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HISTORICAL TIDBIT

The Birth of The Seismic Reflection Method in Oklahoma

Ray1988.jpg (112135 bytes)
By Ray Brown
Oklahoma Geological Survey

John Clarence Karcher,
1916 OU Yearbook,
"The Sooner"

Karcher, "The Sooner"

In previous articles the rapid rise of OU graduate Everette Lee DeGolyer to Vice President of Amerada was described. It was from this position that DeGolyer acted to introduce seismic and torsion balance methods to exploration. He was literally the Winston Churchill of geophysics. In the story presented here, we concentrate upon another OU graduate, John Clarence Karcher. Karcher and DeGolyer were eventually going to meet and together they would convince the rest of the world that the seismic reflection method is a reality. However, that is getting ahead of our story. Here we go back into time to follow the early history of John Clarence Karcher. The story describes how he and other Oklahomans conducted the first seismic reflection exploration right here in Oklahoma near Oklahoma City. Stand up and be counted Oklahomans, it all started here!

Karcher, The Early Years

One part of this story begins with John Clarence Karcher who was born April 15, 1894 in southern Indiana of German-French ancestry. His family moved to Hennessy, Oklahoma about 50 miles northwest of Oklahoma City.

After a recent presentation of this story to students at OU, one of the students from the audience approached me afterwards to tell me that Karcher still has relatives living in Hennessy. Karcher graduated from high school in 1912 and entered the University of Oklahoma (OU) in the autumn of 1912 to study electrical engineering. He later changed his major to physics. Contacts he made in both departments become an important part of the story.

Karcher graduated from OU in 1916 with a BS in physics and started graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania. Karcher got to work with the great inventor Thomas Edison at the Edison lab in some of his early graduate work and he remembered two important points that Edison told him. First, perseverance and persistence are important to make an idea work. Next, make a note of any unusual observations that might lead to new ideas. Karcher learned these lessons well because he applied both concepts in developing the seismic reflection method.

Just as Karcher's graduate studies were beginning, the US entered World War I in April, 1917. Karcher left the University of Pennsylvania where he began work with the US Bureau of Standards to help with the war effort. It was at the US Bureau of Standards where the idea for seismic reflection exploration would be initiated in the minds of the people who would eventually make the idea a reality.

Reginald Fesseden, The Voice Unheard

When Karcher arrived at the Bureau of Standards to work during World War I, he apparently was not aware of the patent for seismic reflection and refraction exploration held by Reginald Fessenden. Fessenden was a great inventor and is rated by some as second only to Thomas Edison. In fact, Fessenden, who was born in Canada, went to study and work at Thomas Edison's laboratory. The profound effect Edison had upon the youth of his day is made clear by the early research history of both Karcher and Fessenden. Later, when Fessenden was working on sounding for submarines in Boston, he developed a 1917 Patent (among many other patents) "Methods and apparatus for locating ore bodies". It is this patent that clearly gives Fessenden credit for "inventing" the seismic reflection and/or refraction method for oil and gas. However, because of the war Fessenden was not able to follow up or sell the idea to anyone. The difficult task of actually making the seismic reflection and refraction methods work for oil and gas exploration was left to Karcher and Mintrop. They are credited here with "the development", not the "invention", of the seismic reflection and refraction methods.

Fessenden seemed to experience difficulties selling some of his other ideas as well. For example, at the beginning of World War I, he traveled to England and tried to convince the British that sound ranging could be used to locate enemy artillery. The basic idea he proposed was to use sound waves to find the locations of the artillery. Apparently this trip failed because the British did not start using sound ranging after his visit. Fessenden lived most of his life in near poverty. However, by the time he died, he was wealthy from his many patents and he did live to see many of his ideas come to reality (including the seismic reflection method). Selling technology was apparently just as difficult in those days as it is today. If you think about it, some level of salesmanship establishes the foundation of what we call "science". Even today many Canadians admit that Fessenden has not been given the proper credit he deserves for his many inventions.

Impact of World War I
Upon Seismic Exploration

Now consider the big picture of what was to take place as a result World War I. On the side of the allies, the efforts to develop sound ranging capabilities to find enemy artillery led ultimately to the development of the seismic reflection method of exploration by John Clarence Karcher. Karcher apparently did not have knowledge of Fessenden's patent at the time he was working at the US Bureau of Standards. However, both Karcher and Fessenden were strongly influenced by Thomas Edison. In this sense, Thomas Edison is referred to as the mentor for both Karcher and Fessenden on the side of the allies. However, it was Karcher, as described earlier, who finally pushed the reflection method into reality and played a role in forming the first company to actually apply the seismic reflection method. Later he was an integral part of the formation of Geophysical Services, Inc., one of the largest geophysical contractors of its time.

On the German side, the sound ranging efforts of Ludger Mintrop single-handedly led to the development of the seismic refraction method of exploration. Mintrop had an unusually broad education. His undergraduate education was in geological engineering. His graduate work was under Dr. Emil Wiechert, the famous German physicist and seismologist, at the University of Goettingen. I refer to Emil Wiechert as the mentor on the German side. Armed with his multidisciplinary background of mining engineering and seismology, Mintrop was able to develop the seismic refraction method by himself while it took a large number of individuals to develop the seismic reflection method on the other side of the war. Mintrop's story makes a good advertisement for a broad education. The seismic reflection effort required the kind of communication network and collaboration furnished by the OU network. A schematic of the big picture of what was taking place during World War I is shown in Figure 2. A closer look at the sound ranging is given below.

Figure 2: Artillery sound ranging led to seismic exploration methods

Tidbit Figure 2

 

World War I Sound Ranging for Artillery

As mentioned earlier, Fessenden had tried to sell the idea of sound ranging to the British. Apparently his idea was either offered before its time or Fessenden lacked the sales pitch required. In 1915, the French were the first to start using sound ranging during the war.

However, the French sound ranging crews had difficulties selling the new technology to their commanders. For example, the French sound rangers had predicted that "Big Bertha" (a large German canon) was located in a specific location during the war. The French commanders apparently did not believe the sound ranging predictions and continued to bomb a camouflaged site that the Germans had constructed throughout the war. Only after the war were the predictions of the sound ranging shown to be the true location of "Big Bertha"! You can see that the difficulty of selling technology is not a new subject.

In 1916 the British next picked up the idea for sound ranging from the French and improved upon the French technology. Lucien Ball developed the instrumentation and Sir Lawrence Bragg developed some of the computation procedures. In 1917 the Americans sent Charles B. Bazzoni to review and learn the British technology for sound ranging. Oh yes, Charles Bazzoni was a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Pennsylvania. This is the same school Karcher was attending at the beginning of the war. You can begin to see how this web is being constructed. Charles Bazzoni brought the ideas and technology being used by the British back to the US Bureau of Standards where the technology was to be studied and improved.

Tidbit Figure 3

Figure 3: Central role of US Bureau of Standards during World War I — Karcher went to the Bureau of Standards where he met his advisor from OU, William Peter Haseman. There Karcher shared his observations of reflections with Haseman who had the idea that seismic reflections could be used for exploration. The instrumentation was influenced by both the British and some electronics designed by Western Electric.

US Bureau of Standards - The Birth of an Idea

When Karcher came to the US Bureau of Standards, the management there assigned him to work on the problem of sound ranging for artillery. He was not totally happy with the idea of sound ranging through air because of temperature and wind problems that can occur. With this thought in mind, he attempted to use signals through the ground. It was during some of this testing that he observed what he interpreted to be reflections from layers of rock inside the earth. It is at this point that Karcher followed Edison's advice to make a note of any unusual observations.

Figure 3 illustrates a schematic of what was taking place to make the US Bureau of Standards such a breeding ground for ideas. William P. Haseman, who was the head of the Physics Department at OU responsible for getting Karcher into the University of Pennsylvania, took a temporary leave and went to work during the war at the US Bureau of Standards. Since Haseman and Karcher had a close association already, the circumstances of working in the same place naturally placed them in close contact. Haseman, by the way, was also a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Pennsylvania.

Imagine now the circumstances that evolved at the US Bureau of Standards. In addition to the technology from the British, the researchers at the US Bureau of Standards had some new instrumentation that had recently been developed at Western Electric. It was in this fertile environment that improvements over the British receivers were developed. These receivers were used by Karcher to observe the reflections described above.

When Karcher shared his observations and interpretations with William P. Haseman, it was Haseman, not Karcher, who had the idea that these reflections could be used for oil and gas exploration. After the war it was Haseman who later spearheaded the drive towards the assembly of a company to test the concept. As a reminder, it was Haseman who had advised Karcher as an undergraduate at OU and had gotten Karcher into graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. After discussing the idea with others at the US Bureau of Standards, plans were made to form a company. Haseman, Karcher, Dr. E.A. Eckhardt (also a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania) and Burton McCollum (BS in EE from the University of Kansas) planned in 1919 a four-way partnership in a company to be formed to use the seismic reflection method. At this point the company was a dream, not a reality. All of the people listed above played some role in laying a technical foundation for modern exploration.

The Geological Engineering Company, Incorporated in Oklahoma,
The First Company Formed To Shoot Seismic Reflection Data

So with a partnership planned, Karcher spent his summer of 1919 at the US Bureau of Standards working on recording reflections. In the meantime, Haseman went back to Oklahoma to quit his job at OU and begin raising money and support for the new company. Apparently Haseman took the dream of a company seriously. This is when the OU networking really began to take action. Haseman began by talking to Dr. Irving Perrine (a professor of geology at OU) and Dr. Daniel Webster Ohern. Dr. D.W. Ohern was a previous head of the Geology Department at OU (1908-1911) and a previous director of the Oklahoma Geological Survey (1911-1914). Together Haseman, Ohern and Perrine were able to raise $28,000 using their own money and contributions from other investors to start the new company, the Geological Engineering Company. The company was incorporated in Oklahoma on April, 1920 as the very first seismic reflection company.

It is interesting to note that one of the largest investors in the Geological Engineering Company was Frank Buttram an independent and a previous employee of the Oklahoma Geological Survey. Haseman, Perrine, Ohern and the Ramsay Brothers held smaller shares. The remaining 15% of the company was held by Karcher, Eckhardt and McCollum. The OU network was able to assemble the bulk of the funding for the new company.

1921, The First Field Tests
Near Oklahoma City

In the meantime while Haseman was forming the new company and arranging for financing, Karcher managed to finish his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania and arrived on the scene in Oklahoma City to begin testing the idea. The first seismic reflection crew in the history of the world intent on finding petroleum structures consisted of the following members of the OU network (previous students and faculty):

Initial Testing Crew - Near Oklahoma City June 4, 1921.

Name

Duty

OU Association

J.C. Karcher

Observer

BS Physics at OU,
Ph.D. Physics at U. of Pennsylvania

William P. Haseman

Shooter

Former head of Physics Department at OU,
Ph.D. Physics at U. of Pennsylvania

Irvine Perrine

Helper

Professor of Geology at OU

W.C. Kite

Helper

Geologist and former student of Dr. Perrine at OU

Summary

In summary, war was responsible for both seismic reflection and refraction methods. The sound ranging efforts on the German side led to the formation of Seismos, the oldest seismic company in existence. The sound ranging on the allied side led a group of Oklahomans to apply the first seismic reflection exploration in history on June 4, 1921.

This was indeed an important day in geophysical history. Unfortunately, I had to live in Oklahoma for nearly 12 years before discovering the role Oklahomans played in developing the seismic reflection method. Thanks to the out-of-print book by George Elliot Sweet (The History of Geophysical Prospecting) that was written with the encouragement of our own Craig Ferris, this precious bit of history has been saved. George Elliot Sweet is no longer with us, but we all need to say thanks to Craig Ferris. The Geophysical Society of Oklahoma City erected a monument on the grounds of the Belle Isle Library in Oklahoma City. Bill Wolf, president of the GSOC at the time and one of the few people in Oklahoma City that could still interpret 100% data, dedicated the monument.

After the famous seismic work near Oklahoma City, Haseman went on to set up the foundation of what is Conoco's petroleum engineering department and the first petroleum research department. William Casper Kite ("Cap Kite") became a successful independent and retired to Florida. Before retiring, he served on the board of regents for Oklahoma colleges. While Perrine was at OU, he sent approximately 15 students to work for Marland's company that would eventually become Conoco. This group of students represented the core of Marland's first efforts to apply geology in exploration. In this sense, Irving Perrine can be called the father of geology at Conoco even though E.W. Marland was known to be an avid lover of the topic of geology before he ever met Perrine. Perrine and Marland were very close and some say they walked every road in Kay county discussing the geology of the area. Perrine later consulted and worked at a number of different jobs. He worked at Oklahoma City College setting up their geology department before retiring in the 1950's.

In the continuation of this story we will describe some of the other seismic shooting that took place in other parts of Oklahoma and the factors that ultimately led to the failure of the Geological Engineering Company. Don't worry, this is the part where Karcher remembers that Edison told him to persevere. As a result, Karcher and DeGolyer become partners and proceed to make geophysical history in our next installment.

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