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.
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…)
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…)
Government scientists blast deep natural gas wells trying to increase production.
Scientists lowered a 13-foot by 18-inches diameter nuclear device into a New Mexico gas well. The experimental 29-kiloton Project Gasbuggy bomb was detonated at a depth of 4,240 feet. Los Alamos Lab photo.
Project Gasbuggy was the first in a series of Atomic Energy Commission downhole nuclear detonations to release natural gas trapped in shale. This was “fracking” late 1960s style.
In December 1967, government scientists – exploring the peacetime use of controlled atomic explosions – detonated Gasbuggy, a 29-kiloton nuclear device they had lowered into a natural gas well in rural New Mexico.
The Hiroshima bomb was about 15 kilotons.
Project Gasbuggy’s team included experts from the Atomic Energy Commission, the U.S. Bureau of Mines and El Paso Natural Gas Company. They sought a new, powerful method for fracturing petroleum-bearing formations.
Near three low-production natural gas wells, the team drilled to a depth of 4,240 feet – and lowered a 13-foot-long by 18-inch-wide nuclear device into the borehole.
Plowshare Program: Safe uses for Nukes
The 1967 experimental explosion in New Mexico was part of a wider set of experiments known as Plowshare, a program established by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1957 to explore the constructive use of nuclear explosive devices.
The 1967 nuclear detonation produced 295 million cubic feet of natural gas – and Tritium radiation.
“The reasoning was that the relatively inexpensive energy available from nuclear explosions could prove useful for a wide variety of peaceful purposes,” notes a report later prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy.
From 1961 to 1973, researchers carried out dozens of separate experiments under the Plowshare program – setting off 29 nuclear detonations.
Most of the experiments focused on creating craters and canals. Among other goals, it was hoped the Panama Canal could be inexpensively widened. “In the end, although less dramatic than nuclear excavation, the most promising use for nuclear explosions proved to be for stimulation of natural gas production,” explains the September 2011 government report.
Tests, mostly conducted in Nevada, also took place in the petroleum fields of New Mexico and Colorado. Project Gasbuggy was the first of three nuclear fracturing experiments that focused on stimulating natural gas production. Two later tests took place in Colorado.
Atomic Energy Commission scientists worked with experts from the Astral Oil Company of Houston, with engineering support from CER Geonuclear Corporation of Las Vegas. The experimental wells, which required custom drill bits to meet the hole diameter and narrow hole deviation requirements, were drilled by Denver-based Signal Drilling Company or its affiliate, Superior Drilling Company. Project Rulison was the second of the three nuclear gas well stimulation projects.
Gasbuggy: “Site of the first United States underground nuclear experiment for the stimulation of low-productivity gas reservoirs.”
In 1969, Project Rulison – at a site near Rulison, Colorado – detonated a 43-kiloton nuclear device almost 8,500 feet underground to produce commercially viable amounts of natural gas.
A few years later, project Rio Blanco, northwest of Rifle, Colorado, was designed to increase natural gas production from low-permeability sandstone.
The May 1973 Rio Blanco test consisted of the nearly simultaneous detonation of three 33-kiloton devices in a single well, according to the Office of Environmental Management. The explosions occurred at depths of 5,838, 6,230, and 6,689 feet below ground level. It would prove to be the last experiment of the Plowshare program.
Although a 50-kiloton nuclear explosion to fracture deep oil shale deposits – Project Bronco – was proposed, it never took place. Growing knowledge (and concern) about radioactivity ended these tests for the peaceful use of nuclear explosions. The Plowshare program was canceled in 1975. In its September 2011 report on all the nuclear test projects, the U.S. Department of Energy concluded:
By 1974, approximately 82 million dollars had been invested in the nuclear gas stimulation technology program (i.e., nuclear tests Gasbuggy, Rulison, and Rio Blanco). It was estimated that even after 25 years of gas production of all the natural gas deemed recoverable, that only 15 to 40 percent of the investment could be recovered. At the same time, alternative, non-nuclear technologies were being developed, such as hydrofracturing. Consequently, under the pressure of economic and environmental concerns, the Plowshare Program was discontinued at the end of FY 1975.
Government scientists believed a nuclear device would provide “a bigger bang for the buck than nitroglycerin” for fracturing dense shales and releasing natural gas. Los Alamos Lab photo.
“There was no mushroom cloud, but on December 10, 1967, a nuclear bomb exploded less than 60 miles from Farmington,” explained historian Wade Nelson in an article written three decades later, “Nuclear explosion shook Farmington.”
The 4,042-foot-deep detonation created a molten glass-lined cavern about 160 feet in diameter and 333 feet tall. It collapsed within seconds.
Subsequent measurements indicated fractures extended more than 200 feet in all directions – and significantly increased natural gas production.
A September 1967 Popular Mechanics article had described how nuclear explosives could improve previous fracturing technologies, including gunpowder, dynamite, TNT – and fractures “made by forcing down liquids at high pressure.” (Erle Halliburton had tested hydraulic fracturing in the late 1940s.)
An illustration from Popular Mechanics shows how a nuclear explosive would improve earlier technologies by creating bigger fractures and a “huge cavity that will serve as a reservoir for the natural gas.”
Scientists predicted that nuclear explosives would create more and bigger fractures “and hollow out a huge cavity that will serve as a reservoir for the natural gas” released from the fractures.
“Geologists had discovered years before that setting off explosives at the bottom of a well would shatter the surrounding rock and could stimulate the flow of oil and gas,” Nelson explains.
“It was believed a nuclear device would simply provide a bigger bang for the buck than nitroglycerin, up to 3,500 quarts of which would be used in a single shot,” Nelson notes.
The underground detonation was part of a bigger program begun in the late 1950s to explore peaceful uses of nuclear explosions.
“Today, all that remains at the site is a plaque warning against excavation and perhaps a trace of tritium in your milk,” Nelson adds in his 1999 article.
Nelson quotes James Holcomb, site foreman for El Paso Natural Gas, who saw a pair of white vans that delivered pieces of the disassembled nuclear bomb.
“They put the pieces inside this lead box, this big lead box…I (had) shot a lot of wells with nitroglycerin and I thought, ‘That’s not going to do anything,” reported Holcomb. A series of three production tests, each lasting 30 days, was completed during the first half of 1969. Nelson notes that records indicate the Gasbuggy well produced 295 million cubic feet of gas.
“Nuclear Energy: Good Start for Gasbuggy,” proclaimed the December 22, 1967, TIME magazine. The Department of Energy, which had hoped for much higher production, determined that Tritium radiation contaminated the gas. It flared – burned off – the gas during production tests that lasted until 1973. Tritium is a naturally occurring radioactive form of hydrogen. A 2012 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission report noted, “Tritium emits a weak form of radiation, a low-energy beta particle similar to an electron. The tritium radiation does not travel very far in air and cannot penetrate the skin.”
A plaque marks the site of Project Gasbuggy in the Carson National Forest, 90 miles northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
According to Nelson, radioactive contamination from the flaring “was miniscule compared to the fallout produced by atmospheric weapons tests in the early 1960s.” From the well site, Holcomb called the test a success. “The well produced more gas in the year after the shot than it had in all of the seven years prior,” he said.
In 2008, the Energy Department’s Office of Legacy Management assumed responsibility for long-term surveillance and maintenance at the Gasbuggy site. A marker placed at the Gasbuggy site by the Department of Energy in November 1978 reads:
Site of the first United States underground nuclear experiment for the stimulation of low-productivity gas reservoirs. A 29 kiloton nuclear explosive was detonated at a depth of 4227 feet below this surface location on December 10, 1967. No excavation, drilling, and/or removal of materials to a true vertical depth of 1500 feet is permitted within a radius of 100 feet of this surface location. Nor any similar excavation, drilling, and/or removal of subsurface materials between the true vertical depth of 1500 feet to 4500 feet is permitted within a 600 foot radius of t 29 n. R 4 w. New Mexico principal meridian, Rio Arriba County, New Mexico without U.S. Government permission.
Today, hydraulic fracturing – pumping a mixture of fluid and sand down a well at extremely high pressure – stimulates production of natural gas wells. Read more inShooters – A “Fracking” History.
Parker Drilling Rig No. 114
Parker Drilling Rig No. 114 – among those used to drill wells for nuclear detonations, was later modified to drill conventual wells. Since 1991 the 17-story rig has welcomed visitors to Elk City, Oklahoma, and the now shuttered Anadarko Museum of Natural History. Photo by Bruce Wells.
In 1969, Parker Drilling Company signed a contract with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to drill a series of holes up to 120 inches in diameter and 6,500 feet in depth in Alaska and Nevada for additional nuclear bomb tests. Parker Drilling’s Rig No. 114 was one of three special rigs built to drill the wells.
Founded in Tulsa in 1934 by Gifford C. Parker, by the 1960s Parker Drilling had set numerous world records for deep and extended-reach drilling. According to the Baker Library at the Harvard Business School, the company “created its own niche by developing new deep-drilling technology that has since become the industry standard.”
Following completion of the nuclear-test wells, Parker Drilling modified Rig No. 114 and its two sister rigs to drill conventual wells at record-breaking depths. After retiring Rig No. 114 from service, Parker Drilling loaned the giant to Elk City, Oklahoma, as an energy education exhibit next to the Anadarko Museum of Natural History. Since 1991 the has welcomed visitors to traveling on Route 66 or I-40 and the now closed oil museum. Learn more about deep drilling in Anadarko Basin in Depth.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Project Gasbuggy tests Nuclear “Fracking”.” Author: AOGHS.ORG Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/technology/project-gasbuggy. Last Updated: December 8, 2019. Original Published Date: December 10, 2013.