Life is too short to compile a complete history of nitroglycerin in the oil fields. But the Tales of Destruction series represents a sincere effort to publish a chronological account of the use of nitroglycerin in the petroleum industry. These stories are based upon previously published material, company records, personal observations, and interviews and conversations with past employees and other oil well shooters. The purpose is to save these tales from oblivion, and to give readers a glimpse of one of world's deadliest industries. Never before has there been an effort to assemble such a comprehensive and voluminous collection of tales of destruction.
In Northwestern Pennsylvania there flows a stream called Oil Creek. Along the banks of Oil Creek have been written some of the most thrilling and romantic chapters in oil field history. It was near this stream, on August 27, 1859, that Col. Edwin L. Drake completed the first well drilled specifically for oil. And it was there, on January 21, 1865, that Col. E.A.L. Roberts made the first successful oil well shot on the Ladies Well, using 8 pounds of black powder (nitroglycerin was first used 2 years later), ushering in the era of "Oil Well Shooting", and in no small measure saving the Pennsylvania oil industry. See The Roberts Torpedo.
The tremendous success of the process, and the resulting furor over The Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Co. patent, created thousands of lawsuits, arrests, and bloodshed. John McLaurin, in his 1896 book Sketches in Crude Oil, summarizes this period, "So the darkest chapter in petroleum history, a flood of litigation, a mass of deception, a black wave of treachery and a red streak of human blood, must be charged to the account of Nitro-Glycerine."
The term "moonlighting" emerged from this struggle. Moonlighters mixed their batches of nitroglycerin in crude equipment by day and by the light of the moon strapped their cans of nitroglycerin over their shoulders and proceeded to their dangerous and illegal task of shooting wells. Anyone who has witnessed an open hole oil well shot can testify as to the tremendous height reached by the resultant water geyser or dust and rock cloud. This sign of a well being shot was watched for by the Pinkerton detectives who were hired by Roberts, and who had fanned out throughout the oil regions. Night would mask shooting activities to a degree, and thus was born the dangerous business of moonlighting. The Roberts patent expired in 1883 and Congress refused to renew it due to all the strife.
In 1884, The Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Co. changed its name to The Otto Cupler Torpedo Co., which company still operates to this day out of Titusville, Pennsylvania. That same year the mighty DuPont Explosives Co. got into the oil well shooting business, creating shooting stations throughout all the oil regions. Very little changed in this industry well into the 20th Century as to the methods and the types of explosives used. The first half of the 20th Century saw up to 100 torpedo companies in operation in the United States, with names like The Ellis Hall Sons Co., The Petroleum Explosives Co., The Young Torpedo Co., Pringle Powder Co., Bradford Torpedo Co., The American Glycerin Co. (created in 1913 by DuPont), The Independent Shooters, The Ansberry Torpedo Co., The Otto Torpedo Co., and The Western Torpedo Co., to name just a very few. The advent of hydraulic fracturing ended the torpedo companies' dominance in the well stimulation business and led to a very rapid decline in numbers. As the 21st Century dawns there are only two of these entities left in existence, The Otto Cupler Torpedo Co. (the very first well shooting company in the world), and The Otto Torpedo Co. located in Bradford, Pennsylvania.
Today there are new methods and theories involving high explosive well shooting, and renewed interest in some of the old methods and theories. It is possible that we will see a resurgence in this once great business.
Rick F.Tallini, President
The Otto Cupler Torpedo Co.
Formerly The Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Co.
February 19, 2000