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Finding Oil

The Nature of Petroleum Geology, 1859-1920

Brian Frehner

Publication Year: 2011

Oil has made fortunes, caused wars, and shaped nations. Accordingly, no one questions the idea that the quest for oil is a quest for power. The question we should ask, Finding Oil suggests, is what kind of power prospectors have wanted. This book revises oil’s early history by exploring the incredibly varied stories of the men who pitted themselves against nature to unleash the power of oil.

Brian Frehner shows how, despite the towering presence of a figure like John D. Rockefeller as a quintessential “oil man,” prospectors were a diverse lot who saw themselves, their interests, and their relationships with nature in profoundly different ways. He traces their various pursuits of power from 1859 to 1920 as a struggle for cultural, intellectual, and professional authority, over both nature and their peers. Here we see how some saw power as the work they did exploring and drilling into landscapes, while others saw it in the intellectual work of explaining how and where oil accumulated. Charting the intersection of human and natural history, their story traces the ever-evolving relationship between science and industry and reveals the unsuspected role geology played in shaping our understanding of the history of oil.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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pp. vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. viii-x

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pp. xi-xiv

Recounting all the people who have helped me navigate my journey to becoming a historian and to producing this manuscript is humbling. The first person I encountered in the historical profession is also the first person I have...

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pp. 1-17

Shortly after walking over the dry west Texas plains, Jett Rink knelt on the ground while squeezing handfuls of oil-soaked dirt through his fingers and gazed in amazement at the black crude slowly bubbling to the surface...

Part 1: Local Knowledge

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pp. 19-77

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1. Vernacular Authority in the Oil Field

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pp. 21-44

In 1940 the Union Oil Company of California ran an advertisement in the pages of Fortune magazine boasting of scientific innovations that eliminated a prominent figure from the oil industry, a man with a little black box, often known as a doodlebug...

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2. Collaborative Authority: Nineteenth-Century Foundations of Petroleum Geology

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pp. 45-77

Petroleum geology emerged over the course of the nineteenth century as a contested practice in which different constituencies formulated knowledge by fashioning relationships to nature through their physical and intellectual work...

Part 2: Contested Knowledge

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pp. 79-140

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3. Shared Authority: Practical Oil Men and Professional Geologists

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pp. 81-102

Roswell Johnson set up shop as a petroleum geologist in the northeast corner of Oklahoma in 1908 and began advertising his services as an independent consultant. After arriving in the small town of Bartlesville, he began dutifully running...

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4. Institutional Authority: Field Work, Universities, and Surveys

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pp. 103-140

As the twentieth century began, practical men and geologists followed the oil frontier to the southern plains states of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Throughout the first two decades of the century, practical men and geologists...

Part 3: Appropriated Knowledge

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5. Geology Organized: Henry L. Doherty's Technological System

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pp. 143-172

If Charles Gould used public institutions to professionalize petroleum geologists, Henry L. Doherty exercised private power to advance their professional status by hiring them in his various oil and gas enterprises. Gould’s and Doherty’s actions...

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pp. 173-177

At 4:30 a.m. on October 29, 1917, a nitroglycerine bomb exploded in an upscale neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where J. Edgar Pew, president of Carter Oil Company, and his family slept in their home. The International...


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pp. 179-205


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pp. 207-224


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pp. 225-232

E-ISBN-13: 9780803238374
E-ISBN-10: 0803238371
Print-ISBN-13: 9780803234864
Print-ISBN-10: 0803234864

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 35 illustrations
Publication Year: 2011