A History of Fracking

by charlie on June 12, 2012

For more than 100 years, nitroglycerin detonations increased a well’s production from petroleum bearing formations. Modern hydraulic fracturing technology can trace its roots to April 25, 1865, when Civil War veteran Col. Edward A. L. Roberts received the first of his many patents for an “exploding torpedo.”

In May 1990, Pennsylvania’s Otto Cupler Torpedo Company “shot” its last oil well using liquid nitroglycerin – abandoning nitro but continuing to pursue a fundamental oilfield technology.

Although President Rick Tallini remains in the business of improving oil wells’ production, today’s fracturing systems are much advanced from Lt. Col. Edward A. L. Roberts’ original 1865-1866 patents.

In February 1865, Col. Roberts formed the Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company. His many patents will give him a monopoly on all types of torpedo used in the oil industry. The company stock certificate, which includes early oilfield vignettes, today is worth almost $300 to collectors.

“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.

Tallini’s company is based in Titusville — where the American petroleum industry began on August 27, 1859.

Today, about 30 percent of U.S. recoverable oil and natural gas reserves are accessible through hydraulic “fracking” — about seven billion barrels of oil and 600 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Civil War Veteran invents an Oil Well “Exploding Torpedo”

Civil War veteran Col. Edward Roberts had fought with a New Jersey Regiment at the 1862 battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Amidst the chaos of the battle, he had seen the results of explosive Confederate artillery rounds plunging into the narrow millrace (canal) that obstructed the battlefield.

The Virginia battlefield observation gave him an idea that would evolve into what he described as “superincumbent fluid tamping.” His revolutionary invention will greatly increase the oil and natural gas production of America’s early petroleum industry.

Torpedoes filled with gunpowder (later nitroglycerin) were lowered into wells and ignited by a weight dropped along a suspension wire onto a percussion cap.

Roberts was awarded U.S. Patent (No. 59,936) in November 1866 for what would become known as the Roberts Torpedo. The new technology would revolutionize the young oil and natural gas industry by vastly increasing production from individual wells.

The Titusville Morning Herald newspaper reported:

Our attention has been called to a series of experiments that have been made in the wells of various localities by Col. Roberts, with his newly patented torpedo. The results have in many cases been astonishing.

The torpedo, which is an iron case, containing an amount of powder varying from fifteen to twenty pounds, is lowered into the well, down to the spot, as near as can be ascertained, where it is necessary to explode it.

It is then exploded by means of a cap on the torpedo, connected with the top of the shell by a wire.

Filling the borehole with water provided Roberts his “fluid tamping” to concentrate concussion and more efficiently fracture surrounding oil strata. The technique had an immediate impact — production from some wells increased 1,200 percent within a week of being shot – and the Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company flourished. Roberts charged $100 to $200 per torpedo and a royalty of one-fifteenth of the increased flow of oil.

Attempting to avoid Roberts’ fees, some oilmen hired unlicensed practitioners who operated by “moonlight” with their own devices. The inventor was outraged.

Roberts hired Pinkerton detectives and lawyers to protect his patent — and is said to have been responsible for more civil litigation in defense of a patent than anyone in U. S. history. He spent more than $250,000 to stop the unlawful “torpedoists” or “moonlighters.”

All Content and Photos Credited to  the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. AOGHS is a 501 (c)-3 nonprofit program dedicated to preserving the history of U.S. petroleum exploration by providing advocacy for museums and other organizations that work to preserve that history. Support their work here

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