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Columns | Bob Bowman's East Texas

INVENTING THE
OILFIELD PUMPING UNIT

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman

Eighty-one years ago this spring, Walter W. Trout sat down with lunch with Ross Sterling, the president of Humble Oil and Refining Company and a future Texas governor.

From that luncheon came the impetus for the invention of the counterbalanced pumping unit -- the most visual piece of machinery in today's oilfields.

With the decline of the sawmill business in the l920s, Trout had traveled all over the oilfields seeking business for his company, Lufkin Foundry and Machine Company. He constantly heard complaints about the way oil was extracted from the earth.

With oil discoveries at Spindletop in 1901, Saratoga in 1902, Sour Lake in 1903, and Humble in 1905, oil had become a major industry in Texas. But the standard rig using a walking beam and sucker rods, had not changed since oil was discovered in the 1800s.

During their conversations, Sterling described to Trout an experiment his company's engineers were conducting in an Orange oilfield. He challenged Trout to build a worm-geared apparatus for pumping oil.

As a result, Trout's company built the first gear-enclosed oilfield pumping unit and installed it on a Humble well at Goose Creek, now known as Baytown. But the units did not stand up as well as Trout wanted. They were often too small to handle large amounts of water, resulting in failed gears and cracked shafts.

But Trout didn't give up. W. L. Todd of Standard Oil said he liked the geared unit but would not purchase it until some type of counter-balancing was developed.

During another lunch with Todd in mid-1925, Trout made pencil sketches of his counter-balancing ideas. Using his sketches, the company's shop crews experimented with rotating counter-balancing ideas. In August of 1925, they came up with a unit Trout liked. It was installed in Humble's Hull, Texas, field, where it worked to everyonešs satisfaction.

Trout later wrote: "The well was perfectly balanced, but even with this result, it was such a funny looking, odd thing that it was subject to ridicule and criticism, and it took a long time, nearly a year, before we could convince many the idea was a good one."

The design patented by Trout in 1926 led to decades of dominance by Lufkin in the manufacture of the unique pumping unit, now the standard throughout the world.

Oil rig in Kermit sandstorm
Pumping Unit aka "Pumpjack" in a West Texas sandstorm
Photo Courtesy Charlene Beatty Beauchamp
Pumping units made by today's Lufkin Industries, Inc. have found their way into history.

In 1942 a Japanese submarine sneaked along the California coast and fired two torpedoes at the Ellwood oil field. The only casualty was a Lufkin pumping unit. It was the only war damage inflicted on American soil.

A Lufkin-made air-balanced unit was used by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1971 to pump water from a cavity holding a nuclear device 6,000 feet below Alaska's surface. Weighing 80,000 pounds, it was the largest pumping unit in the world.

Another Lufkin unit was set up on the rim of the Grand Canyon to pump water from the river below to the rim as part of an effort to relocate an Indian settlement on the canyon floor.

In 1976, another Lufkin pumping unit found its way into the Smithsonian Institute in Washington as part of a bicentennial exhibit. Other Lufkin pumping units have found their way into Odessa's Permian Basin Museum, the East Texas Oil Museum at Kilgore, and Shreveport's Sci-Port museum.
Š Bob Bowman
All Things Historical
January 18-24, 2004 column
A syndicated column in over 40 East Texas newspapers
(All Things Historical is a service of the East Texas Historical Association. Bob Bowman is the author of 30 books on East Texas and a former president of the association.)

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