America’s first gas street lamps illuminated Baltimore in 1817 after a dazzling “gems of light” demonstration at art museum.
America’s first public street lamp (fueled by manufactured gas) illuminated Market Street in Baltimore, Maryland, in early 1817. The Gas Light Company of Baltimore thus became the first U.S. commercial gas lighting company by distilling tar and wood to manufacture its gas.
The Baltimore gas company used wooden pipes to distribute gas to elegant street lights. Photo courtesy BG&E.
Today, a small monument to the company and its street lamp stands at the corner of North Holliday Street and East Baltimore Street (once Market and Lemon streets). Dedicated in 1991, the lamp is a 175th anniversary replica of the original 1817 design.
In 1816, noted local inventor, artist and museum founder Rembrandt Peale first illuminated a large room in his Holliday Street museum, burning his artificial gas. The demonstration dazzled local businessmen and socialites gathered there with a “ring beset with gems of light.”
“Taking after a natural history museum that his father, Charles Wilson Peale, started in Philadelphia in 1786, Rembrandt Peale displayed collections of fossils and other specimens, as well as portraits of many of the country’s founding fathers that his family had painted,” notes a historian for Explore Baltimore Heritage.
“During a candlelit period in American history the forward-thinking Peale aimed to form a business around his gas light innovations, the exhibition targeting potential investors,” adds another historian at the utility Baltimore Gas & Electric (BG&E). The manufactured gas gamble worked, and several financiers aligned with Peale, forming The Gas Light Company of Baltimore, BG&E’s precursor.
A 1921 painting dramatized the moment when Rembrandt Peale ignited his “gems of light.” Photo courtesy BG&E.
“Peale’s Baltimore Museum and Gallery of Paintings” opened in 1814 in a building designed by architect Robert Carey Long. Photo courtesy Baltimore Heritage.
“Less than a year later, on February 7, 1817, the first public gas street lamp was lit in a ceremony one block south of City Hall,” notes BG&E.
The impressed city council speedily approved Peale’s plan to light more of the city’s streets. BG&E also credits Baltimore inventor Samuel Hill for establishing America’s first gas meter manufacturing company in 1832. Two years later the first meters were installed. The company petitioned the city to begin laying underground pipelines in 1851.
Over coming decades, two miles of gas main would be completed under Baltimore streets and the company showed its first profit. Metering replaced flat-rate billing, helping residents afford lighting their homes with gas.
By 1855, a new gas manufacturing plant was constructed to distill gas from coal – an improvement over the former “gasification” of tar or wood. Manufacturing gas from coal had earlier proved successful in Philadelphia.
Following Baltimore, public use of manufactured gas lighting began in New York City in 1823 when the New York Gas Company received a charter from the state legislature to light to parts of Manhattan. Consolidated Edison, Inc. – known as “Con Edison” or “Con Ed” – was created in 1884, when six New York City gas-light companies merged.
Coal Gas brightens Philadelphia
Forty-six lights burning manufactured “coal gas” were lit on February 8, 1836, along Philadelphia’s Second Street by employees of the newly formed Philadelphia Gas Works. As Philadelphia became the nation’s center for finance and industry, the municipally owned gas distribution company began a series of gas-manufacturing innovations.
By 1856, Philadelphia Gas completed construction of a gas tank at the company’s Point Breeze Plant in South Philadelphia. At the time it was the largest in the nation with a total holding capacity of 1.8 million cubic feet.
A natural gas storage facility at Point Breeze in South Philadelphia, circa 1856. Photograph courtesy Philadelphia Gas Works.
When the American Centennial Exposition of 1876 displayed the wonders of the age in agriculture, horticulture and machinery, gas cooking was showcased as a novelty. Sixty miles of pipe brought manufactured gas to the exhibition’s lamps.
Natural Gas Lights
The earliest commercial use of natural gas in a community, according to most historians, took place in Fredonia, New York, in 1825. Natural gas was piped to several stores, shops and a mill from a downtown natural gas well drilled by William Hart, who some consider as the father of the natural gas industry.
“He left a broken drill in one shallow hole and abandoned a second site at a depth of forty feet because of the small volume of gas found,” noted historian Lois Barris in her history of the Fredonia Gas Light and Water Works Company. The nation’s first natural gas company incorporated in 1857.
According to Barris, Hart made three attempts at drilling. “In his third attempt, Mr. Hart found a good flow of gas at seventy feet,” she explained. “He then constructed a crude gasometer, covering it with a rough shed and proceeded to pipe and market the first natural gas sold in this country.”
Citation Information – Article Title: “Illuminating Gaslight.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/technology/manufactured-gas. Last Updated: February 3, 2020. Original Published Date: January 30, 2016.
Giant rigs drilled to record depths in Oklahoma during the 1970s. Today, one attracts Elk City tourists.
The Anadarko Basin extends across more than 50,000 square miles of West-Central Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle. It includes some of the most prolific – and deepest – natural gas reserves in the United States.
Parker Drilling Rig No. 114 stands on display to welcome Route 66 travelers to Elk City, Oklahoma. It is 180 feet high – one of the tallest in the world. Photo by Bruce Wells.
Beginning in the late 1950s, when technological advances allowed it, Anadarko Basin wells in Oklahoma began to be drilled more than two miles deep in search of highly pressurized natural gas zones.
By the 1960s, a few companies began risking millions of dollars and pushing rotary rig drilling technology to reach beyond the 13,000-foot level in what geologists called “the deep gas play.”
Although most experts disagreed, Robert Hefner III believed immense natural gas reserves resided even deeper, three miles or more. (more…)
As seen in this Eccentric Wheels and Jerk Lines article, high-resolution files are available online (often for free). Some of these digital collections are “black gold” resources for U.S. oil history.
This image of a circa 1909 double eccentric power wheel manufactured by Titusville (Pennsylvania) Iron Works is just one example of what can be discovered online at public domain resources. Photo courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collections.
A Library of Congress photograph of a 1909 double eccentric power wheel shows part of a centralized power system. The oilfield technology used the two wheels’ elliptical rotation to simultaneously pump multiple oil wells.
The LOC image is from a South Penn Oil Company (now Pennzoil) lease between the towns of Warren and Bradford, Pennsylvania. The wheels’ elliptical rotation simultaneously pumped eleven remote wells. This particular central pump unit operated in the Morris Run oilfield, discovered in 1883. It was manufactured at the Titusville Iron Works.
The field produced from two shallow “pay sands,” both at depths of less that 1,400 feet. It was part of a series of other early important discoveries.
In 1881, the Bradford field alone accounted for 83 percent of all the oil produced in the United States (see Mrs. Alford’s Nitro Factory). Today, new technologies are producing natural gas from a deeper formation, the Marcellus Shale.
Although production from some early shallow Pennsylvania wells declined to only about half a barrel of oil a day, some continued pumping into 1960.
Central Power Units
As the number of oil wells grew in the early days of America’s petroleum industry, simple water-well pumping technologies began to be replaced with advanced, steam-driven walking beam pump systems.
An Allegheny National Forest Oil Heritage Series illustration of an oilfield “jack plant” in McKean County, Pennsylvania.
America’s oilfield technologies advanced in 1875 with this “Improvement In Means For Pumping Wells” invented in Pennsylvania.
At first, each well had an engine house where a steam engine raised and lowered one end of a sturdy wooden beam, which pivoted on the cable-tool well’s “Samson Post.” The walking beam’s other end cranked a long string of sucker-rods up and down to pump oil to the surface.
Recognizing that pumping multiple wells with a single steam engine would boost efficiency, on April 20, 1875, Albert Nickerson and Levi Streeter of Venango County, Pennsylvania, patented their “Improvement in Means for Pumping Wells.”
Their system was the forerunner of wooden or iron rod jerk line systems for centrally powered oil production. This technology, eventually replaced by counter-balanced pumping units, will operate well into the 20th century – and remain an icon of early oilfield production.
“By an examination of the drawing it will be seen that the walking-beam to well No. 1 is lifting or raising fluid from the well. Well No. 3 is also lifting, while at the same time wells 2 and 4 are moving in an opposite direction, or plunging, and vice versa,” the inventors explained in their patent application (No. 162,406).
“Heretofore it has been necessary to have a separate engine for each well, although often several such engines are supplied with steam from the same boiler,” they noted. “The object of our invention is to enable the pumping of two or more wells with one engine.”
By it the walking-beams of the different wells are made to move in different directions at the same time, thereby counterbalancing each other, and equalizing the strain upon the engine.
Steam initially drove many of these central power units, but others were converted to burn natural gas or casing-head gas at the wellhead – often using single-cylinder horizontal engines. Examples of the engines, popularly called “one lungers” by oilfield workers, have been collected and restored (see Coolspring Power Museum).
The heavy and powerful engine – started by kicking down on one of the iron spokes – transferred power to rotate an “eccentric wheel,” which alternately pushed and pulled on a system of rods linked to pump jacks at distant oil wells.
“Transmitting power hundreds of yards, over and around obstacles, etc., to numerous pump jacks required an ingenious system of reciprocating rods or cables called Central Power and jerker lines,” explains documentation from an Allegheny National Forest Oil Heritage Series illustration of an oilfield “jack plant” in McKean County, Pennsylvania. The long rod lines were also called shackle lines or jack lines.
Oilmen quickly adopted the 1913 “Simplex Pumping Jack.”
Around 1913, with electricity not readily available, the Simplex Pumping Jack became a popular offering from Oil Well Supply Company of Oil City, Pennsylvania. The simple and effective technology could often be found at the very end of long jerk-lines.
A central power unit could connect and run several of these dispersed Simplex pumps. Those equipped with a double eccentric wheel could power twice as many.
Roger Riddle, a local resident and field guide for the West Virginia Oil & Gas Museum in Parkersburg, was raised around central power units and recalls the rhythmic clanking of rod lines.
Riddle has guided visitors through dense nearby woods where remnants of the elaborate systems rust. The heavy equipment once “pumped with just these steel rods, just dangling through the woods,” he says. “You could hear them banging along – it was really something to see those work. The cost of pumping wells was pretty cheap.”
The heyday of central power units passed when electrification arrived, nonetheless, a few such systems still remain in use. Learn more about the evolution of petroleum production methods in All Pumped Up – Oilfield Technology.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Eccentric Wheels and Jerk Lines.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/technology/jerk-lines-eccentric-wheels. Last Updated: January 14, 2020. Original Published Date: November 20, 2017.
An innovative patent for “making holes in hard rock.”
An “Improvement in Rock Drills” patent application filed after the Civil War included the basic elements of the modern petroleum industry’s rotary rig. The design for Sweeny’s 1866 rotary rig for drilling wells – making hole – was an idea decades ahead of its time. The inventor, who applied for his U.S. patent on January 2, 1866, described his rotary drilling method’s “peculiar construction particularly adapted for boring deep wells.”
Peter Sweeney of New York City was granted a patent (No. 51,902), which included a series of descriptions similar to technology used in modern rotary rigs. His design improved upon an 1844 British patent by Robert Beart. Sweeney’s patent utilized a roller bit with replaceable cutting wheels such “that by giving the head a rapid rotary motion the wheels cut into the ground or rock and a clean hole is produced.”
Peter Sweeney’s innovative 1866 “Stone Drill” patent included a roller bit using “rapid rotary motion” similar to modern rotary drilling technologies.
The “drill-rod” was hollow and connected with a hose through which “a current of steam or water can be introduced in such a manner that the discharge of the dirt and dust from the bottom of the hole is facilitated.”
A 1917 rotary rig in the Coalinga, California, oilfield. Courtesy of the Joaquin Valley Geology Organization.
Better than cable-tool technology of the day, which lifted and dropped iron chisel-like bits, Sweeney claimed his drilling apparatus could be used with great advantage for making holes in hard rock, “in a horizontal, oblique, or vertical direction.”
Drilling operations could be continued without interruption, he added in his 1866 patent application, “with the exception of the time required for adding new sections to the drill rod as the depth of the hole increases. The dirt is discharged during the operation of boring and a clean hole is obtained into which the tubing can be introduced without difficulty.”
Perhaps even foreseeing the offshore exploration industry, Sweeney’s patent concluded with a note that “the apparatus can also be used with advantage for submarine operations.”
With the American oil industry booming, drilling contractors improved upon Sweeney’s idea. A new device was fitted to the rotary table that clamped around the drill pipe and turned. As this “kelly bushing” rotated, the pipe rotated – and with it the bit down hole. The torque of the rotary table was transmitted to the drill stem.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Sweeny’s 1866 Rotary Rig.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/technology/1866-patent-rotary-rig. Last Updated: December 30, 2019. Original Published Date: January 2, 2013.
“Small cannons throwing a three-inch solid shot are kept at various stations throughout the region…”
Early petroleum technologies included cannons for fighting oil-tank storage fires, especially in the great plains where lightning strikes often ignited derricks and tanks. Shooting cannon balls into the base of a burning tank allowed oil to drain into a holding pit until fire died.
“Oil Fires, like battles, are fought by artillery,” proclaimed a December 1884 article from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Lightning had struck the derrick, followed pipe connections into a nearby tank and ignited natural gas, which rises from freshly produced oil. Immediately following this blinding flash, the black smoke began to roll out,” noted the first-person account in Tech magazine.
The “A Thunder Storm in the Oil Country” article described what happened next:
“Without stopping to watch the burning tank-house and derrick, we followed the oil to see where it would go. By some mischance the mouth of the ravine had been blocked up and the stream turned abruptly and spread out over the alluvial plain,” reported the Tech article.
“Here, on a large smooth farm, were six iron storage tanks, about 80 feet in diameter and 25 feet high, each holding 30,000 barrels of oil,” it added, noting the burning oil “spread with fearful rapidity over the level surface” before reaching an oil storage tank.
“Suddenly, with loud explosion, the heavy plank and iron cover of the tank was thrown into the air, and thick smoke rolled out,” the writer observed. “Already the news of the fire had been telegraphed to the central office and all its available men and teams in the neighborhood ordered to the scene. The tanks, now heated on the outside as well as inside, foamed and bubbled like an enormous retort, every ejection only serving to increase the heat.”
The area of the fire rapidly extended to two more tanks: “These tanks, surrounded by fire, in turn boiled and foamed, and the heat, even at a distance, was so intense that the workmen could not approach near enough to dig ditches between the remaining tanks and the fire.”
Noting the arrival of “the long looked for cannon,” the article noted that “since the great destruction is caused by the oil becoming overheated, foaming and being projected to a distance, it is usually desirable to let it out of the tank to burn on the ground in thin layers; so small cannons throwing a three-inch solid shot are kept at various stations throughout the region for this purpose.”
The cannon was placed in position, “aimed at points below the supposed level of the oil and fired. The marksmanship at first was not very good, and as many shots glanced off the iron plates as penetrated, but after a while nearly every report was followed by an outburst. The oil in the three tanks was slowly drawn down by this means and did not again foam over the top, and the supply to the river being thus cut off the fire then soon died away.”
In the end, “it was not till the sixth day from that on which we saw the first tank ignited that the columns of flame and smoke disappeared. During this time 180,000 barrels of crude oil had been consumed, besides the six tanks, costing $10,000 each, destroyed,” concludes the 1884 MIT article.
Today, tourists visiting Corsicana, Texas, where oil was discovered while drilling for water in 1894, can see an oilfield cannon donated to the city by Mobil in 1969. Learn about the discovery in First Texas Oil Boom.
Another cannon can be found on exhibit in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, near the state’s first oil well. Discovery One Park, also features a full-sized replica drilling rig. Learn more in First Oklahoma Oil Well.
Another educated tourists in Ohio. The Wood County Historical Center and Museum in Bowling Green displays its own “unusual fire extinguisher” among its collection. The Buckeye Pipeline Company of Norwood donated the cannon, according to the museum’s Kelli King.
“The cannon, cast in North Baltimore (Ohio), was used in the 1920s in Cygnet before being moved to Northwood,” Kelli says, adding that more local history can be found in the museum’s documentary “Ohio Crude” and in its exhibit, “Wood County in Motion.” Museums in nearby Hancockand Allencounties also have interesting petroleum collections.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Oilfield Artillery fights Fires.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/technology/oilfield-artillery-fights-fires. Last Updated: December 16, 2019. Original Published Date: September 1, 2005.
A 1933 Texas well disaster would lead to advancements in directional drilling.
A Great Depression era disaster in a giant oilfield near Conroe, Texas, brought together the inventor of a revolutionary portable drilling rig and the father of directional drilling.
Although the Conroe well’s producing sands proved to be dangerously gas-charged, shallow and unstable, the oilfield – the third largest in the United States at the time – soon had 60 successful wells producing more than 65,000 of barrels of oil a day. The region north of Houston boomed as the Great Depression worsened. Disaster came in January 1933 when one of the wells blew out and erupted into flame. The runaway well cratered – completely swallowing nearby drilling rigs. (more…)