The Wayback Machine

As someone who has applied a lot of effort to coherently and persuasively describing the features and benefits of complex oilfield technology, I have a special interest in the way it used to be done. With humor, as it turns out, which was fun to pass along in a 2007 column:

Talking technology is not like it used to be.

In an early example of the petroleum publishing industry’s nose for business, the first issue of The Petroleum Engineer (this magazine’s predecessor) appeared in October, 1929—just in time for the great stock market crash. But the magazine steamed ahead and left in its wake a highly readable history of the industry contemporaneously written in articles, commentary, and advertisements.

Especially the advertisements. As you sail past this page and into a month’s worth of the latest tools and techniques, you may not give much thought to how it used to be done. That’s OK—we have. Let’s set the Wayback Machine for 1929, do a flyover of some marvels of the era, and especially chuckle at the colorful ways in which they were pitched.

An item you don’t see much anymore is a steam-operated blowout preventer. This was an early attempt at remote control that “Permits installing a four-way operating valve (by which the preventer is opened or closed) at a safe distance from your well.”

Here’s a product with an unexpected benefit: a certain tubing catcher allowed you to be “nonchalant,” surely a word not then (or now) on the tip of the toolpusher tongue. “How beastly stupid it all seems, when you really get down to it, how the men should tear about, hither and thither, crying out against the flames and troubling you with their silly fears. You know, you really can’t be bothered. The cool, fragrant enjoyment of your cigarette is readily more preferable than a burning derrick, when you have a…Catcher at the bottom of your tubing.” That may be a degree of nonchalance beyond the capacity of most toolpushers.

A more straightforward appeal to reason appeared in an ad for a certain drill pipe protector, which offered “40 incontestable reasons” for using it. It’s true that some technologies appear deceptively simple, and there may be excellent reasons to use this one. But it doesn’t seem possible that there could be 40 of them.

No tool is complete without a catchy name, and it would be hard to top the Zero Hour Electric Bomb. Its maker claims that it “…is 99 94/100% perfect. The chances of its failure to operate are too small to be computed in ordinary mathematics.” Perhaps they are, but the company apparently was able to use ordinary mathematics to compute the product’s degree of perfection to two decimal places, anyway.

One valve manufacturer actually offered US $250 first prize (remember, this is 1929) in a contest for the best slogan. Apparently, they decided its current slogan—“Won’t leak… Won’t stick”—wasn’t snappy enough. There was also a $100 dollar second prize, $50 third prize, four $10 prizes and 12 $5 prizes. Slogan quality must have tailed off somewhere in the $5 range, but give the company credit for incentivizing the process.

An odd bit of economics is on display in a well-known bit manufacturer’s ad proclaiming “…a substantial reduction in the price of …Cones. This price reduction is made possible by the great demand for …Cones throughout the Rotary Fields of the world.” Pricing decisions seem to follow a different pattern these days.

A swab tool ad featured an imaginary character, “His Highness, the Reerseet of Sedan,” whose comprehension of the industry was limited. “The nearest thing he ever saw to a gushing oil well was a fizz bottle, going at full tilt. If his highness ever rammed his hand into a small-mouthed jar to get a cherry or a pickle, he’ll understand why the [company’s] Swab brings up every ounce of oil it starts out with.”

Perhaps as a reaction to that overly simplistic description, an orifice meter company went the other way, eruditely relating how “Tablets of stone, previous to 2234 B.C., tell how Chaldean astronomers used the ORIFICE principle so accurately that their computations of the synodic and periodic months fell short of our modern time by less than 5 seconds. The Chaldeans’ method was simple. By comparing the quantity of water discharged through an orifice during the time occupied by the sun crossing the horizon the morning of the equinox, with the amount discharged through the same orifice at the next sunrise, they discovered that the amount discharged between the two risings of the sun was 720 times the amount discharged during sunrise on the equinoctial morning. They thus inferred that the sun’s orbit measured 720 times its disc, and from that they derived a unit to measure space and time.”

“Dr. Con Tortion, celebrated osteopath” is a seemingly well-qualified spokesman for a tong manufacturer. “Does he know his joints? Say, when it comes to knowing the joints, he’s better than Benny the bootlegger. Dr. Con Tortion is wrapped up in osteopathy and personally comes in contact with more tough joints, every day, than there are on the Bowery. He has a grip that is the envy of the osteopathic world, but he admits that there is one grip that’s got it all over his grip like a diamond studded wardrobe trunk.”


No, this isn’t about a Fifty Shades of Gray prequel, with a kinky Captain Bligh, in a leather waistcoat, as the lead flagellator. I merely want to point out that flog is golf spelled backward.

Just a coincidence? I think not…

You’re good at a lot of things. Why aren’t you good at golf? Didn’t the Bender Stik, Orange Whip, PlaneSwing, Speed Whoosh, Smash Bag, Power Sleeve, Frogger, GolfJOC, Putter Cube, Swing Sock, SmartGlove, Flatball, or hundreds of other training aids work? How about the new clubs? New grips for the new clubs? New balls? New shoes? Lessons in magazines? Lessons on TV? Lessons online? Lessons in books? Lessons with teachers? Windmilling at range balls? Yeah, same here.

One of the worst things that can afflict you on the golf course is to stand over your ball on the first tee, with six swing thoughts, five of them beginning with “Don’t.” A huge industry is dedicated to extirpating those thoughts, or at least collecting money on the attempt. Arnie’s Army (remember?) is not the fans, it’s the thousands of self-proclaimed swing wizards, each with his or her own special path to the promised land of split fairways, jarred putts, and sub-bogey rounds.

Unfortunately, golf is not like bowling, where 300 is a perfect game (in its defense, I never lost a bowling ball). So, anything that will “take 10 strokes off your game” is sort of like an erectile dysfunction drug in reverse. At bottom, golf played well means expending the least possible effort. The wrong direction romantically, it’s golf’s Holy Grail.

It’s said that golf is a game and not a sport, and therefore takes place mostly between one’s ears. That might be true, but I haven’t seen much correlation between intelligence and golf-course success. In fact, the game invites the kind of overthinking the swing-thought problem illustrates so well. If overthinking is a smart-guy problem, then I’ll bet some of the more fanatical of them would trade ten points of IQ for every stroke off their handicaps. I would, but I couldn’t afford it.

To me, golf’s biggest upside is simply being on the golf course. It’s just a great place to spend four or five hours outdoors. Often, the course is place of great beauty and serenity. Within its boundaries, a gentle breeze tickles lovely trees surrounding a carpet of green, while placid lakes are dappled by the warming sun. Squirrels scurry about, birdsongs serenade, and off in the distance, if you listen carefully, you can sometimes hear… GODDAMMIT! followed by the telltale helicopter sound of a golf club whirling through the air.

There’s even more to like. Golf’s rituals are as comforting as a church’s. They are derived from golf’s etiquette, which is the only thing a new player has to get right on the first day. No one except your friends will make fun of the whiff, top, chunk, banana ball, shank, blade, duck hook, worm burner, sky ball, or foozle you just hit—the one that lands on the beach, in the Big Ball Washer, the cabbage, jungle, OB, or puts you in jail. We’ve all hit that same shot, and soon we’ll hit it again. But curse the newbie who walks on a line (or casts a shadow on it), does not tend the pin, hits out of turn, hits into the players ahead of him (“I didn’t think it would go that far” is an excuse guaranteed to infuriate), plays the wrong ball, does not mark his ball on the green, or makes any sound whatsoever during a fellow player’s backswing.

A non-golfer might ask why anyone would want to do this. Beyond the camaraderie, being outdoors on a beautiful day in a beautiful place, and the escape from the exigencies of quotidian life, what keeps my golf clubs off eBay for another week is this: the sight, sound, and feel of a well-struck golf ball arcing gracefully and unerringly toward the beckoning pin. Golf may be a game of managing one’s mistakes, but hitting such a shot is like an alcoholic downing a drink—it makes you want another one.