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The Shot
Introduction and Rick Tallini
Uncle Gus
Augustus Pease
The Professional
Robert's First Shot
Composition of Roberts' Torpedo
The Suits and The War
The Accomplishment
Otto Cupler
Concluding Remarks and Erastus T. Robert


Long preceded by exploding powder in the bottom of water wells to increase the flow, the use of black powder in oil wells for the same purpose began in 1860. During 1860 five or more wells were shot by gunpowder in the newly discovered Pennsylvania oil belt, including the first successful torpedo job which was performed on the John C. Ford well on the Fleming farm on Oil Creek south of Titusville (according to McLaurin, 1896). By 1865 at least thirty torpedoes had been exploded with mixed results in wells. The charge was (usually?) tamped by a column of water in the hole. This experimental shooting of oil wells was taking place in Pennsylvania, Ohio and elsewhere in the first years of the 1860’s. Several literature sources mention an experiment or trial explosion of powder in an oil well in Marysville, Medina County, Ohio, in 1861. But as Bone (1865) explains it, "….from the imperfect nature of the means used, it failed as a practical measure, although the correctness of the theory was proved." Actually the well was wrecked.

The various containers used for the powder charge were ceramic bottles, glass bottles, three feet of two-inch copper pipe plugged at one end (it worked), a tin case (the first case collapsed under the weight of the water), and a regular store-bought can of powder. In 1863 William Reed was able to construct a can that would not fail under the heavy column of water at those current depths (+ 450 - 500 ft.).

Five pounds of gunpowder or rifle powder was the usual amount used in the early shots. Sometimes a second or third charge was lowered in the well.

The charge was variously set off by a fuse, a fuse cord, dropping a red hot iron through a small diameter gas pipe (it worked), sliding a hollow weight down a string so that it would hit the percussion cap dead center, and by a pistol-type cartridge placed in the bottom of the torpedo shell which exploded due to impact when the shell hit the bottom. The use of electricity to fire the charge was tried but didn’t work in the early attempts. It was unsuccessfully experimented with on the Reed-Criswell well on Cherry Run in 1863 by William Reed. Reed, by the way, organized the Reed Torpedo Company which was a contender for the shooters’ throne but lost the battle.

The shooters or blasters in the early 1860’s were few in number and those years saw mostly experimental attempts to crack the oil-bearing rock by explosions at depth. Nevertheless, the first successful powder shot (it was at 250 feet) had taken place in 1860 along with several unsuccessful experiments in the same year. The industry was shouldering many problems in its opening years and full attention by the many oilmen wasn’t paid to the questionable benefits of the shot at that time. The Civil War was going on (1861-65), the political situation was uncertain and the price of crude fluctuated sharply hitting lows of less than a dime per barrel, fortunately offset at times by robust rises (supply and demand). The flowing well phenomenon (gusher) beginning 1861 was receiving great interest leading some operators to hope that just drilling an offset to their poor well on a corner of the lease might hit a natural fracture (crevice was the word) and bring in a spouter, an outlook that unfortunately failed to see the value of a shot to improve a mediocre well.

Another problem faced by the producer was the clogging effect of paraffin in the pores of the sandstone reservoirs and the general obstruction to the flow of oil even in the well pipes and apparatus. It was thought that shooting might clean up and get rid of the paraffin deposits at least for awhile. The paraffin wax was one of the ingredients of the crude oil.

Shooting couldn’t be indefinitely postponed if the means and practical results were there. Too many dry holes and sub-marginal wells were dotting the map and the operators wanted to hit big, quickly and get the oil in the stock tanks and the money in their wallets. Shooting was promoted with this promise.

Edward A.L. Roberts, 1829-1881, is credited as being the inventor of the viable torpedo for oil wells. In 1847 at age 17 he enlisted as a private with Col. Pitcher’s company for the Mexican War, and discharged honorably after 22 months. He entered the Academy of Armenia, New York, for a year (at age 19). He went into dentistry and invented a mineral substance to make continuous gum teeth and went on to invent other dental devices. In 1859 he perfected an oxyhydrogen blowpipe.
During the Civil War he raised regiments. In 1862 he was given the rank of lieutenant colonel of the Twenty-ninth New Jersey Volunteers and commanded that unit. He went on to organize other units and was completely occupied with military duties.
E.A.L. Roberts made his first drawing for a well torpedo in 1862 and applied for a patent in November, 1864. With his brother, W.B. Roberts, he formed the company called Roberts Torpedo Petroleum Co. The company made torpedoes, fired them, built magazines and manufactured nitroglycerin. This was his major occupation. Due to infringements by others, he was forced to engage in much litigation but persevered.
Roberts built the luxury hotel New Brunswick in Titusville and with family lived in suites in this hotel. He died at the hotel in 1881. Photo from Bates history, 1899.

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