Oral-History:Sam Gibbs

About Interviewee

Recognizing the need for improvements in sucker rod pumping technology, Dr. Sam Gibbs developed a mathematical method for analyzing rod pumping operations using the wave equation. After forming Nabla Corporation with business partner Ken Nolan, Gibbs went on to develop the SAM Well Manager, which is reportedly the most popular pump off control (POC) in the world today. Gibbs and Nolen also developed the first on-site diagnostic computer to calculate real time parameters of and determine any problems with a pumping unit and its down-hole equipment. Gibbs has written more than 24 technical papers and an engineering textbook on sucker rod 2 pumping. In 2011, Dr. Gibbs was inducted into the Petroleum Hall of Fame for his contributions to technological innovation in the petroleum industry.

About the Interview

Sam Gibbs: An interview conducted by Amy Esdorn for the Society of Petroleum Engineers, May 28, 2014.

Interview SPEOH000111 at the Society of Petroleum Engineers History Archive.

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Interview Video

Interview

INTERVIEWEE: Sam Gibbs
INTERVIEWER: Amy Esdorn
OTHERS PRESENT: Andrew Bennett
DATE: May 28, 2014
PLACE: Austin, Texas


ESDORN:

So my name is Amy Esdorn, and I am performing an oral history with Sam Gibbs. The date is Wednesday, May 28, 2014. Sam, can you please go ahead and give me your full name and spelling?

GIBBS:

Yes. My name is Sam Gavin Gibbs, S-A-M G-A-V-I-N G-I-B-B-S.

ESDORN:

Thank you. Well, let’s begin. The first place where I’m going to begin is in the beginning. So can you tell me a little about where you grew up?

GIBBS:

Yes. I grew up in the little East Texas town of Lufkin, Texas, and later I became known as someone who knew about pumping units. It happened that Lufkin, Texas was the hometown of the famous Lufkin pumping units. So, a bit of irony there. I was born in 1932, which makes me almost 82 years old. I went to Lufkin High School, and I was -- my mother tells me I was a member of the National Honor Society, but I don’t remember that. Anyway.

ESDORN:

And how did you start to get involved in science and petroleum engineering and that sort of thing? What were some of the things from your childhood that you think might have inspired you to start thinking in that way?

Discusses His Education and How He Entered the Petroleum Industry

GIBBS:

Well, how did I get involved in the petroleum business? Maybe it was because I was from Lufkin, where we all knew about pumping units and building pumping units and so forth. But beyond that, it’s quite a long story as to why I wound up where I did. My father wanted me to enroll at Texas A&M, but I didn’t want to be an Aggie. And he kept sending me over, and I never enrolled. And finally, I was a student at Stephen F. Austin, a small college. It’s 20 miles away. And frankly, my goal in life was to become a better calf roper, and my father didn’t see much of a future in calf ropers. And so, he wanted me to go to A&M and become an engineer like one of his nephews, my cousin.

And so, he came upon the idea -- we compromised. I said “Dad, I’ll go to A&M if you let me take my roping horse with me.” And so he agreed. And so, when he delivered me and the horse on the campus—it was way back into the 1950s now—he rolled down the window of the car and leaned out and said, “Become a mechanical engineer,” and I did. So that’s how I got started with this…. I became an engineer as a result, and I did exactly what he told me. And I graduated in 1954. The Korean War was over in 1953, but the Lufkin -- and at the time, there was compulsory military service for young men. And so, the Lufkin Draft Board didn’t forget me, and they drafted me in October 1954 and sent me to Alaska. And I was a computer operator in the anti-aircraft gun battery. This was before Nike missiles and all that high-tech stuff. And we were defending Eielson Air force base near Fairbanks, and I fell in love with Alaska. And my answer is getting awfully long, Amy.

ESDORN:

It’s fine.

GIBBS:

I fell in love with Alaska, with Aurora Borealis and the long days and the long nights, and I had developed an interest in astronomy and celestial mechanics. And I started checking out books from the base library on those subjects, and I set out to develop an ephemeris of positions of the earth as it orbits the sun. And I found that I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know enough mathematics. And that was the big point. I was mathematically illiterate even though I was a graduate mechanical engineer from A&M, a very good school. And so, that made me want to learn some mathematics, and I resolved to learn some mathematics when I got out of the army, and did. And it was there that a combination of events led me to accept a job from Shell Oil Company.

ESDORN:

And can you talk about a little bit of some of these events that led you to accept the job at Shell Oil Company?

GIBBS:

Well, I went to work for Shell in 1954, to recount my Shell time, and became a trainee. And as I have already said, was drafted into the army, and so that interrupted my Shell time. When I came back out of the army, I went back to Shell and finished the training program, and I took -- I worked as a roustabout in gangs, as training engineers do. I worked on the drilling rig in South Louisiana as a roughneck and got to make -- I never learnt how to make Cajun coffee. I worked on the steam rig in the Weeks Island field, but I never was allowed to make coffee for the Cajun crew. That disappointed me because I kind of liked the taste of the coffee. And I took some courses for mechanical engineers in petrophysics, and I learnt a little bit about geology. They sent me back to A&M for a one-month cram course, Geology 101 for mechanical engineers who didn’t know anything about the subject. And I worked a little while in production accounting and I was assigned then to the Midland area as a mechanical engineer. And again, my answers are awfully long and I hope they’re not rambling.

ESDORN:

Not at all.

GIBBS:

I was assigned as a unit engineer in the Garza in Garza and Borden Counties of West Texas. In that day and age, the Shell engineer was a kind of a universalist, a kind of a manager, and he was responsible or she was responsible for all the problems that came up in that geographical area. So I did things like design tank batteries and built low water crossings and made drilling AFEs [Authority For Expenditure]. That was where I learned that transportation and contingencies was the number you added to the bottom of the AFE to make it come out even. And also, we a had a dynamometer in the division, and these mysterious dynamometer cards would come across my desk and I would puzzle at what they meant. I had never had any training, so I would just initial them and throw them in my out basket and hope they would disappear soon. So that was the kind of job that I had. It wasn’t very technical. Frankly, I hated it. I didn’t really enjoy it. And so, I remembered my resolve that I made in Alaska, that I was going to learn some mathematics. And so I resigned from Shell and went back to Texas A&M and enrolled and -- to get my master’s degree in mathematics. And growing in Lufkin around pumping units and seeing those mysterious dynamometer cards that I didn't understand or know anything about, I had some ideas while an Aggie student the second time around that changed my life. And I can tell you those stories if you want to hear them.

ESDORN:

Absolutely.

GIBBS:

You want to hear them?

ESDORN:

Yes.

Discusses the Development of the Shell Diagnostic Technique

GIBBS:

I had some professors that I got to know as friends, and they designed a curriculum for me to turn a frustrated engineer into a mathematician. And three of the professors in particular that helped me -- and I remember taking a differential equations course from Dr. Basye. I guess he was my favorite. And I noticed in the appendix of that differential equation text was a story about some British physicians who were using Fourier analysis to help them analyze human electric cardiograms, and I stored that away in my memory. Later, I became a Shell researcher. I had held that thought the whole time, and out of that idea that I got at A&M, I developed what is called now the Shell Diagnostic Technique, where you can take measurements on the surface and figure out what's happening at the downhole pump thousands of feet down.

It struck me that that was much like a human electrocardiogram that I had read about in that differential equations textbook, where, in the case of the oil well, the downhole pump was the heart, and in the case of electrocardiograms, your heart beats because of tiny, tiny little signals, electrical signals, that originate in your body, causing your heart to beat. And these signals travel through your tissue to the surface of your skin, where you can measure these little electrical currents and record them on a strip chart. And then the doctor would take this electrocardiograph and use Fourier series, named after the famous French mathematical physicist—more mathematician, I guess—and to get the maximum amount of information out of the electrocardiogram. Well, it struck me that the analogy between the oil well and the electrocardiogram which was perfect. There, you had the pump at the bottom of the well, had valves in it that opened and closed, loads were put on and removed from the pump, and these propagated to the surface through the rod strings, just like the little electrical circuits. Currents in the human propagated through bodily tissue to the surface release these stresses that were put on and taken off of the downhole pump, propagated to the surface through the rod string, where they could be measured non-invasively with a dynamometer at the top of a rod string. And then you could apply -- I chose to use a classical mathematical solution based on Fourier analysis, just like I had learned in Dr. Basye's course, and that was one of the things that changed my life. And I am still at age 82 working on that problem or things that became apparent that stemmed from that problem so long ago. The world's longest answer, I guess, to a very well-posed question, Amy. Thank you.

ESDORN:

No, it is wonderful. You are doing a great job. That's wonderful. Okay. Let's see. So after you got your master’s degree in mathematics, you later went back and got your PhD. Is that right?

GIBBS:

Yes. I always had an ambition to have a PhD, and I was working at Shell Development Company when I came -- when I got out of school, I was interested in a number of things, possibilities, and had job offers from other companies. One was an offer from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Cal Tech. They were employed by the government and were working on things like -- eventually would work on the manned lunar landing problem. And so, they were doing things with orbits and whatnot, and I was interested in that because of my ill-fated attempt to make the ephemeris in Alaska when I didn't know enough mathematics to do so. So that was of interest to me.

And then also, I interviewed at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. They had an opening in a group of mathematicians who were studying, who were trying to optimize, figure out how to maximize the kill ratio in low-level atomic burst. And then I had a job offer from Shell. John Payne was a recruiter, and he offered me a job to work in the Shell Laboratory in research in a new specialty that they had created called production engineering. So at the end of -- when I got my masters in Math, I had a friend named Larry Guzman, and we decided to celebrate by driving to Alaska. And along the way, we stopped at -- and I think it was in Billings, Montana, at the Western Union office, and I telegraphed CalTech some kind of declination to their offer. California was too far from home for me, and I wanted no part of killing people in atomic warfare. And so, I decided to take Shell’s offering and become a researcher in the Shell exploration and production laboratory in Houston. And so that's where I went and had a long career there, almost nine years. I’ve forgotten what your question was, Amy.

ESDORN:

That's okay. I was just asking you how you went back to get your PhD.

GIBBS:

Yeah. And along the way, I did a lot in production engineering, which perhaps you will be asking about. I also served a stint in the offshore research section, where I rubbed elbows with a lot of civil engineers whose job it was to build offshore drilling and production platforms. And so I developed an interest in wave forces there. And that's where a dream came true. Shell sent me to get my PhD at Rice, and I studied wave forces—wave motion, I would say—and irregular waves. That’s a strange degree to have for a West Texas Well well weigher like to me. I never find application for irregular ocean waves in West Texas. But anyhow, that was the cause for me getting a PhD, which I had wanted for a long time.

ESDORN:

Good, okay. So you talk about working in production engineering in the lab at Shell. What would you say was—if you had to pick—what was the technical discipline that you worked in the most while you were in your profession, in your career? And what drew you to that discipline?

GIBBS:

The technical discipline kind of formalized while I was at Shell. I discovered that I love to build mathematical models and to draw conclusions from those mathematical models. I had a boss. Actually he was my boss’s boss. His name was Bob McIntee, and he loved rod pumping. And he had to defend inclusion of sucker rod pumping research in the research budget every year. Upper management would say, “Gosh, that's old. The Chinese produced water wells with it a thousand years ago,” or thousands of years ago. And the oil industry has used rod pumping since the beginning, and so what's new? Everything has been discovered. But yet McIntee's retort to that was, “It's just because it’s widely used. Eighty-five percent of the wells in the US, say, if not the world, are produced with rod pumping equipment. You just got to keep studying that and to develop new things if possible.” So he assigned me to that project, and we had a person who was part engineer and part mathematician and part computer jockey. I had learned about computers in getting my master’s degree. The mathematics department wanted their students to know how to use computers. They were at -- the very beginning --remember, this would be in late 1950s when I was there. And so I didn’t know something about computers, and he introduced me to the work of Shell’s most famous production engineer. His name was Wally Gilbert. He had developed, back in 1936, a downhole dynagraph, where you could literally measure the -- I call it the dynamometer card for the downhole pump. It was a plot of a load versus position on the pump, and it was a very useful thing to know. And this was in 1936 and his instrument was very accurate, but its fatal flaw was that you had to pull the pump out of the well, pull the rods and pump out of the well to get the dynamometer card. So it made it not practical to use. But it taught us a lot. So that was something that I set out to do. And I think I have already described that, what became known as the Shell/Sam Gibbs Diagnostic Technique.

And I think the story of how it became known as the Diagnostic Technique is interesting. My boss and my boss’s boss, Bob McIntee, his wife had cancer, and she was in and out of many diagnostic clinics and hospitals. And Bob said to me “Why don’t we call it the Diagnostic Technique?”—that was a word close to his heart—and so we did. And to this day, it's called the Diagnostic Technique. But before that, if you let me continue with the work there at Shell Development, before that, I thought of Dr. Luther's lectures on solution of the way of equation, which is a partial differential equation with partial difference equations. And there is a little note in a book, there is a story there too on the day that he said that crucial thing that helped change my life. I really wanted to play golf with my friends and cut class, but I didn’t. Thank goodness I didn’t cut class. So I got to hear his lecture on numerical solution of the partial difference equation called a wave equation, using finite differences, partial difference equations. And there was a property of a finite different solution which said you can get an exact solution to the wave equation regardless of the length of your spatial increment. That's fancy talk for how long, how big a lump you cut the rod string up into when you solve the predictive problem. So I remembered that. So that was the first thing I did at Shell Development. I built a mathematical model of the pumping system with the hope of giving the world a new way of designing rod pumping installations. So I modeled the prime mover, the motor or the engine that drove the pumping in it, and then I modeled the pumping unit as a four-bar linkage that was a very fairly well known thing in kinematics. Mechanical engineers learn about things like that. And then I modeled the rod string with the wave equation, and that was easy because thanks to Dr. Luther's lecture about solving this partial differential equation with partial difference equation. But I hung up on simulating the downhole pump. That was part of the mathematical model I couldn’t figure out. I didn’t know any way to predict when the valves on the pump would open and close, and there’s no way for me to -- I just couldn't figure that out. And finally, it dawned on me, since I can't figure out a priori or I can't figure out beforehand when these valves will open and close, I will figure it out during the solution, as I go.

And so it was easy to do because of the finite different solutions. I would just keep track of the position of the pump and act accordingly. So let’s say we start with the pump on the down stroke moving down with the travelling valve open, the pump is unloaded, and so, just with a simple computer test, we can see if the pump was moving lower and lower in its motion. And when we sense that it has gotten to the bottom of the stroke and started up we said, “A-ha, the travelling valve needs to close now.” So we’ll close the travelling valve and we’ll change the boundary conditions to where we begin to pick up the pump load from the tubing onto the rods, and then we’ll start keeping track as the solution developed of the pump load as it increased. And so, when all of the pump load had been transferred from the tubing to the rods, I would say, “A-ha, the standing valve has opened,” and I would change the boundary condition to simulate a rising pump loaded with a pump load, with a fluid load, and keep track of the motion of the pump. And when I sensed that it had reached the top of its stroke and started down, I would say “A-ha, the standing valve has closed,” and I will change the boundary condition to simulate the transfer of loads from rods back to tubing along the gas interference curve or along a fluid pound curve or even along a straight line for full liquid fillage of the pump. And when all the load was off of the pump, I could test for that. I would say, “A-ha, the traveling valve has opened,” and I would change the boundary condition to simulate an unloaded pump on its way down, on the down stroke. And that completes the story of how the mathematical model of the downhole pump was made.

And so, that completed it. I solved the problem with partial deference equations, like Dr. Luther had taught me at Aggieland, and Shell prepared a program based on this mathematical model. And soon, they began designing pumping installations with the wave equation. And if you let me continue on that subject, that happened in about, I would say, October of 1960, and I’d just started to work at Shell Development in August. So that took me August, September, and part of October, and I had that. And then I developed this Diagnostic Technique between that time and the end of 1960. And so, I’ll go back to the story of the predictive design method.

I didn’t have a way to test the Diagnostic Technique. I had no data. In those days, the state-of-the-art dynamometer was called the Johnston Fagg. It was a mechanical dynamometer, and it measured load versus position with no sense of time at all. And my Fourier series solution that I developed for the diagnostic technique needed to have its boundary positions of load and position versus time. So, I didn’t have any dynamometer that would show me how these variables change with time. But I had a secret weapon, and it was the predictive program that I had just made. Since I didn’t have any real data, I could make my own data with the predictive program. And you could have heard me shout on Bellaire Boulevard in Houston that day in 1960 when I discovered that the diagnostic technique gave me back the same downhole card that I had made myself. And so, that closed the loop right there. And so those two developments were things that happened to me early in my Shell career that have changed my life to this day. I’m still working on those problems decades later.

ESDORN:

Okay, so we’ve talked a little bit about the Diagnostic Technique and kind of analyzing why pumping operations use the wave equation. But now I want to discuss the invention of the SAM Well Manager, which is the most popular pump-off control used in the world today. Can you tell me a little bit about that development of that and how that came about and what you were sort of trying to solve with that?

Discusses the Development of the SAM Well Manager

GIBBS:

Well, the SAM Well Manager did become the world’s most popular and best-selling pump-off controller or well manager, and there’s a story behind that. Again, it’s a kind of a long answer, but I’d love to tell it if you’ll let me. Along the way, I asked myself a question, “Do I want to work for Shell the rest of my life?” I had a wonderful job. I had at times been head of the drilling research section at Shell Development Company, and I was later transferred to -- I was division mechanical engineer in Shell’s largest division. It was the best job at that level that a boy could have. And production was 100,000 barrels of oil a day, and gas production was 100,000,000 cubic feet a day. You just couldn’t design old paper a better job. But I hated it. And my main job was technical leadership of the engineers, the mechanical engineers in the group. But the rest of the job was that I was overseer of the vacation schedule and I had to placate the angry secretaries who wanted to fight sometimes. And most of all, my boss wouldn’t let me do something that I really thought was good to do it for Shell, and that was to use linear programming to allocate a limited supply of gas lift gas in a way to maximize the oil production from the field. I thought that was a natural, and it would be a good application of mathematics to Shell Oil, where I now work. I was no longer a Shell Development employee. I was working for Shell Oil Company. And he won’t let me do that, and that made me mad. That hurt my feelings.

And so, then I asked myself a question, “Do I want to work for Shell the rest of my life,”—and I had a good career started—“or do I want to become a professor of petroleum engineering at University of Texas Austin?” I had met a man named -- suddenly I’m having a hard time remembering Ken’s last name. I’ll remember it probably before -- but I got to know him. He was a Shell consultant at the laboratory where I worked. And so I asked Ken, “Do you have a job for me? I love to teach.” And he sad, “Yeah, I’ve got a job for you. Let’s talk about it.” And then the other thing was that I had met an engineer at Shell who was like-minded. We wanted to mechanize or make more efficient the application of the Diagnostic Technique. And we had the idea of putting a computer in a truck and hauling it to the oil field and analyzing the well with the Diagnostic Technique in full and to be able to hand the report, the completed report to a customer. Before that, application of the Diagnostic Technique was very cumbersome and inefficient. I’ll give you the story of how it started to work initially. We didn’t have a dynamometer for it. We had to have a time-based dynamometer.

So Shell Development Company had a talented man named Bob Kolb, who headed an instrumentation section. And so they found a horseshoe-shaped load cell made by Lockheed Electronics that would serve to put at the top of the rod string and measure the stress waves as they came up from below. And so, he made that part of this dynamometer. Later it was called the Delta Two Dynamometer, the Shell Delta Two Dynamometer. And so he came, this group of people came up with a position transducer. It was in a little case about that big. It had a 10-turn potentiometer in it that was attached to a string with some rewind device. And as the string pulled in and out, you would rotate this potentiometer and you’d get a voltage output that would be proportional to the position of the top of the rod string, which is one of the boundary positions in the Diagnostic Technique. So that problem was solved, and they selected a Sanborn strip chart recorder from the Sanborn division of Hewlett Packard as the way of recording this time-based data, which was needed in the Fourier series kind of solution. So that was it. Those were the components of a new kind of dynamometer that was created to get data for the Diagnostic Technique. So, some people from the lab would load all this up, the dynamometer and some tools, and teeter pipes and sucker rod clamps, all the things that you’d need to weigh oil, as we call it, and they fly to an oil field and they’d put this dynamometer on and they’d get some data. And they would take the strip chart and manually pick off points and write them down on a yellow tablet, load versus time and position versus time, manually. And they’d dial up somebody up somebody back at the lab and read them the data over the phone, and that person would copy them down again and then go to the computer laboratory and punch up IBM cards and run those through the SS80 Univac main frame computer and solve the problem, and it would get the output in terms of the coordinates of this downhole pump card. And so, the laboratory representative of the team would plot these points on graph paper manually, make the diagnosis, call up the people in the oil field, and tell them what the well was doing. How inefficient can that be? And yet, it worked. But that could never be a practical method because it was so labor-intensive.

So my friend—his name is Ken Nolen—I met him in I guess 1965. He worked for Shell Oil Company, I worked for Shell Development Company, and Shell was -- they were astute. They knew how to handle people. So they would bring these oil company engineers into the research group, and friendships would be made and conversations would take place, and things would get better. And so, Ken and I had this mutual interest of making the Diagnostic Technique better. And then, when I got my Master’s degree, I went back to Shell and then had this experience with Shell Oil Company, which I really wasn’t happy at. If they sent me back to Shell Development, I would have loved it. I would still be working for Shell, or I would have careered out working for Shell. They’re a great company. But it didn’t happen that way. I got the wanderlust, and I decided to leave Shell, form my own company. I had the choice, as I think I’ve said already, working for Shell for the duration, becoming a professor at UT in petroleum engineering. I still hadn’t remembered Ken’s last name. I’m working on it. Or, going to Midland Texas to be a self-funding -- as I call myself, a self-unemployed well weigher. And so, I formed Nabla Corporation, and I thought of my friend Ken Nolen. We had had this mutual interest. I called him up, he joined me. And the first thing we did at Nabla was to put the Diagnostic Technique in a truck in a computer and haul it to the well site and do the computations right there on-site so we could hand the customer the diagnosis with a completed report right at the well site. And that was the first thing that we did at Nabla. May I continue talking about things?

ESDORN:

Absolutely.

Discusses the Formation of Nabla Corporation and Some of the Projects He Completed at that Company

GIBBS:

I spent most of my life at Nabla. Nabla lasted for 26 years until I got old and retired. But anyway, I’d like to tell you the story of Nabla. “Nabla” is an Assyrian word for musical harp. If you go to the British Museum, you can see the Assyrian king riding in his war chariot in a stone carving. You can see the Assyrian king riding in his war chariot, and following behind are some harpists strumming their nablas. And nabla, the symbol for nabla is like an inverted delta, Greek delta. The Greek delta is shaped like this. The Nabla has the point on the bottom. It’s shaped like that. And the mathematician, the world-class mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton -- he was Irish. He was raised by an uncle who loved languages. And one of the languages that Hamilton learnt as a boy was Assyrian. So he knew what a nabla was, and he knew what the shape of it was. And he grew up to be a world-class mathematician, and he created what was called the Hamiltonian operator. It’s a vector operator such when you operate on a scalar point function -- a vector is created which points “uphill” in this function. And so we chose our -- the name of our company was to be called Nabla, and the reason we chose it was that we could tell our customers that we would help them maximize their profit just like the Hamiltonian operator showed you the way uphill in this mathematical function. So, so much for that.

The first thing we did was to put the Diagnostic Technique on wheels, and that was something new. Hewlett Packard told us that we were the first people to put a small computer in the truck and haul it to the well, haul it anywhere over bouncy roads. They’d had small computers put in planes, but never in trucks. And so, that was the way we were to make our living. We were operating under a Shell license on the Diagnostic Technique, and we were offering this service to industry. But we also did a lot of other things. We carried the predictive program. By this time, Shell and the rest of the world were using the solution for the wave equation with partial difference equations—I’ve told you that story—but we carried that much further. We taught our version of the wave equation design program. It was never patented, so I wrote a paper about it in 1963. Shell allowed me to write a paper, and I must say this. My boss -- prior to that time, sucker rod research was done by various task groups in API (American Petroleum Institute), and their papers were published in an annual volume called Drilling and Production Practices. So that’s where papers about rod pumping and drilling and things like that were usually done and published. But my boss, Bob McIntee, who I’m forever grateful to, said, “Sam, let’s publish your paper at SPE. It’s a better medium,” and so we did. And that’s where I first learnt about SPE. That would have been 51, 54 years ago, I guess, by now. And I have SPE to thank for a lot of things that have happened to me.

But anyway, it was published. The prediction paper was published, and so I had the right to reproduce that at Nabla, and I did. And we proceeded to carry it much further than what I had done back at Shell Development. And we taught it how to do an electrical prediction, but the main thing that we taught it was taught the world how to design deviated wells. And nowadays, the rage is horizontal wells, and all wells have to be deviated before they can become horizontal. And so that was done, I think, in 1992, a paper in SPE was published showing how to do that. So that was one of the big things, another of the big things that Nabla had done. And the story is longer. Can you stand to hear more?

ESDORN:

Absolutely. Before you go on though, can you talk a little bit about deviated wells and predicting deviated wells, talking a little bit more your paper and what you were doing and how you came up with that?

Discusses His Work in Deviated Wells

GIBBS:

Deviated wells is a very important subject nowadays. And I remember a story back in the ‘70s, perhaps the late ‘70s. Nabla was commissioned by a large independent oil company in Midland to figure out why this new well wouldn’t pump very long. It would start, and it would run for 30 minutes or an hour, and then the motor would kick out. They would kick the heaters that protected the motor and stop. And they couldn’t make it run.

And so, they hired us to go figure out why. And so we went out there with our van, with our computer analysis van, and we discovered it had a downhole friction problem. You can tell by looking at the downhole card if there’s rod friction. It tends to distort the shape of the downhole card. And so, we wrote up the report and told them their problem was downhole friction. What was happening was as the well pumped, the fluid level dropped, the pump load got greater, the rod loads got greater, the rods rubbed harder against the crooked tubing -- you know, in a crooked well, and the load on the motor got so great that it got too hot and cut off. That’s was what was happening.

So the oil company commissioned, a deviation survey on this well, a gyro type of deviation survey, and they found that the well had been drilled such that it exceeded the deviation limits in the drilling contract. And so they sued the drilling contractor and made the contractor re-drill the well at the drilling contractor’s own expense. And so, I just remembered that. And so that’s what -- from that point on, I began to wonder about deviated wells and how I could simulate them. And in 1992, I had succeeded in turning the wave equation predictive program into the wave equation deviated well predictive program that people began to use to design their crooked wells.

Now, sometimes it would be necessary to drill a deviated well. What if you lived near a lake, a large lake, and the oil reservoir went out under the lake? Well, you can’t go out there, and you don’t want to build a production platform in the middle of the lake. So you just get on the bank and drill a deviated well under the lake and drain the reservoir, produce the oil in the reservoir. Or what if you’re in a metropolitan area, which people want to live in an oil field? They’re not going to let you drill a bunch of wells next to their house. And so what they do is they pick a small area that is agreeable to the neighbors and to the city and the municipal authorities, and they drill a bunch of wells from that small little pad, and the oil deviated out in different directions to drain the reservoir under the city, under the town, or under the whatever.

So there are a lot of reasons to drill deviated wells. And nowadays, the rage is horizontal wells, where we’re drilling wells that go horizontally for a mile or more. But before they can become horizontal, you have to drill a deviated well. It starts out vertical, and then it gradually or maybe very abruptly turns the corner and goes horizontal, so you can drain the reservoir out there. And so, it’s a very important product for someone to own. And literally, our little company, Nabla, had a monopoly on it for 12 years, and the people hadn’t figured out how to copy our program at that time, so. I don’t know if I have answered your question or not.

ESDORN:

You absolutely did, yes. Thank you. So you discussed a little bit the SAM Well Manager, and you discussed that it was basically putting the Diagnostic Test on a computer and putting it on wheels and taking it out to the oil well. Can you discuss a little bit more what was involved with the computer and how you did that and how that impacted the industry?

Discusses the Development of the Pump Card Monitor

GIBBS:

Yes. The computer has been a vital part of what we’ve done. As a matter of fact, we were able to make our methods better and better as computers got smaller and cheaper and faster. And one of the products that Nabla made was a pump-off controller, and we had a -- we got introduced to that by -- Shell hired us to develop a pump-off control algorithm for their hard wire SCADA system, the first one in the world. And so we developed a pump-off algorithm for that, which I won’t describe. But that introduced Nabla to pump-off controls, and we kind of liked to piddle around with that. So we designed two kinds of controllers for our own account to sell.

And one of them was a motor speed controller, which was not a good seller. We sold a lot of them, but it was not the good seller that we hoped to. We liked it because it was cheap. It didn’t have a load cell; it didn’t have to have a load cell. It didn’t have to have a position measuring transducer or capability. So it was cheap, and we thought that oil companies would be attracted because they can put it on a lot of wells, because it was low-cost. But we found out as a result to that, that oil companies really wanted a dynamometer-based pump-off control, one with a load cell and one with a way of measuring position. And I was by that time just pretty sick of pump-off control in general. Our motor speed controller hadn’t received the acceptance that I had hoped for, and my friend Ken Nolan said, my business partner, he said, “You need to patent a pump-off controller based on the downhole pump card.” And so since he told me to do it, I did it, and we got a patent on use of the down holecard as an algorithm for a pump-off controller. And we made a product, and we called it the Pump Card Monitor, PCM, Pump Card Monitor, and it was a seller. It was a hit, just like Ken thought it would be. It was what oil companies wanted. And we sold a lot of them, particularly to a very large independent.

About this time I was 65 years old and weary. Ken was 63 years old and weary. And we decided to sell. And we sold the company to Lufkin, who created a new company called Lufkin Automation. And so they bought the Pump Card Monitor. And after making -- well, I don’t have to say any more about their business except to say that they took my Pump Card Monitor and enhanced it and renamed it to SAM Well Manager. And it continued to be a huge seller, really huge seller. Worldwide, it has dominated pump-off control business and maybe still does. I don’t know. The SAM Well Manager, it solved the wave equation, just like we did it in the trucks. And because of the miniaturization and the cheap little microcomputers that you could put in a case and put them in the Saudi Arabian Desert or the Arctic of Northern Canada and control the well with it, all because computers got fast and cheap and tiny. That made it possible to solve the wave equation in the SAM Well Manager.

So, much of the progress that’s been made, we can thank the people who built computers and all the progress that they’ve made. And Nabla and Ken, we lived through all of that, from computers that were -- the first one we put in the truck was that wide, that deep, and that long, and it had coffin handles on each side of it. It weighed about 50 pounds. And then it went from -- and it had all of 8k of memory. That’s all it had. And we were having to solve the wave equation with a computer with only 8k of memory. But from there, minicomputers turned into desktop and laptop, microcomputers, and then into tiny little -- did I say it right? We went from mainframe computers to minicomputers to microcomputers, no bigger than that, that you could solve huge problems and you could put it in your cell phone. It’s amazing, the progress made in the lifetime of somebody like me. That would change the world. And so we have the computer guys to thank for the progress that we made in automation ideas and subjects in the oil business.

ESDORN:

Okay. So we’ve talked about a few of your contributions, but are there any other contributions to industry that you’ve made that you would like to discuss that maybe we haven’t discussed yet, we haven’t touched on yet?

Discusses Other Contributions He Made to the Industry

GIBBS:

Yes. Nabla did a lot more. We talked about putting the Diagnostic Technique on wheels, and we’ve talked about pump-off controls. But we were the first to build a computerized dynamometer that you could haul it around. And the very first one was really primitive. It had a model 100 Radio Shack computer in it, and we fashioned an analog-to-digital converter for it, and we put a little plotter with it, line plotter, and we put it in a Halliburton suitcase. So you could take it out to the field with a load cell and a position transducer and gather some data. The Radio Shack model 100 computer had minimal computing power. It couldn’t solve the problems, so we taught it how to upload and speak to a bigger, faster, more capable computer that could actually do the analysis of the wells with the complicated programs.

And so that was our first computerized dynamometer, and then the next one that we set out to do, we wanted to put enough computer power that you could carry it out in a suitcase to solve the whole problem. And we made a false start there. We chose the wrong computer. It was a GRID computer, G-R-I-D. It was a military spec computer, almost indestructible—the military bought a lot of them, and they used them in their operations. But it had a fatal flaw. It had to have a special PC board in order to receive dynamometer data from the dynamometer load cell and position transducer. So we scrapped that, we only made -- we call it the Portable Analyst, the PA. We only made one of those. But this time, the computer people had made progress, and their laptop computers had a serial port on them. And that served the purpose of bringing in the dynamometer data into the laptop computer. And the laptop computer had plenty of power to solve the prediction problem or the design problem or any kind of problem you wanted to do.

And so that became the PA2, Portable Analyst 2. And in a way, it put the big truck versions of the Diagnostic Technique out of business. Because now -- and this happened -- oil companies have kind of cloned Nabla’s idea, and they have men and women with pickup trucks and computerized dynamometers and fluid level machines, which we haven’t talked about yet, and they can go out to the well and do a complete analysis right at the well side. And so the big Mrs. Baird's bread truck-sized vehicle hauling the minicomputer that had coffin handles on it and all of that, they don’t build them that way anymore. We use pickup trucks. And there’s thousands of them out in the oil field circulating around analyzing wells trying to minimize the mechanical problems and trying to make sure the wells are producing at maximum capacity.

Discusses the Development of the VENTAWAVE System

ESDORN:

So, you just mentioned fluid level analysis. Is that what you were talking about?

GIBBS:

Yes, the fluid level -- thanks for asking about the fluid level instrument. It’s a very good tool. It’s good for doing surveillance, making sure wells are producing at the proper rate. And it’s good as a herald for announcer of mechanical problems downhole that you can’t see. And it’s widely used by oil companies. Nabla didn’t even have a fluid level instrument. We had a program. We called it the PIP program, P-I-P, and its job was to compute intake pressure at the pump. And we used the dynamometer, the downhole dynamometer card, to compute that pump intake pressure. And so that was our fluid level machine. We could tell if the well was producing at capacity just by knowing what the pressure was down at the pump, or even predict how much more it could make if certain changes were made to the equipment.

But we didn’t have a fluid level sounder. We had a PIP program instead. But towards the end of our corporate career, we bought a fluid level sounder just to play with it and learn from it. And there was a fortuitous accident—that’s an interesting story to tell—that got us into the manufacturing business for fluid levels, along with manufacturing computerized dynamometers and selling predictive programs and diagnostic for all these programs. But Wally Gilbert, a famous -- many people think of him as Shell’s most famous production engineer, the same man that developed the downhole dynagraph that kind of indirectly gave me the idea of the diagnostic technique. He had a fluid level-based method for calculating pump intake pressure, that PIP. And so my friend Ken Nolen got that idea that he wanted to compare Gilbert’s PIP, which was derived from a fluid level, with Nabla's PIP, which was derived from a computer program based on the downhole pump card. He just wanted to see if they compared, if they got the same answer or something close to the same answer. So, Gilbert’s methods involves a -- I am going to forget the name of it.

ESDORN:

That’s okay.

GIBBS:

I am embarrassed. I cannot forget the… name of that device. I will call it the “I forget the name” device. I will blunder on, and maybe I can remember, maybe I can remember what it was. But in his method, he would shoot the fluid level, but he would also have to know the gas rate up the casing. And so he would use this “I forgot the name” device. He would open it, and it would bleed a casing gas out to the atmosphere at a rate that could be calculated knowing the difference in pressure from the casing pressure to the atmospheric pressure. And so, Ken bought one of these “I forgot the name” devices and proceeded to try to get the PIP with Gilbert’s method. So, he noticed -- and our expert instrumentation person Bill Lynch put a pressure gauge so Ken could know what the casing pressure was. He knew what atmospheric pressure was, so he knew the pressure difference across the “I forgot the name” device so he could calculate the amount of gas coming up the casing, which was important in Gilbert’s analysis to get PIP.

So, Ken noticed when he -- his experiment will go like this. He would read the pressure, he would calculate the rate of bleeding gas to the atmosphere from the “I forgot the name device,” and then he would -- knowing the pressure, he would go up into Gilbert’s technology involving a fluid level and calculate the PIP. So he did this experiment repeatedly. So he would open the valve to “I forgot the name” device—I am so mad at myself for not being able to remember that—and a few seconds later, he would notice a little blip on the pressure gauge. And that happened over and over again, and he got to wondering, what's causing that? And he figured it out. When he vented the casing through the device, that dropped the pressure in the casing, and that sent a rarefaction wave running down to the pump, to the fluid level, where it reflected off the fluid level and it came back to the surface. And when it got to the surface, he saw that little blip on the pressure gauge, and he said, “That’s a new way to shoot a fluid level.” Rather than doing it the conventional way, where you create the wave to go find the fluid level, where you create that wave with a compressed high pressure CO2, you can also create the wave just by venting a little gas from the casing. Not going to pollute very much, but you vent a little gas, and that creates the rarefaction wave that goes down and finds the fluid level. And so that told him how to build a fluid level device, which he patented, and he called it the Ventawave, V-E-N-T-A-W-A-V-E, and it was a successful product. So that’s how we got into the fluid level business with the Ventawave, and it all came from a fortuitous accident. We were just trying to compare our way of calculating PIP with Wally Gilbert’s way. So it -- I guess it happens all the time, but that one was a very good accident that Ken was smart enough to figure out.

ESDORN:

And what benefits did the Ventawave have over the…

GIBBS:

The convention?

ESDORN:

The conventional, yes, way.

GIBBS:

I’m sorry to have interrupted.

ESDORN:

That’s okay. Over the conventional or Wally Gilbert’s way of doing it? What were the benefits of doing it with the Ventawave?

GIBBS:

Well the Ventawave would send down long wavelength signals. You would open that valve for maybe half a second and that would make the wavelength of that wave that went down to find the fluid level very long, which meant that it spoke with a low voice. Why do they make foghorns sound a low sound, a low frequency sound? Because the sound propagates farther and better through moist air. And so, the Ventawave could see a little bit deeper because of the low frequencies that were contained in the wave that it created by venting. That was one of the advantages. Another advantage was you didn’t have to -- handling that high-pressure CO2 at many hundreds of PSI, that’s dangerous and cumbersome. You have to haul that around with you to shoot a fluid level, and you didn’t have to do it. So you didn’t have to take risks of that CO2 bottle exploding in the back of the pickup killing someone, nor did you have to worry with it. You use the energy from the well to create the wave. So those are the advantages, and it was a good seller.

ESDORN:

Terrific, thank you.

[OFF-MIC CONVERSATION]

ESDORN:

Okay perfect. Okay. So we’re going to move on to some a little bit more general ideas about the industry. We’ve talked about your specific contributions, but I was wondering innovations or milestones in your discipline that you consider to have had the biggest impact on the industry and why.

Discusses Innovation He Believes Have Had the Biggest Impact on the Industry

GIBBS:

The biggest impact of innovation at our industry? I would say that it’s pretty clear that producing horizontal wells has changed the industry dramatically. When Ken and I went to Midland back in the very late ‘69—I went in ’69, he came in ‘70—proration was being ended. By proration, I mean that the Texas Railroad Commission would tell operators in Texas that they can produce a well only eight or 10 days a month or something like that. It all started with the discovery of the East Texas field, where there was a glut of oil. Oil was selling at 10 cents a barrel. And so, they created this proration thing to limit the supply and have the process up to where people could make a living. But proration was ending in 1970, and everyone expected that when it was ended, that there would be a jump in production in the United States because of -- doesn’t it make sense that if you can produce oil every day of the month, it’d put more oil in the tank than if you could only produce it 12 days a month? But that jump didn't happen. In fact, pretty soon, after proration was ended, production begun to decline. And it continued to decline for 20 plus years, and we went -- and we saw it happen. In the United States, production was declining steadily until just in the last few years, something happened. And that something was, is that some people, far-sighted people developed ways of drilling horizontal through shale, usually shale, that evidently was the source rock for all the oil that has been produced so far. But that shale still contains a lot of oil, untold trillions of oil around the world in shales. And then the fracturing process is where you can fracture, make multiple fractures along the length of that horizontal—it’s called a lateral—many, many times. These fractures will allow the oil to come in from the shale along the length of the lateral. And your production can be much greater than if you only penetrated the reservoir here and oil came in just from one level, in a radial flow kind of fashion. And that involves the deviated well technology to get to the horizontal. And so, clearly, that’s made the United States a world power in energy again. And we’re fast becoming -- well, we’ve been dependent on other sources of oil for decades, but now we are again a major, major producer and growing every year of hydrocarbons, both gas and oil, from these shales. They’re in Texas, they’re on the East Coast, they’re in North Dakota, they’re everywhere all through the world. And so that’s the biggest thing that’s happened to the oil industry. It’s incredible the changes that it’s caused.

ESDORN:

Great, thank you. What do you consider to be some of the biggest challenges facing the industry in the future?

Discusses Challenges Facing the Industry in the Future

GIBBS:

The biggest challenges for the future facing the industry? I would say continuing to be a good citizen when it comes to protecting the environment. And oil companies are working very hard at that. And there are a lot of opponents that have to be won over somehow. These are the environmentalists, so-called, that oppose the pipeline coming that is proposed to come from Canada to bring the heavy crude to the Gulf Coast refineries. And so, maintaining, being a good citizen -- and they’re working hard at that. And I would say the problem remains to educate the public. Most citizens of our country really don’t know much about the oil industry, and there needs to be increased efforts in communicating what we are all about to the nation and to the world. The US Congress does not know much about what the oil industry does. They know how important it is, but they really don’t understand the details. And so, they need to be educated along with John Q. Public.

ESDORN:

And can you think of any technical challenges that are facing the industry in the future that you or problems that are going to be solved, need to be solved in the next 10, 20 years that might seem exciting or something that should be coming down the pipeline pretty soon?

GIBBS:

Technical problems that the industry faces in the coming years? One of them that we West Texans are so conscious of are how much water it takes to frac a well. And progress is being made, but fresh water supplies in West Texas are very, very limited—and in the world. Water has to be more available than oil in the world. There is a worldwide shortage of water. So, we have to get more supplies, de-salinization perhaps of seawater, and re-claiming water that has been used for frac purposes and not using fresh water. And oil companies are working hard on that, and indeed, that’s a big problem that there is not a perfect solution that I know of yet. But it needs to be worked on. And there are the deepwater challenges. Who knows how much oil is available in the deep oceans? And those are really difficult jobs, and great progress has been made in where they can produce in thousands of feet of ocean water. And those challenges will be faced long into the future for as long as there is oil business. And those are some that I can think of, and I’m not an expert on the subject.

ESDORN:

Well, thank you for your thoughts on that. I appreciate that. So, this will be a little bit more personal, but what has made working in the petroleum engineering industry meaningful to you?

Discusses What Has Made Working in the Industry Meaningful to Him

GIBBS:

Well, why is working in the petroleum industry meaningful to me? It’s been very satisfying from a personal standpoint. I’ve had a certain amount of success. And I’ve met a lot of wonderful people, and they are still friends. Many of them have gone on. And it’s a chance to give back something. And after I’m gone -- I’d like to tell you this story. It’s just a dream right now. My partner, Ken Nolen, partner of many years, and I have, in retirement, obtained a couple of new patents. One of them, one of the patents is to infer the gas coming up the casing without measuring it with the traditional orifice meter. And the other patent is to be able to shoot a green—I call it a green fluid level—that obtains the fluid level without introducing anything foreign in the well like, CO2, high pressure CO2, which is a little corrosive for the well, or venting anything into the atmosphere, which is polluting. And so, we are trying to commercialize that. We have a prototype and we’re working to have a product. We intend to sort of go back to business again, but our ultimate goal is to have a product or some products that we’ll give to charity. Like we call this thing that we’re working on now, this commercial thing, The Green Shot. So, we’ll form a company that it will have Nabla somehow in its name, but it will be an LLC type of company. And it will have a board of directors. And we hope that the Green Shot and the predictive program that I’m working on and other products maybe will throw off millions, even hundreds of millions of dollars to charity. And this -- we’ll never see the day, but that’s the hope that we have. We know that these products can generate hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s what happened with the SAM Well Manager—not to me, but to the owners of the company, new owners of the company. So it’s possible that if we dream big enough and if we’re lucky, some of these products we’re working on now will throw off large sums to worthy charities.

ESDORN:

So, being able to give back to the community, that’s part of what’s made it meaningful to you to be able to work in the oil and gas industry and the petroleum engineering industry. Anything else that you can think of, anything that you’ve been able to have, like a personal -- sort of this sense of accomplishment or anything that working in the industry has brought meaning for you?

GIBBS:

Well, the industry has… the benefits of working for the oil industry are many in number. One thing, I just had a good job. I was well paid, either as a Shell employee or for my own company. And it’s just strictly -- I had a good job, and I could give to charities—my universities, my church, things like that. And I wouldn’t have been able to do that had I not been associated with a vital industry like the oil industry. I could have been a short order cook, and it would have turned out a whole lot different. Not to demean short order cooks—they are good at what they do—but I was fortunate and grateful.

ESDORN:

Wonderful. What are some of your favorite memories about working in the industry?

GIBBS:

I have a lot of memories of working in the industry, and the book that I wrote I have an appendix called, “The Well Weigher Stories.” And they are about people. Can I tell one?

ESDORN:

Yes.

Discusses Some of His Favorite Memories of Working in the Industry

GIBBS:

Ken and I -- early in Nabla’s life, we were the only two employees. We would get to do an analysis and we’d go out and collect the data, do the analysis, write up a report, and I’d send out the invoice. We were the whole thing. And so, we were well weighers. We travelled all over the country in these trucks weighing wells. And one story I remember, we liked a certain little café there between Midland and North of Odessa, Texas called Miniskirt Junction. It had waitresses, attractive young women waitresses with short dresses, miniskirts, and it was a popular place for oil field people to stop and have breakfast on their way to the oil field. And so we stopped there often, and one time we did, Ken had a thought. He said, “Why don’t we go in to the petrophysical logging business?” We had both taken elementary courses in petrophysics as Shell trainees, so we knew just enough to be dangerous about it. But it seemed simple compared to what we were doing with this truck that we had made.

After all, our truck had everything in it needed to do a petrophysical log at the well site. It has a computer, it has analogue to digital converters, it has digital to analogue converters, it has strip chart recorders, everything you need to take a log on a well at the well site. And so, I thought it was a brilliant idea. So he said, “I’ll try it out on my neighbor,” who was a noted geologist for a large independent, “see what he thinks of the idea.” And he did, and the neighbor said, in one sentence, “It will never sell.” We believed him. We were having trouble selling our diagnostic service at the well site on our pumping systems, so he must be right, it will never sell; people won’t buy it. And so we forgot about it. We never did anymore in petrophysical, even thinking about petrophysical logging. And guess what? Nowadays, every company has a computerized truck that they park at the well site to do diagnostic and analytical surveys of all kinds, and their trucks put our little vehicles to shame. So we missed out on that petrophysical logging opportunity, but we do have the joy of knowing that at least we were the first people to put computers on wheels and take them to the oil field. But I’d say the greatest enjoyment that I have as a result of working in the oil industry were the people that I met and the memories that I made. They’re priceless, and they’re dear possessions for an old 82-year-old man.

ESDORN:

And here is our last question. Are you ready?

BENNET:

Mr. Gibbs, would you mind straightening your tie just a little bit, hide that cable?

GIBBS:

Okay, I’m sorry. My fat stomach is sticking out, too. That doesn’t help any.

ESDORN:

So, how has being an SPE member affected your work and your career?

Discusses How Being an SPE Member Has Affected His Career

GIBBS:

The SPE has been a vital part of my career. From that first day that my boss said, “Sam let’s publish your paper in SPE; it’s a better venue,” I became a member of SPE. And I can honestly say that because of SPE, whatever reputation I have in the world in my field is because of SPE, because I have calls even today from people who tell me, “I have your 1963 paper, SPE paper, where you showed how to calculate downhole cards in a well.” So SPE, not only to me but to all of its members, has been a vital tool for learning and for communicating the latest things that are happening in the oil industry to the world, to its members, therefore to the world. It can’t be overstated the importance of SPE in my life. And even this event right here is a blessing to me. I say thank you.

ESDORN:

Wonderful. Well, do you have anything else you’d like to add or anything that you feel like we haven’t covered or anything of that nature?

GIBBS:

I could stay here for days, but I won’t punish you with all that.

ESDORN:

Not at all. It’s been a great honor for us, I think, as well.

BENNET:

Absolutely.

ESDORN:

Yeah, wonderful. Well, thank you.

GIBBS:

Well, thank you all. You all do a great job, and your format is very good. It’s very easy on the person.

ESDORN:

Good. I’m glad.