2.  Tales of Destruction...The Roberts Torpedo

On January 21, 1865, Col. E.A.L. Roberts performed the first successful oil well shot on the Ladies Well, using eight pounds of black powder (nitroglycerin was first used two years later).  The collection of articles on this page is devoted to Col Roberts' invention, the Roberts torpedo, and to his and his brother's company, The Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company.

From The Titusville Morning Herald of June 17, 1866, "Our attention has been called to a series of experiments that have been made in the wells of various localities by Col. Roberts, with his newly patented torpedo.  The results have in many cases been astonishing.  The torpedo, which is an iron case, containing an amount of powder varying from fifteen to twenty pounds, is lowered into the well, down to the spot, as near as can be ascertained, where it is necessary to explode it.  It is then exploded by means of a cap on the torpedo, connected with the top of the shell by a wire.  The object of the torpedo is to clean out all the deposits at the bottom of the well such as gravel, pieces of seed-bag, etc., as well as to open the fissures, where the oil comes through.  These frequently become perfectly clogged with paraffine, and other matter that effectually prevents the production of oil from the well.  It is claimed that the explosion of the torpedo at so great a depth, cannot result in any serious damage to the well.

"A large number of wells have been experimented on, and the most signal success has attended the same.  Several wells on the Tarr farm, on Oil creek, have proved the most productive as yet.  One of these was increased in production by the use of the torpedo from ten to over one hundred barrels per day.

"Paraffine, one of the parts of petroleum, has a tendency to form in bottoms of all wells, more especially after they have been worked a short time.  We have known numerous instances where the conducting pipes have become so clogged with it as to render working the well impossible, until the pipes were taken up and cleaned out.  We have seen the paraffine taken these the full size of a two and a half inch pipe, of about the same consistency as lard.  It is but reasonable to suppose that this substance accumulates at the bottom of the well or in oil fissures, and in a short time effectually stops them up.  Production thus ceases, and the well is abandoned.  By keeping these fissures rid of this impediment, it is hard to tell the vast amount of oil that could be brought to the surface that is now lost.  We desire to call attention to the startling facts that appear in the testimonials published in our advertising columns by the Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company.

"The reliable source whence these certificates came seems to preclude the possibility that the torpedo is a high-blown humbug, besides it would seem to be the most consummate folly to publish statements whose falsity could be so readily exposed, as would be the case with these if they were untrue, and yet it is only the involuntary prompting of human nature, on hearing such remarkable assertions, to ask 'really, are these things so?'

"If every unsuccessful well owner shall find an affirmative answer to this question, we know somebody who will make a good thing.  And if we are correctly informed, the Colonel is deserving of the most perfect success; for notwithstanding the groundless claims of rival contestants, backed by money and talent and brazen impudence, he has carried his invention gloriously through upon its own merits, as is fully shown by the late decision of the Commissioner of Patents.

"If the torpedo shall do one-tenth as much for other territory as it seems to have done for the Tarr Farm, it will prove to be more of a substantial benefit to the oil regions than all other patent implements and machines that have ever been invented.  It is worthy of the attention not only of all who are directly interested in the production of petroleum, but of all who desire the prosperity of this oil county to inquire into this matter."

From The Titusville Morning Herald of July 2, 1866, "A gentleman who has just called on us from Tarr farm, tells us that an experiment was made on the 21st, with one of Roberts' Torpedoes in the 'Bakery Well' which has formerly pumped from 7 to 8 barrels per day.  The production has continually increased.  On the 27th it produced 60 barrels and yesterday the production was 100 barrels.  We wonder how the owners feel at the great difference in their balance sheet!  To increase a production 1200 per cent in a week is no small gain.  The 'Hayes well', Petroleum Centre, was 'fired Off' last Saturday the 13th, and it has greatly improved.  The exact figures we have not got.  The Roberts' Torpedo must scatter the paraffines or break things generally."

From The Titusville Morning Herald of February 8, 1867, "This company owns about twelve patents for exploding torpedoes, besides the patents of A. Nobel, for the exclusive right to use nitroglycerine in oil wells, for the purpose of increasing production by any known method of exploding torpedoes, or shells, under water.  This effectually prohibits the use of any torpedo unless by a license from the Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company.  The energy which this Company, with Colonel Roberts as its General Superintendent, has shown in introducing the torpedo for the production of oil, must commend itself to every oil producer in the oil regions.  Although at first they met with strong opposition, and no one was willing to permit a torpedo to be used in their wells, still after much solicitation permission was given, and a dry hole was made to produce eighty barrels of oil per day.

"As soon as this was accomplished, a great demand sprung up for the torpedoes.  Other parties came in to compete with the Colonel, and every exertion was made by others to prevent his patent from being issued for the application of the torpedo to oil wells, delaying its issue for more than two years.  During this time many persons, acting upon the supposition that he would be defeated by the Patent Office, expended large sums to prepare themselves to operate oil well torpedoes.  But the final success of Col. Roberts last November and the injoining of several of the infringers have convinced all parties that the Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company can and will sustain their patents."

From The Titusville Morning Herald of June 10, 1868, "A terrible explosion took place in the well No. 25, Tallman Farm, Shamburg.  The report was not so loud as that on Church Run, but the effect was equally satisfactory.  Another testimony to the value of the Roberts torpedoes.  Franklin W. Andrews is the fortunate owner of the well.  Go and do likewise."

From The Titusville Morning Herald of October 28, 1868 "It would be superfluous, at this late day, to speak of the merits of the Roberts Torpedo.  From Tidioute to Scrubgrass, for the past three years, it has been a most successful operation, and has increased the production of oil in hundreds upon hundreds of oil wells to an extent which could hardly be overestimated.  Next to the discovery of oil, no invention has done more to enrich well owners, than the Roberts Torpedo.  Three years ago Col. Roberts finding that nitroglycerine was the most powerful explosive agent that could be employed in torpedoes, turned his attention to the manufacture of this compound, and established a factory near this city, under the direction of one of the most experienced chemists of this country, George Mowbray.  But his enterprise was temporarily suspended as the article could be purchased much cheaper in the Eastern market.

"Of late, however, the source of supply has been cut off, owing the danger and insecurity attending its transportation and the Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company have again started a factory for the manufacture of nitroglycerine, upon an extensive scale, at a safe and convenient distance from the city.  The best machinery, with all the latest improvements, by which the utmost safety is attained, is employed, and the manufacturing is conducted under the personal superintendency of Col. E.A.L. Roberts.  On Friday last the new works were duly tested with the most satisfactory results; over a thousand pounds of acids and glycerine, a portion of which has already, at present writing, been exploded in oil wells.  It is the intention of the Company to manufacture nitroglycerine for their own use exclusively, and in such quantities, as their orders may require.  Their object is to have the article fresh when handled, thus diminishing the danger to agents and others from explosion.

"The Company deserves great credit for the energy displayed by them in the erection of their extensive Factory, so soon after it had been demonstrated that nitroglycerine could not be shipped with safety by rail.  Ten days ago there was not a stick of timber on the ground; now the factory is complete in all its parts and appointments, and of sufficient size to make a thousand pounds of nitroglycerine per day.  The Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company believes, from their experience during the past three years, that within the next six months, no oil operator can be persuaded to use anything but nitroglycerine in old wells, and that with the facilities they now enjoy, they will be able to meet the growing demand upon them for nitroglycerine torpedoes in all parts of the oil region.  We understand that it is the purpose of Col. Roberts in connection with other gentlemen owning the exclusive right to manufacture and fire nitroglycerine under Nobel's Patent, to erect during the ensuing winter or early spring, an establishment for the manufacture of the same, on the Lake Shore, at some convenient point for the supplying of the mining districts of Lake Superior with nitroglycerine."

From The Titusville Morning Herald of September 17, 1870, in an article discussing the completion of the Roberts & Company's machine works, planing mill, and torpedo shop, a mention is made of a tin torpedo, "The shells are now manufactured of tin, instead of cast iron, the tin cylinder, which was formerly discarded for lack of strength, being now remedied by a stiff wire coil which enables it to resist any pressure."  No records have been found showing details of the construction described above; but, from the description, this is not the tin torpedo design that was soon to take over the industry.

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1865 Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company Stock Certificate Courtesy Scripophily.Com®

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