Oil Wells Done Rube-Goldberg Style: Flatrods And Jerk Lines

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 Kunstrad Bergbau flatrod system, Germany. Heinz-Josef Lücking / CC BY-SA 3.0
The Kunstrad Bergbau flatrod system, Germany. Heinz-Josef Lücking / CC BY-SA 3.0.

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.

29 thoughts on “Oil Wells Done Rube-Goldberg Style: Flatrods And Jerk Lines

  1. There is a little demonstration system at Coolspring Power museum ( http://coolspringpowermuseum.org/ ) located in Coolspring, PA. They are focused on the gas engines used for pumping a little later than this. They have an 800 HP Snow natural gas pumping engine that they run during their events. It’s really worth checking out if you are interested in this sort of thing and are within driving distance.

    1. I second Coolsprings Power Museum.

      I live about an hour and a half from it, make it up several times each year.

      It is the single biggest collection of running antique engines in the world, and takes up an entire valley. There’s something like 19 buildings full of running engines of every era pre 1940’s. Oilwell, Industrial, you name it. I did not know they had a jerk line setup now, but it wouldn’t suprise me.

      If you go on one of their fleamarket days- you will never forget it. Even the air just smells like old beaten iron and cosmoline then.

  2. In a world of vertical sucker rods, I doubt anyone would think a horizontal version very original. Especially with prior art in mining.

    Despite a keen interest in the history of the industry, I’d never heard of these during my career in the industry. The advent of cheap electric motors and rural electrification made them not economically attractive after the 30’s.

    My favorite bit of oil patch technology is the production and refining in the interior of Myanmar. The drilling rig consists of a bamboo tripod, pulley, length of rope and a piece of pipe with a sharp edge on the bottom end. The pipe is raised up, dropped and this is repeated until the pipe is full. It’s then “tripped out” (hauled to the surface), the sediment pushed out and tripped back in. They drop baggies of water into the well to help soften the shale and get it to stick in the pipe.

    The wells are shallow and stop producing after a short period. So they move over and drill another well. They even do “offshore” in lakes and rivers with bamboo platforms.

    Lift is done with a typical bottom gate well bucket. The refineries are made of 55 gallon drums which distill off kerosene for lamps. The residue being burned to fire the distillation process. The transport system is young women carrying 5 gallon containers on their backs from the well head to the refinery. All very labor intensive.

    There was a great article about it in the Oil and Gas Journal about 20 years ago with a pciture of a drilling rig on the front cover. I made a copy which I jealously guard. It was really cool.

  3. I grew up with this stuff literally in my back yard. As late as the ’70s, many of the remaining oil fields in New York State’s Southern Tier were still powered by single-cylinder hit-or-miss engines. Lease operators would fit “barkers” to the exhaust stacks, each one with its own unique note, so that they could be monitored remotely. On a Saturday morning, you could hear several of them echoing across the valley.

    1. The “barkers” idea sounds interesting, tuned hit or miss exhaust noises! Do you have any detail on these? A little preliminary searching hasn’t turned anything up (and/or my search terms are too generic)

      1. I have always wanted to have a go on one of those. (I have used a paternoster many times as a student)
        At busy times the conflict between up and down travellers could have caused problems, bi=ut I doubt that was common if they worked shifts.

      2. The description makes it look more dramatic, but it’s just a reciprocating staircase or ladder. The planks move up and down just enough for you to shift your foot on the other rail – you don’t jump between platforms.

        I’ve seen these things in kids’ activity parks and carnival fun houses along with the revolving tunnel, the slanted room, etc. optical and physical “Illusions”.

  4. A decade or so back, I was tempted by a suspiciously cheap piece of largish property, partly farmed, that had a disused oil well in one corner, and a capped off natural gas well in the other. I did some preliminary looking into it, but the agent wouldn’t confirm for sure whether the subsurface rights were included, or what the heck was going on, “It’s there so I put it on the listing” was about as much I could get from him. Tried more official routes of enquiry, but was getting a lot of “it depends”. Anyway, couldn’t tell whether people really didn’t know or were being evasive. That and I had a creeping suspicion that at some point crushing environment cleanup costs or fines were gonna land on the landowner, as regs got ever more tight (Though it didn’t look bad, no slicks on the ditchwater, crops nearby etc). So appealing as it was to think of a little homestead with potential energy independence, I gave up on it.

    Anyway, what was there at the time looked more like it belonged to that flatrod system rather than your typical derrick and drill jobbie. Was supposedly untouched for 50+ years.

  5. Some stuff can be gleaned here… http://www.petroliaheritage.com/

    Not exactly the kind of site that gets high in the search ranking. Petrolia, Ontario also has a museum (On my “next time I’m over that way” list) but it’s supposed to have been closed for renos before the virus, so don’t know how soon that will be open.

  6. A pumping system arranged like a USB device network. One central port, the engine, with cables / rods running out to eccentric wheels / hubs that have cables / rods going to the devices / pumps.

    1. So they just needed to add 2 more rods for data transmission and they could have had Plug and Spray wells connected through their log cabin Windows to the root cellar giving them petro-buckets of storage.

      I’ll see myself out…..

  7. I don’t understand how COVID-19 related shutdowns can be the cause of oil price drops, has demand really dropped that much and if so then where is all of the CO2 really coming from when you look at the Keeling Curve data for the period? Global CO2 is rising as if COVID-19 never happened. Scripps.ucsd.edu is the authority on these matters is it not? Can anyone explain this to me? –> https://scripps.ucsd.edu/programs/keelingcurve/wp-content/plugins/sio-bluemoon/graphs/mlo_two_years.png

    1. It is not only covid, also geopolitical. Besides, many oil wells can’t really be turned of like you close a tap. You will destroy the well and will need to make a new one. In some fields this is not catastrophic but in others it is very complicated.

      Many oil wells are thus working at almost full output, and burning the oil to get rid of it…

    2. Most definitely the shutdowns have had a major impact. Consumption now of liquids is 85% (https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/steo/images/Fig6.png) of what they were immediately before. Markets were somewhat oversupplied prior to this point. Dropping consumption and the geopolitics between KSA and Russia did nothing to help with them threatening to dump more oil on the market. Real problem though was the lack of buffer capacity (storage) for crude oil. Crude storage hit full capacity which really made people deal with the supply and demand issue head on in an unfiltered fashion. At that point, there was no place to put any new crude, and it got really expensive for producers to unload the product causing a massive dip and even negative price for crude.

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