Drilling or “making hole” began long before oil or natural gas were anything more than flammable curiosities found seeping from the ground. For centuries, digging by hand or shovel was the best technologies that existed to pry into the earth’s secrets.
Then the spring pole harnessed the resiliency of a bent tree to assist in pummeling a hole into the ground to find water. Ancient histories record the technique, which is still used in some corners of the world. While repeatedly kicking down a stirrup was primitive and slow, the spring pole’s rope and chisel were practical drilling technologies.
Salt was an essential commodity for preserving food and extracting it from brine was a simple process. In 1802 in what is now West Virginia, salt brine drillers David and Joseph Ruffner took 18-months to drill through 40-feet of bedrock to a total depth of 58-feet using a spring pole.
The Ruffner brothers drilling ingenuity and innovation made the Kanawha River Valley a major salt manufacturing and distribution center in the early 1800s. Many early drilling technologies were developed there.
Although there was money to be made from salt brine wells, sometimes a good well would be fouled with the intrusion of unsought and unwanted oil. The rainbow sheen and pungent smell of oil was bad news to brine drillers.
The advent of cable tool drilling introduced the wooden derrick into the changing American landscape. Using the same basic notion of chiseling a hole deeper and deeper into the earth, but adding the miracle of steam power and clever mechanical engineering, wells could be drilled far more efficiently.
Frequent stops were needed to remove the chipped-away rock and other material, bail out water – and sharpen the bit. Bull wheels and hemp rope repeatedly hoisted and dropped heavy iron drill strings and a curious variety of bits deep into the borehole. Oil was still an adversary to those in search of either fresh water or brine.
However, savvy businessmen like the Ruffner brothers and Samuel Kier of Tarentum, Pa., learned to profit from this oil.
It had long been recognized that oil could be collected and used as a medicine, lubricant, and even a foul-smelling, smoky illuminant. American Indians gathered oil by using blankets to soak it up from natural seeps. The Ruffner brothers sold their oil to marketers of patent medicines and lubrication products.
A decade before the birth of the petroleum industry, Samuel Kier of Pittsburgh, Pa., sold 50-cent, half-pint bottles of Pennsylvania “Rock Oil” proclaiming its "Wonderful Medical Virtues." His advertisements featured cable tool derricks drilling brine wells.
When a Yale chemist, Benjamin Silliman, found that oil could be distilled into a kerosene illuminant, the world changed forever. Inspired entrepreneurs formed the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Co. with the idea of using cable tool drilling to extract oil they hoped to find near Pennsylvania’s known oil seeps at Oil Creek. It worked, and the petroleum age was born.
Kier soon abandoned his patent medicine and went into the kerosene refining business, buying all the oil he could get.
“Colonel” Edwin Drake’s 1859 discovery brought the drilling boom. Soon, cable tool rigs were everywhere, pounding into the earth, searching for oil. In June 1860, J.C. Rathbone, used a steam engine to power a rig and produced a 100-barrel-per-day gusher at only 140 feet.
In Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, the soft soil yielded to cable-tool drilling. But further west, oilmen found resistant rock strata that made drilling far more difficult.
A new technology answered the call of necessity and the lure of opportunity. Rotary drilling is most often associated with the spectacular Spindletop Hill discovery near Beaumont, Texas, in 1901.
Instead of the repetitive lift and drop of heavy cable-tool bits, rotary drilling introduced the hollow drill stem which enabled broken rock debris to be washed out of the borehole with re-circulated mud while the rotating drill bit cut deeper.
Rotary drilling uses fluids (drilling mud) to circulate out the rock as it is chipped away. The fluid washes out the drill hole as it goes, making the process more efficient. Drilling mud also stops an oil well from bursting forth unexpectedly – gushers.
Meanwhile, grinding their way through layers of rock rather than pounding, the heavy fishtail bits made history. Rotary rigs soon became the preferred means of drilling for oil, although to this day they still share the oil patch with a few cable tool rigs. The record depth recorded for a cable tool rig is 11,145 feet.
On Russia’s Kola Peninsula, a rotary rig reached more than 40,000 feet after ten years of drilling.
Hughes' Drill Bit
Fishtail bits became obsolete in 1909 when Howard Hughes Sr. introduced the twin-cone roller bit. History remembers several men who were trying to develop better drill bit technologies, but it was Hughes who made it happen.
The Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) notes that about the same time Hughes developed his bit, Granville A. Humason of Shreveport, La., patented the first cross-roller rock bit, the forerunner of the Reed cross-roller bit.
By 1934, Hughes had patented a three-cone bit, an enduring design that remains much the same today. Rotary drilling revolutionized the search for oil by allowing deeper wells through harder rock formations.
More innovations followed. Frank Christensen and George Christensen developed the earliest diamond bit in the 1941. The tungsten carbide tooth came into use in the early 1950s. The company Hughes founded would merge in 1987 with one founded in 1927 by Carl Baker (Baker Oil Tool).
In 1990, Baker Hughes purchased the Christensen company, which in 1992 resulted in the first rolling cone bit company and first diamond bit company becoming today’s Hughes Christensen, a Baker Hughes company.