The Birth of The Seismic Reflection Method in Oklahoma
|By Ray Brown
Oklahoma Geological Survey
John Clarence Karcher,
1916 OU Yearbook,
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
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
Figure 2: Artillery sound ranging led to seismic exploration methods
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.
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
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):
Testing Crew - Near Oklahoma City June 4, 1921.
|BS Physics at OU,
Ph.D. Physics at U. of Pennsylvania
William P. Haseman
|Former head of Physics Department at OU,
Ph.D. Physics at U. of Pennsylvania
|Professor of Geology at OU
|Geologist and former student of Dr. Perrine at OU
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
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