Downhole Bazooka

WWII anti-tank weapon improved technologies for perforating well casing.

Swiss inventor Henry Mohaupt used his experience from creating a World War II anti-tank weapon to develop a new technology for improving production of oil and natural gas wells. To improve perforating well casing, he used conically hollowed-out explosive charges to focus each detonation’s energy.


Rocky Beginnings of Petroleum Geology

Petroleum pioneers who took earth science to a deeper level.


When oil burst onto western Pennsylvania’s marketplace as a major commercial opportunity following an 1859 well, drilled by a former railroad conductor, the art and science of petroleum geology was born.

The coal-mining industry had long provided employment for geologists and the oil boom presented a new kind of mineral wealth for America and a new challenge for geologists. But Pennsylvania’s first oilmen soon found that hiring geologists didn’t significantly improve their chances of success in an already risky business.

Geologist Henry D. Rogers portrait.

Henry D. Rogers, (1808 – 1866) was one of the first professional U.S. geologists.

Decades before the Civil War, the pursuit and mining of coal prompted many geological surveys, studies, and assessments of potential mineral resources. Railroads stretching westward needed good quality coal supplies and routes always considered the availability of nearby sources.

Searching for high-quality bituminous coal, geologists had often reported oil seeps and the associated landforms, but mostly as a curiosity and in relation to their proximity to coal beds. In Kentucky, Ohio, and the western part of what is now West Virginia, the salt business also gave geologists important insights into formations called “structural traps.”

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Drilling commercial brine wells and salt manufacturing was a lucrative industry. Geologists’ surveys found that strata of sedimentary rock fractured, faulted, and folded, sometimes producing salt domes and brine deposits.

Geologists also noted that oil and natural gas was occasionally trapped in porous deposits sandwiched between impermeable rock layers. Such contamination fouled commercial brine wells and was an unwelcome intrusion, but cottage industry entrepreneurs skimmed it off and sold it for patent medicine, lubrication, and other novel purposes.

Illustration of oil and gas traps in petroleum geology.

In Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia, geologists studied landforms associated with salt brine and coal “structural traps.” These anticlinal traps held oil and natural gas because the earth had been bent, deformed or fractured. Unsuccessfully applying structural trap theories to Pennsylvania’s differing geology undermined early petroleum geologists’ credibility.

A pioneering Ohio physician and natural scientist named Samuel Hildreth examined and recorded details of the salt business in southeastern Ohio, noting structural traps as a geologic feature associated with brine, coal, and oil.

In 1836, Hildreth published his extensive “Observations on the Bituminous Coal Deposit for the Valley of the Ohio, and the Accompanying Rock Strata.” It was America’s first petroleum geology primer.

Hildreth was a strong advocate for Ohio’s first geological survey and later served as the state geologist. His observations of the structural trapping of petroleum were later affirmed by Pennsylvania’s state geologist, Henry D. Rogers, who erroneously declared that Pennsylvania’s oilfields were likewise based on structural trapping of petroleum in anticline formations.

Pennsylvania’s oilfields were in fact found predominantly in another kind of formation altogether, the “sandstone stratigraphic trap,” but Rogers’ prestigious endorsement, circulated widely in an 1863 Harper’s Magazine article, convinced geologists to the contrary.

The frenzied search for oil prompted the first petroleum geologists to impose Hildreth and Rogers’ structural trapping theory on Pennsylvania’s differing geology. It didn’t work and their failures in Pennsylvania hindered the acceptance of petroleum geologists for decades.

Although structural trapping remains a dominant characteristic for many of America’s most prolific oil and natural gas fields, ironically it wasn’t so in Pennsylvania’s Oil Creek region, where the petroleum industry was born. As noted by author and geologist Ray Sorenson, “theories of trapping did not work in the absence of anticlines.”

Sorenson, who has researched first documented reports of oil worldwide (see Earliest Signs of Oil), also reported the science of petroleum geology took some time to develop — and be accepted.

Pennsylvania sedimentary geologic formation known as a “stratigraphic trap.”

The dominant oil bearing feature in Pennsylvania’s oil region is a sedimentary geologic formation known as a “stratigraphic trap” and differs significantly from a structural trap. It is formed in place by erosion, usually in porous sandstone enclosed in shale. The impermeable shale keeps the oil and gas from escaping.

It took until the turn of the century before successful geologically driven discoveries in the Mid-Continent and Gulf regions encouraged exploration companies to use petroleum geologists.

Although the science of geology had revealed the 34-square-mile El Dorado oilfield in central Kansas in 1915, many companies still had little confidence in geologists.

James C. Donnell, president of the Ohio Oil Company (later Marathon Oil) proclaimed, “The day The Ohio has to rely on geologists, I’ll get into another line of work.”

But after the company’s first geologist, C.J. “Charlie” Hares found 19 oil and natural gas fields, Donnell changed his mind and declared Hares to be “the greatest geologist in the world.”

Logo of American Association of Petroleum Geologists, AAPG

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Increasing understanding and acceptance of petroleum geology as a valued tool in exploration led to the 1917 formation of the Southwestern Association of Petroleum Geologists, precursor to today’s American Association of Petroleum Geologists. Since then, AAPG has fostered scientific research, advanced the science of geology, and promoted new technologies.  

Father of Petroleum Engineering

John Franklin Carll, a geologist born in Bushwick, New York, on May 7, 1828, could be considered the world’s first petroleum engineer. He developed many of the exploration and production industry’s geological methods — and helped pioneering oil driller Lyne Taliaferro Barret drill the first Texas oil well.

In 1875, Carll published strip logs from nine Pennsylvania wells, and he used them for correlation purposes in much the same manner as they are employed today,” noted the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE). “His work also confirmed the theory that oil sands lie in lens-shaped masses, not in continuous belts, and that oil does not occur in underground pools or lakes, but in pores of sandstone.” 

“More than a century ago, he expressed the principles of petroleum engineering and geology that established much of the framework for the development of petroleum engineering technology,” proclaimed SPE, which established the John Franklin Carll Award in 1958.

The earth sciences of petroleum geology and engineering have come a long way since pioneering steps and stumbles in the Ohio River Valley and Pennsylvania’s early oilfields. Geologists today grapple with enormous amounts of data and technological innovations in pursuit of petroleum.


Recommended Reading: Trek of the Oil Finders: A History of Exploration for Petroleum (1975); The Birth of the Oil Industry (1936); Anomalies, Pioneering Women in Petroleum Geology, 1917-2017 (2017); The Natural Gas Industry in Appalachia (2005); Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry (2009)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 annual 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: “Rocky Beginnings of Petroleum Geology.” Authors: B.W. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: Last Updated: August 23, 2022. Original Published Date: February 14, 2016.


First Dry Hole

Unsuccessful 1859 Pennsylvania oil well achieved many U.S. petroleum industry “firsts.”


Oil and natural gas exploration and production technologies began with the earliest wells of the mid-19th century in northwestern Pennsylvania. Just four days after America’s first commercial oil well of August 27, 1859, a second attempt nearby resulted in the first “dry hole” for the new U.S. petroleum industry.

Edwin L. Drake drilled the first U.S. oil well specifically seeking oil at a creek near Titusville, Pennsylvania. His historic feat included inventing the method of driving a pipe downhole to protect the integrity of the well bore. The former railroad conductor borrowed a kitchen water pump to produce the first barrel of oil.


Exploring Seismic Waves

Oklahoma scientists experimented with reflection seismography in 1921.


Exploring seismic waves is all about a vital earth science technology — reflection seismography — which revolutionized petroleum exploration in the 1920s. Seismic waves have led to oilfield discoveries worldwide and billions of barrels of oil. 

Seismic technologies evolved from efforts to locate enemy artillery during World War I.

Educational historic marker about seismic waves on I-35 in Oklahoma.

A tourist site for geologists, a sign and granite marker on I-35 near Ardmore, Oklahoma, commemorates the August 9, 1921, test of seismic technology. Photo by Bruce Wells.


Making Hole – Drilling Technology

The science behind petroleum exploration and production — and finding oil and natural gas at greater depths.


“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.” – A 1939 interview in Voices from the Oil Fields by Paul Lambert and Kenny Franks.

Petroleum exploration technologies have evolved from ancient “spring poles,” to steam-powered percussion cable-tools, to modern rotary rigs with diamond bits that can drill for miles.

Spring pole well image from World Struggle for Oil 1924 government 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 cable tool driller knows more knots and splices than any six sailors you can find,” noted historians Lambert and Franks in their 1984 book, a collection of 1930s Federal Writers Project interviews  about oilfield life. The stories — featuring cable-tool rigs with giant “bull wheels” spinning off manila rope — reported firsthand accounts of the “grueling toil, primitive living and working conditions, and ever-present danger in a time when life was cheap and oil was gold.”

Illustration of early standard cable-tool derricks, 82 feet tall.

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 crude 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…)

Oilfield Firefighting Technologies

In such a flammable workplace, danger can come from anywhere, including the sky.


Whether ignited by accident, natural phenomena, or acts of war, oilfield fires have challenged America’s petroleum industry since the earliest wells in northwestern Pennsylvania. Fire has threatened the search for oil and natural gas, beginning when Edwin L. Drake drilled the first commercial U.S. oil well on August 27, 1859.

Just six weeks after his discovery, Drake’s historic well caught fire when his driller, William “Uncle Billy” Smith, inspected it with an open lamp, igniting seeping natural gas. Flames quickly consumed the cable-tool derrick, engine-pump house, stored oil — and Smith’s nearby shack.

Drake oil well drilling rig at museum.

Drake Well Museum exhibits in Titusville, Pennsylvania, include a replica of the cable-tool derrick and engine house that drilled the first U.S. well in 1859.

Visitors to the Drake Well Museum today can tour a reconstructed cable-tool derrick and equipment at the original site along Oil Creek where the former railroad conductor found oil at a depth of 69.5 feet. Another museum exhibit preserves the Titusville Fire Department’s coal-fired steam pumper.

As the young American petroleum industry learned from hard experience, more oilfield fires would follow in the Pennsylvania oil region later called “the valley that changed the world.”  

Early Firefighting Lessons

In 1861, an explosion and fire at Henry Rouse’s gushing oil well made national news when he was killed along with 18 workers and onlookers (see Rouseville 1861 Oil Well Fire).  In 1977, the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired landscape artist James Hamilton’s “Burning Oil Well at Night, near Rouseville, Pennsylvania,” painted soon after the fire.

The dangerous operating environment of a cable-tool rig included a spinning bull wheel, a rising and falling heavy wooden beam, a steam boiler, and crowded spaces. The pounding iron drill bit frequently needed to be withdrawn and hammered sharp using a small, but red-hot forge — often set up just feet from the wellbore. (more…)

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