its subsidence problem with four islands and advanced drilling and production technologies. Photo by Roger Coar, 1959, courtesy Long Beach Historical Society.

Directional drilling and water injection opened another 6,500 acres of the Wilmington field — and saved the sinking city.

Five oil companies formed a Long Beach company called THUMS: Texaco (now Chevron), Humble (now ExxonMobil), Union Oil (now Chevron), Mobil (now ExxonMobil) and Shell Oil Company. They built four artificial islands at a cost of $22 million (in 1965 dollars). The islands in 1967 were named Grissom, White, Chaffee, and Freemen in honor of lost Nasa astronauts.

Today the four islands, a total of 42 acres, include about 1,000 active wells producing 46,000 barrels of oil and 9 million cubic feet of natural gas every day.

To counter subsidence, five 1,750-horsepower motors on White Island drive water injection pumps to offset extracted petroleum, sustain reservoir pressures, and extend oil recovery. The challenge was once described as “a massive Rubik’s Cube of oil pockets, fault blocks, fluid pressures and piping systems.”

Meanwhile, all of this happens amidst the scenic boating and tourist waters in Long Beach Harbor. The California Resources Corporation operates the offshore part on the islands of the Wilmington field, the fourth-largest U.S. oilfield, according to the Los Angeles Association of Professional Landmen, whose members toured the facilities in November 2017.

“Most interestingly, the islands were designed to blend in with the surrounding coastal environment,” explained LAAPL Education Chair Blake W.E. Barton of Signal Hill Petroleum. “The drilling rigs and other above-ground equipment are camouflaged and sound-proofed with faux skyscraper skins and waterfalls.” Most people do not realize the islands are petroleum production facilities.

From the nearby shore, the man-made islands appear to be occupied by upscale condos and lush vegetation. Much of the design came courtesy of Joseph Linesch, a pioneering designer who helped design landscaping at Disneyland. “It was an exceptional design. The people who were involved at the time were very creative visionaries,” noted Frank Komin, executive vice president for southern operations of the California Resources Corporation, the latest owner of the islands.

THUMS oil platorms picture from above

THUMS Island White, named for Col. Edward White II, the first American to walk in space, who died in 1967 along with Nasa astronauts “Gus” Grissom and Roger B. Chaffee. A fourth island was named for Nasa test pilot Ted Freeman, who in 1963 was the first fatality among the Nasa astronauts. Photo courtesy UCLA Library.

“Even today, those islands are viewed as one of the most innovative oil field designs in the world,” Komin added in a 2015 Long Beach Business Journal article celebrating the production facilities’ 50th anniversary. “The islands have grown to become icons in which the City of Long Beach takes a great deal of pride.”

The Journal article, “THUMS Oil Islands: Half A Century Later, Still Unique, Still Iconic,”  explains that 640,000 tons of boulders, some as large as five tons, were mined and placed to build up the perimeters of the islands. “Concrete facades were constructed for aesthetic purposes but also for practical purposes – to divert any industrial noise away from the residents living nearby,” Komin explained. “For noise abatement purposes, nearly all of the power that’s used to run the islands is electricity.”

The THUMS aesthetic integration of 175-foot derricks and production structures has been described by the Los Angeles Times as, “part Disney, part Jetsons, part Swiss Family Robinson.”



The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “THUMS – California’s Hidden Oil Islands” Author: Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: February 24, 2020. Original Published Date:March 8, 2018.

Halliburton cements Wells

Innovative 1920s technology for protecting oil and natural gas wells – and the environment.


Erle P. Halliburton received a 1921 patent for an improved method for cementing oil wells, helping to bring greater production and environmental safety to America’s oilfields.


cementing oil wells roughneck at wheel of  service truck

An unidentified Halliburton company employee in this circa 1920s photograph posed confidently in a Model T Ford. Background includes an early Halliburton self-propelled truck with pumps for cementing wells. Photo courtesy Timothy Johnson.

Erle P. Halliburton received a 1921 patent for an improved method for cementing oil wells, helping to bring greater production and environmental safety to America’s oilfields. When he patented his “Method and Means for Cementing Oil Wells,” the young inventor revolutionized how wells were completed after drilling.

cementing oil wells Halliburton patent drawing

Erle Halliburton’s well cementing process isolated down-hole production zones, prevented collapse of the casing – and helped secure the well throughout its producing life.

In 1919, Halliburton was 27 years old when he founded his oilfield equipment and service company headquartered in Ardmore, Oklahoma. The New Method Oil Well Cementing Company would receive many patents on its way to becoming today’s Halliburton. He had recently moved to Ardmore and the nearby Healdton oilfield after working in the booming fields of Burkburnett, Texas.

“It is well known to those skilled in the art of oil well drilling that one of the greatest obstacles to successful development of oil bearing sands has been the encountering of liquid mud water and the like during and after the process of drilling the wells,” Halliburton noted in his June 1920 U.S. patent application.

Halliburton’s patent awarded on March 1, 1921, explained that a typical well’s production, hampered by water intrusion that required time and expense for pumping out, “has caused the abandonment of many wells which would have developed a profitable output.”

The improved well cementing process isolated the various down-hole zones, guarded against collapse of the casing, and allowed better control of the well throughout its producing life.

Learn more about well production history in All Pumped Up – Oilfield Technology.

cementing oil wells Halliburton Statue in Duncan, OK

A statue dedicated in 1993 in Duncan, Oklahoma.

Inventing a Cement Service Company

After World War I, as Halliburton struggled to set up cementing operations in Texas, many oil companies were skeptical of cementing casing, according to the former editor-in-chief of E&P magazine.

“Most wells were doing well, they reasoned, without the new-fangled technology and there was, in the back of their minds, the question of possible well damage resulting from cementing,” explained Bill Pike in a 2007 article.

“For Halliburton, it was to be an uphill struggle to normalize the practice of cementing a well,” Pike added.

Halliburton would persist — and patent much of today’s cementing technologies, including the jet mixer, the re-mixer and the float collar, guide shoe and plug system, bulk cementing, multiple-stage cementing, advanced pump technology and offshore cementing technology.

“It is safe to say that in the first half of the 20th century, the formative years, Halliburton dominated the development of cementing technology,” Pike proclaimed in Cementing is not for Sissies, where he also also noted:

cementing oil wells pump truck

One of the earliest self-propelled Halliburton cementing trucks includes a jet mixer at the rear of the truck on the left. Halliburton photo courtesy E&P magazine.

“Halliburton was ever the tinkerer. He owned nearly 50 patents. Most are oilfield, and specifically cementing related, but the number includes patents for an airplane control, an opposed piston pump, a respirator, an airplane tire and a metallic suitcase.”

For years Halliburton’s only real competitor in the oilfield service industry was R.C. (Carl) Baker of Coalinga, California. Baker Oil Tools also held around 50 patents, including a Gas Trap for Oil Wells in 1908, a Pump-Plunger in 1914, and a Shoe Guide for Well Casings in 1920.

Almost three decades after his Method and Means for Cementing Oil Wells patent, Halliburton would develop yet another industry-changing oilfield technology. On March 17, 1949, Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company and Stanolind Oil Company completed a well near Duncan, Oklahoma: It was the first commercial application of hydraulic fracturing, a process that dramatically increased oil and natural gas production.

Casing a Well

Today, cement is first used soon after a well has been spudded – the beginning of drilling operations. The surface hole is lined with steel casing and cement to protect freshwate aquifers.

cementing oil well casing illustration

Steel casing is installed in the surface hole to prevent the contamination of freshwater zones. (A) The conductor pipe has been cemented into place. Cement is pumped down the inside of the casing. (B) The cement in the bottom of the casing has been drilled out so that drilling can be resumed. Illustration courtesy the Kansas Geological Survey.

According to the Kansas Geological Survey (KGS), this surface hole may be several hundred or several thousand feet deep. When the predetermined depth is reached, drilling pauses so steel casing can be inserted.

cementing oil wells cementer magazine cover

A 1939 issue of “The Cementer,” a Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company magazine.

To strengthen the well and protect the environment, cement is then pumped down the surface casing to fill the space between the outside of the casing and the well bore all the way to the surface. This insures the protection of freshwater aquifers and the security of the surface casing.

KGS notes that the casing and the cement typically are tested under pressure for 12 hours before drilling operations resume. A vital piece of equipment for controlling pressure – the blowout preventer – is attached at the top of the surface casing.

Cementing a Well

When drilling has reached total depth and after well-logging and other tests have been completed and analyzed, petroleum company executives must decide whether to complete the well as a producing well – or plug it as a dry hole.

The KGS explains that if the well is to be plugged and abandoned as a dry hole, the well bore is filled with a drilling fluid with additives that prevent its movement from the well bore into the surrounding rock.

Several cement plugs can be used within the well bore at intervals where porosity has been detected, KGS adds. This isolates the porosity zones – and prevents movement of fluids from one formation to another.

cementing oil wells down-hole illustration

(A) The casing shoe makes it easier to insert the casing into the bore hole. The float collar prevents drilling fluid from entering the casing. The bottom plug precedes the cement down the casing, and the top plug follows the cement. (B) The production casing when the cementing operation is completed. Kansas Geological Survey illustration.

If a decision is made to complete the well as a producer, more casing is delivered to the site and the cementing company called.

“The well bore is filled with drilling fluid that contains additives to prevent corrosion of the casing and to prevent the movement of the fluid from the well bore into the surrounding rock,” notes KGS. Casing may be inserted to a total depth of the hole or a cement plug may have been set at a specific depth and the casing set on top of it.”

The cement is then pumped down the casing and displaced out of the bottom with drilling fluid. The cement then flows up and around the casing, filling the space between the casing and the well bore. Special tools are sometimes used with the casing which allow the setting of cement between the outside of the casing and the well bore at specific intervals. This is done to protect the casing and to prevent the movement of formation fluids from one formation to another.

“After the cementing of the casing has been completed, the drilling rig, equipment, and materials are removed from the drill site,” says KGS. “A smaller rig, known as a workover rig or completion rig, is moved over the well bore. The smaller rig is used for the remaining completion operations.”

A well-perforating company is then called to the well site, adds the KGS article, because it is necessary to perforate holes in the casing at the proper position to allow the oil and natural gas to enter the casing. Learn more in Downhole Bazooka. Also see Halliburton and the Healdton Oilfield.



Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Halliburton cements Wells” Author: Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: February 24, 2020. Original Published Date: March 19, 2013.


Kansas Gas Well Fire

America’s fascination with “black gold” switched to natural gas for a time in 1906 after lightning ignited a well near a small Kansas town.

As petroleum exploration wells reached far deeper depths by the early 1900s, highly pressurized natural gas formations in Kansas and the Indian Territory challenged well-control technologies of the day.

Once ignited by a lightning bolt, the natural gas well of Caney, Kansas, towered 150 feet high and at night could be seen for 35 miles. The conflagration made national headlines, attracting a host of exploration companies to drill into Mid-Continent oilfields – even as well control technologies tried to catch up.

gas well fire blazes in south Kansas old photo

Kansas oilfield workers struggled for weeks trying to cap the 1906 burning well at Caney. Photo courtesy Jeff Spencer.

Newspapers as far away as Los Angeles regularly updated readers as the technologies of the day struggled to put out the well, “which defied the ingenuity of man to subdue its roaring flames.”

It would take five weeks to bring the well under control.

In the early 1900s large amounts of natural gas had been discovered between Caney and Bartlesville in Indian Territory. About 20 miles apart, the towns were connected by the Caney River. (more…)

Yellow Dog – Oilfield Lantern

The 1870 patent for a two-wicked safety lamp to prevent “destructive conflagrations” on derricks.


Oil patch lore says the yellow dog lantern was so named because its two burning wicks resembled a dog’s glowing eyes at night. Others believed the lamp projected a strange and eerie dog’s head shadow on the derrick floor.


yellow dog two wick lantern from 1877 US patent drawing

Jonathan Dillen’s lantern was “especially adapted for use in the oil regions…where the explosion of a lamp is attended with great danger by causing destructive conflagration and consequent loss of life and property.”

Rare is the community oil and natural gas museum that doesn’t have a “yellow dog” in its collection. The two-wicked lamp is an oilfield icon.

Some say the unusual spout design originated with whaling ships – but neither the Nantucket nor New Bedford whaling museums could find any such evidence.

Many railroad museums have collections of cast iron smudge pots, but nothing quite like the heavy, odd shaped, crude-oil burning lanterns once prevalent on petroleum fields from Pennsylvania to California.

Although many companies manufactured the iron or steel lamps, the yellow dog’s origins remain in the dark. Some historical references claim the lanterns were so named because their two burning wicks resembled a dog’s glowing eyes at night. Other oil patch lore says the lamps cast a dog’s head shadow on the derrick floor.

Inventor Jonathan Dillen of Petroleum Centre, Pennsylvania, was first to patent what became the “yellow dog” of the U.S. petroleum industry’s early years. The U.S. patent was awarded on May 3, 1870. Dillen’s lamp joined other safety innovations as drilling technologies evolved.


Making Hole – Drilling Technology

Answering the call of necessity and the lure of opportunity for finding oil and natural gas at greater depths.


The modern petroleum industry’s drilling technologies evolved from the ancient spring pole to percussion cable-tools to the modern rotary rigs that can drill many miles into the earth.

making hole image from World Struggle for Oil 1924 movie

Often used for drilling brine wells, a “spring-pole” well discovered oil in Appalachia. Photo from “The World Struggle for Oil,” a 1924 film by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

“A good cable-tool man is just about the most highly skilled worker you’ll find,” one historian noted. “Besides having a feel for the job, knowing what’s going on thousands of feet under the ground just from the movement of the cable, he’s got to be something of a carpenter, a steam-fitter, an electrician, and a damned good mechanic.”

– From a 1939 interview in “Voices from the Oilfield” by Paul Lambert and Kenny Franks.

“A cable tool driller knows more knots and splices than any six sailors you can find,” Lambert and Franks added during the interview. Cable-tool rigs, powered by a steam engine and boiler, included the bullwheel and drilling cable – often high-quality manila rope.

oil well drilling technology

Standard cable-tool derricks stood 82 feet tall and were powered by a steam boiler and engine using a “walking beam” to raise and lower drilling tools. Image from The Oil-Well Driller, 1905.

Drilling or “making hole” began long before oil or natural gas were anything more than flammable curiosities found seeping from the ground.

For centuries, digging by hand or shovel was the best technologies that existed to pry into the earth’s secrets. Oil seeps provided a balm for injuries. Natural gas seeps – when ignited – created folklore and places called “burning springs.” (more…)