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A Civil War Colonel Invented Fracking in the 1860s

His first invention was an ‘oil well torpedo,’ but it was followed by others

An early oil well. (Library of Congress)
smithsonian.com

If there’s one word that can be associated with the modern period of oil and natural gas exploration, it’s “fracking.”

While the scale of fracking operations today is much, much more significant than the inventor of fracking probably could have imagined, the controversial technique itself is more than 150 years old. The first fracking-related patent, for an “oil well torpedo,” was issued on this day in 1865 to Edward Roberts, who went on to found a company that commercialized and developed the practice of "shooting the well." 

Roberts was a Civil War veteran who had witnessed the phenomenon of explosions in narrow spaces on the battlefield and wanted to translate that technology into something that would work for the burgeoning oil industry. The first productive oil well in the United States had been drilled less than a decade before, in 1858. 

Although both fracking’s scale and the techniques used to do it have changed since Roberts’s invention, the basic principle is the same. According to the Seismological Society of America, what we think of now as fracking “uses high-pressure injections of fluid to break apart rock and release trapped oil and natural gas.” Fracturing the rock creates pathways for the oil to drain into the oil well.

Early fracking worked on a similar principle, writes the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. Roberts quickly figured out that simply cracking the rock with the pressure of an explosion wouldn’t be enough, and started using a process he called “fluid tamping,” effectively filling the borehole with water. “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,” writes the society.

The usefulness and simplicity of Roberts’s technique meant that many sought to copy it and avoid the fee he charged for using the “Roberts torpedo:” $100-$200 and a 15 percent royalty on the increased oil flow. As a result, Roberts paid more than $250,000 for Pinkerton detectives, lawyers and others to protect his patent.

There was money to be made in oil, as the growth of companies like Standard Oil demonstrates. And a method like fracking, which could dramatically increase the output of an oil well, was good business. “Torpedoists” quickly started using nitroglycerin instead of black powder to ignite the torpedoes, the society writes, and in fact nitroglycerin was used until 1990.

Hydraulic fracking—the technique primarily used today—wouldn’t come along until March 1949, in Duncan, Oklahoma, the home of Halliburton. Based on the technique pioneered by Roberts, it has become one of the most controversial aspects of the oil and gas industry.

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