John Franklin Carll
- Bushwick, NY
- Death date
The original version of this article was created by Francesco Gerali, 2020 Elizabeth & Emerson Pugh Scholar in Residence at the IEEE History Center
John Franklin Carll was born in a farm in Bushwick, New York, (now Brooklyn), on May 7, 1826. In his early years, before joining the petroleum business, he worked in farming, was clerical for a NY newspaper, and eventually completed his college studies, graduating as a civil engineer. He worked to build a family and his own wire manufacturing business in New York, but when he turned 38 years old, personal and professional misadventures made him leave New York to start a new life path in the small town of Pleasantville in Venango County, PA. In 1864, he joined the booming local petroleum business. He set up his petroleum firm, the Goss & Carll well, on the Hebert tract, Pleasantville, working more with the attitude of the engineer rather than the hand of the wildcatter. He became very familiar with the technical aspects of petroleum drilling and production, noted diligently his observations and collected daily records on the wells he drilled; furthermore, he focused the attention on the different rock layers pierced and crossed during the drilling operations. Consistent recording, comparisons, and the setting of a database prototype are the key elements that distinguished Carll from the crowd of the Pennsylvania oilmen.
Recording these technical aspects was not a common practice during the time of the early modern petroleum industry as drillers were more interested in recording numbers related with practical drilling operations like rate foot/hour and tools consumption and replacement. None of this data was actually correlated to the quality of the strata encountered with the finality to interpret and understand the geological sequence of the subsoil. Until the early 20th century, the study of evidence of functional petroleum systems was practically the only source of information on which drilling efforts were based: the identification of anticline folds discernible on the surface; the spotting for spontaneous petroleum, bitumen and even natural gas outcrops; the application of the so called creekology, that was the drilling of successive wells along a riverbed or creek was also used. The “wildcatters” drilling along such formations were selecting the most favorable locations for hydrocarbon accumulations in the subsurface achieving greater success, but having poor or no idea about the subsurface structure. Until those years, the drilling activity has discovered and traced the great oil-leads of the country from point to point regardless of any and all topographical features of the surface. The result of this method was that of the 5,560 wells dug in the United States from 1859 to 1869, 4,374 were dry, which in the money of the time could cost between 3,000 to 8,000 dollars - corresponding roughly to $47,000 to $125,000 in modern currency.
Carll since 1868 was actively involved to build records and datasets in the western PA Oil Regions. A bulk of firsthand and unpublished geological information on drilling sites was collected by an independent committee composed by the local petroleum entrepreneurs S. Q. Brown, George K. Anderson, J. H. Hebert, E. S. Nettleton, and Carll. A questionnaire divided in two circulars and composed of 26 questions was sent to every operator drilling in Venango County. Questions were heterogeneous and focused, for example, on the depth and thickness of the Venango sandstone, the general qualities of the petroleum bearing rocks, the color of the petroleum, and even more technical subjects like casing and power generation. One hundred and thirty-four well records were collected. The oldest well record was from the Phillips Well Number 2 drilled in 1861 on Tarr Farm near Oil Creek.
E. S. Nettleton, civil engineer, was team leader in charge to prepare the systematic collection of petroleum-well data collected until 1969. In 1970, when the committee was disbanded due to the lack of funds (it was financed from the sale of the well records to operators, which at the very end did not find the dataset produced useful), Nettleton turned that material to Carll, who merged it with his own older observations and started to create a functional database.
By 1874, Carll was already a well-established expert on the local petroleum business. He was assigned by the director of the Second Geological Survey of Pennsylvania, Joseph Peter Lesley, to lead a team of geologists in charge to study and unfold the geology and mineral resources of the western Pennsylvania petroleum lands. Upon his appointment to the Survey, Carll went into the field together with F. A. Hatch, a civil engineer since December 10th, 1874. They endeavored to get a correct overview of the stratification of the petroleum bearing rocks from both published and unpublished well-records randomly provided by different drillers or well owners; data too often influenced by their individual theories or pecuniary interests. As result of that, they spent several field sessions running topographic surveys because the elevations and many other data provided by the local operators revealed to be not reliable. Carll and Hatch soon were discouraged at whole situation and agreed that rather than cover every single well with possibly corrupted data, it was better to build few representative sections in each locality, and utilizing the records they personally performed.
The well data Carll and Hatch gathered clearly confirmed that by the mid-1870s nothing changed from the past decade: drillers had still little knowledge about subsurface geology, and just as it was their interest in this subject. In 1875, Carll eventually focused all his research and writing efforts to face this main issue, and among the many maps and charts he created two ultimate stratigraphic columns of the Oil Regions. Carll presented a columnar section from the surface through the third oil sand, which included the characteristic fossils, identified the subsurface strata with outcropping formations, and described distinctive beds which would be encountered in drilling. At this time, he confined his correlations to the fields of the Upper oil belt, although he indicated that the oil sands of the new Bradford district belonged to lower formations.
Carll published the Survey's first report on the Venango Oil District in 1875, which included a series of well logs, the elevations of 308 wells, 80 permanent benchmarks, and elevations of producing sands in 134 wells reduced to sea-level datum. Furthermore, he sharply emphasized the fallacy of the old notion of relationship between surface topographic features and the presence of productive petroleum strata, in the attempt to dismantle the empiric finding “petroleum architecture” that generated the first core of the industry. That may appear paradoxical, but Carl - together with few contemporary inquisitive geologists/engineers who put the seeds of the early petroleum geology like Sterry Hunt in Canada, Hoefer in Germany, Stoppani in Italy, and Lymann in Japan - understood that the pivotal factor in the success of Pennsylvania industry was the undisputed and not common richness of the subsoil in petroleum. The same drilling paradigm applied to the much less mineralized petroleum regions of Germany, Italy, France, and Australia leaded in the same years to a few lucky strikes and numerous bankruptcies. The bonanza of the subsoil could not last forever.
During his 11-year tenure with the Survey, Carll developed what in the following century became standard practices in the petroleum industry, including accurate drilling records, correlating and mapping sub-surface reservoir rocks, and explaining the increased productivity resulting from reservoir flooding. He published seven landmarking reports (see below) featured by numerous original maps, diagrams, drilling and production data, and pioneering geological and engineering interpretations.
Carll is credited with originating many of the concepts still used by the petroleum industry today. For example, his map of the geological structure of the Venango Third oil sand in Venango County was the first of its kind ever published in North America, and only the second in the world. He started the practice of consistently collecting and storing drill cuttings as a way of correlating reservoir rocks from well to well: he invented the strip log, a graphic representation of the rocks in the well bore based on the collected drill cuttings. He also completed expensive coring operation - the surveyor drill with a hollow probe to get a cylindric section, the “carrot” of rock.
Carll's work in the oil regions - in cooperation with his fellow colleagues A. B. Howland, J. P. Lesley, Francis C. Phillips and F.A. Randall - constituted one of the Survey's most remarkable achievements. It was collected a prodigious amount of information and taken great care to ensure its accuracy. All that was published in forms which could be understood by drillers and transmitted to future geologists. He had inaugurated the so called subsurface geological method which came into general use in the petroleum industry only 30 years after. Long years of service to science and industry, and dedicated effort to provide the best and most accurate data did not have any tangible effect on the practices and methodologies of Pennsylvania operators. This affected in part the spirit of Carll, who fallen in a loss of motivation and moved forward the surveyor practice, but he never abandoned the petroleum business. Carll died on March 13th, 1904, at White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.
The heritage of Carll was rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century, the moment when companies started to hire systematically geologists to constitute the corporate offices that in the years to come would be institutionalized in the business as exploration & production units. Later, Carll was praised and acknowledged both in technical and historical literature, which defined him the “First Petroleum Geologist and Engineer”. The Society of Petroleum Geologists established in 1956 The John Franklin Carll Award, which is awarded to those petroleum scientists who substantially contributed in technical application and professionalism in petroleum development and recovery. In 2007, in Pleasantville, PA, a Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission historical marker was installed to commemorate him and his groundbreaking work.
The seven reports published by John Franklin Carll on the Petroleum Regions in Western Pennsylvania
Carll, John Franklin. 1875. Report of Progress in the Venango County District. By J.F. Carll. Observations on the Geology around Warren. By F.A. Randall. Note on the Comparative Geology of North Eastern Ohio. By J.P. Lesley. Harrisburg: Board of Commissioners for the Second Geological Survey.
Carll John Franklin. 1880. The Geology of the Oil Regions of Warren, Venango, Clarion, and Butler Counties, including Surveys of the Garland and Panama Conglomerates (...) Descriptions of oil well rig and tools. Harrisburg: Board of Commissioners for the Second Geological Survey.
Carll, John Franklin, Howland, A. B., & Pennsylvania. 1883. Geological report on Warren County and the neighboring oil regions: With additional oil well records. Harrisburg: Board of Commissioners for the Second Geological Survey.
Carll, John Franklin. 1887. Annual report of the Geological Survey of Pennsylvania for 1886. Harrisburg: Board of Commissioners for the Second Geological Survey.
Carll, John Franklin. 1887. Report on the Oil and Gas Regions (...) Report on the composition and fuel-value of natural gas, by Francis C. Phillips. A list of publications relating to petroleum, etc. Harrisburg: Board of Commissioners for the Second Geological Survey.
Boyle, Patrick C. 1899. The Derrick's Hand-Book of Petroleum. A Complete Chronological and Statistical Review of Petroleum Developments From 1859 To 1898. Oil City, PA. Derrick Publishing Company.
Brice, W. R., & Drake Well Museum Archive. 2009. Myth, legend, reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the early oil industry. Oil City, PA: Oil Region Alliance of Business, Industry & Tourism.
Caplinger, Michael W. Allegheny National Forest Oil Heritage. Washington: Historic American Engineering Record.
Frehner, Brian. 2011. Finding oil: the nature of petroleum geology, 1859-1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Harper, John A. 2001. “John F. Carll - The First Petroleum Geologist and Engineer.” The Oilfield Journal, Winter 2001-2002: 2-14.
Harper, John A., 2007. “John F. Carll, The World’s First Petroleum Geologist”. PENNSYLVANIA GEOLOGY. Bureau of Topographic and Geologic Survey, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Heyer, Jeffrey. 1991. AAPG Search and Discovery Article #91004. © 1991 AAPG Annual Convention Dallas, Texas, April 7-10.
Leven, David. 1942. Done in Oil: The Petroleum Encyclopedia. New York: The Ranger Press,
Nettleton, E. S. “On the First Systematic Collection and Discussion of the Venango County Oil Wells of Western Pennsylvania”. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society held at Philadelphia for promoting useful knowledge 16, no 99: 429-495.
Ross, Philip. 1996. Allegheny Oil: The Historic Petroleum Industry on the Allegheny National Forest. Warren, Pennsylvania: United States Department of the Interior, Allegheny National Forest.
- About the whole work of the Second Geological Survey of Pennsylvania: https://libraries.psu.edu/about/collections/pennsylvania-geology/pennsylvania-geology-second-survey-reports