A new book on the history of the upstream petroleum industry is itself a groundbreaker in a fascinating field.
This article appeared in Vol. 13, No. 2 - 2016


Groundbreakers: The Story of Oilfield Technology and the People Who Made It Happen. Mark Mau and Henry Edmundson, FastPrint Publishing, 2015.

It is a delight to introduce this new book on the history of petroleum. The oil and gas industry is barely 150 years old and yet this book contains over 450 pages of fascinating facts about its technical development, from humble beginnings to the major influence it has for most people on the planet – and the innovators responsible for it. It is an amazing piece of research by the authors, who come from two different but complementary backgrounds: Dr. Mark Mau is a professional historian and Henry Edmundson worked for Schlumberger for over 45 years and was the founding editor of the company’s popular journal, Oilfield Review

FastPrint Publishing, 2015. There are already several books on the history of the petroleum industry, but many focus on economic and political history, and only a few deal with petroleum geoscience and engineering. Groundbreakers is a welcome addition to the literature. It combines the histories of geoscience as well as engineering, covering many recent developments in the field. It also offers first-hand information, as the book is primarily based on interviews with experts – over 130 interviews by the authors alone and 20 more from internet sources. 

Turning the page to discover another familiar company or corporation name and the individuals who started it off, plus the discovery technology which got it going is really quite exciting and surprising. Did you know, for example, that the Soviet oil industry developed turbine drilling in order to achieve a solution to the poor quality of steel pipe, leading them to pioneer lateral drilling and completions, without which the US shale boom would never have happened? 

Such is the mother of invention and significantly, much of the ‘groundbreaking’ described is about adaptation of existing technology. Sometimes this is from non-oilfield applications, such as applying knowledge from aerospace to new drilling systems and from military weapons to borehole perforation. It was also surprising to learn just how early some of the developments were, like Mr Solomon Dresser’s well packer patent, granted in 1880. 

Covering a Wide Field 

The organisation of chapters and topics roughly reflects the chronological development of petroleum geoscience and engineering. The first two chapters are on the drilling of pioneering oil wells in Baku and Pennsylvania and applying the anticline theory as the earliest attempt to locate oil fields. Rotary drilling, seismic surveying, reservoir coring and characterisation, well-logging, controlled drilling and well perforating, artificial oil-lift methods, basin analysis, application of digital and computer technologies, offshore drilling, and exploration of non-Western countries are discussed in subsequent chapters. 

More recent developments such as 3D and 4D seismic surveys, deepwater exploration and drilling, horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and the shale revolution are also discussed. In ‘Looking Ahead’, the final chapter, the authors touch on the potential of electromagnetic surveys, expandable casing, managed pressure drilling, ultradeep offshore drilling, and reservoir nanotechnology. 

While the various elements of oil industry technologies are segregated into these chapters, the book does a good job of maintaining our focus on the objective of improving the discovery and production of hydrocarbons. The digital age has revolutionised geology and geophysics, reducing the risk of drilling dry wells considerably. But it is not just about economics – automated drilling rigs are much safer than yesterday’s manual environments. 

Over a hundred pages are taken up with a reference section listing timelines, interviewees and a bibliography, which is great fun. So you want to know if there was a Mr Halliburton and how he got started? Check it out in this book. Every rig site should have a copy in the recreation room library. 

It is also beautifully illustrated (by Abigail Whitehead) in an understated manner, which just adds to the enjoyment. 

Overall, Groundbreakers is a well written, fascinating book on the development of the petroleum industry. Well done to all who made it happen.


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