The news is full of the record low oil price due to the COVID-19-related drop in demand. The benchmark Brent crude dipped below $20 a barrel, while West Texas intermediate entered negative pricing. We’ve all become oil market watchers overnight, and for some of us that’s led down a rabbit hole of browsing to learn a bit about how oil is extracted.
Many of us will have seen offshore oil platforms or nodding pumpjacks, but how many of us outside the industry have much more than a very superficial knowledge of it? Of all the various technologies to provide enlightenment of the curious technologist there’s one curious survivor from the earliest days of the industry that is definitely worth investigation, the jerk line oil well pump. This is a means of powering a reciprocating pump in an oil well not through an individual engine or motor as in the pump jacks, but in a system of rods transmitting power over long distances from a central location by means of reciprocating motion. It’s gloriously simple, which has probably contributed to its survival in a few small-scale oil fields over a century and a half after its invention.
The Birth of Jerk Lines
The industrialised oil industry as we know it has its roots in North America, and in particular Canada, in the second half of the 19th century. The first commercial oil wells were sunk in the 1850s, and in the early 1860s the first jerk line was installed by John Henry Fairbank, to supply multiple wells from a single central steam engine. A large horizontal eccentric wheel could supply push-pull jerk lines radiating out from it over distances of up to several miles suspended on swinging arms from wooden frames. This bite-sized history of the early petroleum business conceals a much earlier origin though, of flatrod power systems used for centuries in the mines of Europe to transfer power from water wheels to pumps and other machinery in shafts some distance away. Like the oilfield systems of the 1860s they could efficiently send this power over significant distances without costly maintenance, and they could do so against steep gradients such that mines did not have to be situated next to watercourses in valley bottoms to use them.
The few surviving oil fields that use jerk lines are dotted around the North American continent, and one surprise as an interested virtual tourist is how little online record they have attracted compared to some other industrial technologies. It seems that they were in active installation into the 1930s, but for example there are far more pictures on Wikimedia Commons of German and Swedish mining flatrod systems than there are of North American jerk line oil fields.
Another go-to source for older technology is the patent system, but unexpectedly compared to other oil extraction techniques there seems to be very little in the way of patent applications relating to them. It’s as though aside from a handful of YouTube videos to satisfy curious viewers they have passed almost unnoticed into their third century, supplying our space-age petrochemical and automotive dreams with an almost artisan feedstock. Their best description online comes courtesy of John Henry Fairbank’s great-grandson Charlie, still operating the family oil field in Oil Springs, Ontario, and in the two videos below explaining both their operation and his unique relationship with oil. If you live close to a jerk line oil field, make sure you see it and document it before it fades away.
Header image: Jerk line eccentric drive, Pennsylvania, USA. Nicely, John / Public domain.