A Kansas professor in 1905 discovered helium could be extracted from natural gas.
In May 1903, The Gas, Oil and Developing Company drilled an exploratory well on William Greenwell’s farm near Dexter, Kansas, about 45 miles southeast of Wichita.
A stock certificate from The Gas, Oil and Developing Company is noteworthy to collectors – but not for producing great wealth for its investors. For this exploration company, which disappeared more than a century ago, more interesting is its connection to “The Gas That Wouldn’t Burn.”
At a depth of just 560 feet, the company’s drill bit struck a formation that produced “a howling gasser” that flowed an estimated nine million cubic feet of natural gas a day.
The discovery of natural gas in that quantity was sure to reward stockholders and bring immediate growth and industry to Dexter.
“The town, envisioning a prosperous future, advertised its discovery far and wide,” notes one historian. There was just one problem. It was not just natural gas the well produced.
“Crowds gathered to see the well fired, then watched in dismay as the roaring gas blew out every flame brought near it,” notes a Kansas State Historical Marker.
As the Cowley County marker explains, the well produced “The Gas That Wouldn’t Burn.” For two years it was scornfully called “Wind Gas.”
The Gas, Oil and Developing Company disappeared by the time analysis revealed the natural gas contained almost two percent helium.
The Dexter discovery will later help launch the first U.S. Navy airships.
Scientists determined that Dexter’s gas wouldn’t burn because it contained mostly nitrogen with some methane, but for the first time in history, they found helium as a constituent of natural gas.
“This primary discovery of helium in natural gas is credited to Professors H. P. Cady and D. F. McFarland of the University of Kansas” explains the historical marker 12 miles west of Cedar Vale at the K-15 junction,
According to the American Chemical Society, any practical use for helium was years away. “In the decade that followed, helium remained a curiosity and the entire U. S. supply rested in three glass tubes on a shelf.”
The historical marker outside Dexter continues:
Helium was first used in balloons during World War I. For a few years, beginning in 1927, a privately owned commercial plant at Dexter supplied gas for Navy dirigibles. Later valuable uses developed in industry.
In the 1950’s, demand soared when helium became essential to the operation of nuclear reactors and ballistic missiles. Though Dexter’s well no longer produces, the torch that wouldn’t burn lighted the way to a multi-million dollar industry.
Today, industrial extraction plants draw helium from natural gas with annual global production of about 175 million cubic meters.
Although the United States remains the world’s largest producer of helium, The Gas, Oil and Developing Company has disappeared into thin air. Learn more Kansas petroleum history, beginning in 1892, in Kansas Well reveals Mid-Continent.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Gas, Oil and Developing Company.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/stocks/gas-oil-and-developing-company-the. Last Updated: December 2, 2019. Original Published Date: February 14, 2013.