December 7, 1905 – Helium discovered in Natural Gas – 

University of Kansas professors Hamilton Cady and David McFarland revealed the importance of natural gas for producing helium when they discovered significant amounts of helium in natural gas from a well in Dexter, Kansas. Helium at the time was rare and considered a national strategic resource.

Kansas Professor Hamilton Cady at his desk.

Professor Hamilton Cady in 1905 discovered helium could be extracted from natural gas from a well in Dexter, Kansas. Photo courtesy American Chemical Society.

Two years earlier, the Gas, Oil and Developing Company had drilled a well at Dexter (45 miles southeast of Wichita) that produced “a howling gasser” from a depth of just 560 feet deep. The town envisioned a prosperous future attracting new industries, until it was learned the gas would not burn. After experiments found helium’s association with natural gas, the K.U. scientists predicted the element would no longer be rare, “but a common element, existing in goodly quantity for uses that are yet to be found for it.”

Although the Dexter well produced “The Gas That Wouldn’t Burn,” it led to scientific advances that lighted the way for a multi-million dollar industry, according to the American Chemical Society, which designated the discovery of Kansas helium in natural gas a national historic chemical landmark in 2000.

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December 8, 1931 – Advanced Blowout Preventer patented

Improving upon the success of Cameron Iron Works’ mechanically operated ram-type blowout preventer (BOP), James S. Abercrombie patented a “Fluid Pressure Operated Blow Out Preventer” designed to be operate “instantaneously to prevent a blowout when an emergency arises.” After the success of the first ram-type BOP of 1922, the company’s machine shop in Humble, Texas, manufactured the latest rapidly reacting device in time for discoveries in the Oklahoma City oilfield.

December 9, 1921 – Scientists discover Anti-Knock Properties of Leaded Gas

Working for General Motors, scientists Thomas Midgely Jr. and Charles Kettering discovered the antiknock properties of tetraethyl lead. They had spent years examining properties of knock suppressors such as bromine and iodine, but when tetraethyl lead (diluted to a ratio of one part per thousand) was added to gasoline of a one-cylinder engine, the knocking abruptly disappeared.

Public health concerns willl led to phase-out of tetraethyl lead in gasoline.

GM’s leaded compound went on sale for the first time on February 2, 1923, at a service station in Dayton, Ohio. High-octane leaded gas would prove vital during World War II — even as concerns about tetraethyl lead’s serious health dangers continued to grow. These concerns resulted in its phase-out for use in cars beginning in 1976, but tetraethyl lead is still used in aviation fuel). Learn more in Ethyl “Anti-Knock” Gas.

December 9, 1924 – Oilfield adds to Oklahoma Drilling Boom 

Another Oklahoma drilling boom began in the Seminole area following discovery of a giant oilfield. The Amerada Petroleum Company well uncovered the Bethel field and a new, highly prolific (and highly pressurized) oil-producing zone, the Wilcox sand. In October 1923, Joe Cromwell also had found a Seminole area oilfield with a well that produced 300 barrels of oil a day from about 3,500 feet deep. In March 1926, yet another discovery well opened the Earlsboro field, which was followed a few days days later by a well producing 1,100 barrels of oil a day from the Seminole City field. Learn more in Seminole Oil Boom.

December 10, 1844 – Pennsylvania couple adopt future “Coal Oil Johnny”

A baby who would grow up to become famously known as “Coal Oil Johnny” was adopted by Culbertson and Sarah McClintock. John Steele (adopted with his sister Permelia) was brought home to the McClintock farm on the banks of Oil Creek in Venango County, Pennsylvania.

petroleum history december

John Washington Steele

The petroleum drilling boom prompted by Edwin L. Drake’s discovery 15 years later – America’s first commercial oil well – would lead to the widow McClintock making a fortune in oil royalties. She left the money to Johnny when she died in 1864. At age 20, he inherited $24,500 and $2,800 a day in royalties. “Coal Oil Johnny” Steele earned his name in 1865 after such a legendary year of extravagance that the New York Times later reported: “In his day, Steele was the greatest spender the world had ever known…he threw away $3 million ($45 million in 2013 dollars) in less than a year.” Learn about his extraordinary life in Legend of “Coal Oil Johnny.

December 10, 1955 – LIFE magazine features Stella Dysart’s Uranium Well

Mrs. Stella Dysart spent decades fruitlessly searching for oil in New Mexico. Some questionable business dealings led to bankruptcy in the late 1930s, but in 1955, a radioactive uranium sample from one of her failed oil wells made her a very wealthy woman.

LIFE magazine featured Stella Dysart in December 1955.

LIFE magazine featured Stella Dysart in December 1955.

Dysart was 78 years old when LIFE magazine featured her picture with the caption: “Wealthy landowner, Mrs. Stella Dysart, stands before an abandoned oil rig which she set up on her property in a long vain search for oil. Now uranium is being mined there and Mrs. Dysart, swathed in mink, gets a plump royalty.”

Just three years before the article, Dysart had been $25,000 in debt when cuttings from one of her “dusters” in McKinley County registered strong Geiger counter readings. Test wells confirmed that she owned the world’s richest deposit of high-grade uranium ore. Learn more in Mrs. Dysart’s Uranium Well.

December 10, 1967 – Project Gasbuggy tests Nuclear Fracturing

Government scientists detonated a 29-kiloton nuclear warhead in a natual gas well about 60 miles east of Farmington, New Mexico. It was “fracking” late 1960s style, designed to test the feasibility of using nuclear explosions to stimulate release of gas trapped in shale deposits.

Scientists in December 1967 lowered a 29-kiloton nuclear device into a New Mexico gas well.

Scientists in December 1967 lowered a 29-kiloton nuclear device into a New Mexico gas well.

Project Gasbuggy included experts from the Atomic Energy Commission, the Bureau of Mines, and El Paso Natural Gas Company. Near three low-production natural gas wells, the team drilled to a depth of 4,240 feet and lowered a 13-foot by 18-inch diameter nuclear device into the borehole. The experimental explosion was part a series of federal projects known as “Plowshare,” created in the late 1950s to explore peaceful uses of nuclear devices.

Gasbuggy’s down-hole detonation created a molten glass-lined cavern 160 feet wide and 333 feet tall that collapsed within seconds. Although the well produced 295 million cubic feet of natural gas, the gas was radioactive and useless. Learn more in Project Gasbuggy tests Nuclear “Fracking.”

December 11, 1950 – Federal Offshore grows beyond Cannon Shot

After decades of controversy and a 1947 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the federal government’s “paramount rights” offshore were established beyond a three nautical mile limit – the 18th century precedent based on the theoretical maximum range of smooth-bore cannon. The court issued a supplemental decree that prohibited any further offshore development without federal approval. The first Outer Continental Shelf lease sale held by the Bureau of Land Management in 1954 earned the government almost $130 million. Learn more in Offshore Petroleum History.

December 11, 1972 – First Geologist walks on Moon

Astronaut and geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt stepped on the moon, joining  Apollo 17 mission commander Eugene Cernan. Lunar experiments included a surface gravimeter to measure buried geological structures near the landing site. Schmitt also returned with the largest lunar sample ever collected.

Geologist Harrison "Jack" Schmitt examines a boulder on moon.

Geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt examined a boulder at the Apollo 17 Taurus-Littrow Valley lunar landing site in December 1972. Photo courtesy NASA.

Schmitt, who had received a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard in 1964, was the first and last scientist on the moon, Cernan explained in a 2007 NASA oral history project. When Cernan followed Schmitt back into the Lunar Module on December 14, 1972, he and the lunar geologist were the last of 12 men who ever walked on the moon. All of the Apollo moon launches (and modern SpaceX rockets) have been fueled by the 19th century petroleum product kerosene.

December 13, 1905 – Hybrids evolve with Gas Shortage Fears

“The available supply of gasoline, as is well known, is quite limited, and it behooves the farseeing men of the motor car industry to look for likely substitutes,” declared a 1905 article in the Horseless Age.

1902 Porsche used a gas engine to generate electricity

An early hybrid, this 1902 Porsche used a gas engine to generate electricity to power motors mounted on the front wheel hubs.

The popular monthly journal, first published in 1895, described the earliest motor technologies, including the use of compressed air propulsion systems, electric cars, steam and diesel power — as well as hybrids. About the same time as the first American auto show in 1900, engineer Ferdinand Porsche introduced his “Mixte” in Europe. The gas-electric hybrid used a four-cylinder gasoline engine to generate electricity. The engine powered two three-horsepower electric motors mounted on the front wheel hubs.The car could achieve a top speed of 50 mph.

December 13, 1931 – Oilfield discovered in Conroe, Texas

Independent producer George Strake Sr. completed the South Texas Development Company No. 1 well eight miles southeast of Conroe, Texas, where he had leased 8,500 acres. By the end of 1932 the oilfield was producing more than 65,000 of barrels of oil a day. But disaster struck at the Conroe field in 1933, when several wells collapsed into a burning crater of oil. The crisis came to an end thanks to relief wells drilled by George Failing and his newly patented truck-mounted drilling rig. Learn about slant-drilling and other oilfield technologies in Technology and the Conroe Crater.


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 Copyright © 2020 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.


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