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.”

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