[SIGCIS-Members] petroleum and computers

Allan Olley allan.olley at utoronto.ca
Wed Sep 15 18:40:27 PDT 2010

 	I know of one incident from the fuzzy origin period of computers circa 
1948-1952, two different oil companies, Carter oil and Gulf Research and 
Development Co., submitted similar problems in oil exploitation (if I remember 
right optimization problems on how best to get oil out of wells) to IBM's 
Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC, a sort of proto-computers). In 
particular Carter Oil (which apparently was a subsiduary of Exxon) hired von 
Neumann as a consultant.
 	As far as I've been able to find the SSEC was actually used for about 
23 projects (another dozen were considered with some preliminary work done). Of 
these about half were done gratis for various research scientists, the other 
half were done on a cost basis for various paying clients, mostly scientists 
and engineers at US federal government (military) agencies. Of the 5 payed for 
by private companies, one was GE's turbine design, one was Fairchild Aircraft's 
atomic airplane division, one was by Reeves Instrument company to calibrate a 
missile guidance system, and then the two oil problems.
 	This is not really a statistical significant sample and the SSEC was 
biased sampling because it was a philanthropic show piece ostensively meant for 
the benefit of scientists.
 	Still oil companies were clearly early adopters and had problems that 
needed computing power but I've always been led to believe that in the earliest 
days of the electronic computer government was the biggest user of computing 
resources (electronic or otherwise), in the United States. And even many of the 
private interests were firms working on defense projects or other government 
contracts (military aircraft etc.).

This oral interview ( 
http://www.ieeeghn.org/wiki/index.php/Oral-History:Enders_Robinson ) with 
Enders Robinson suggests that the use of computers in the geophysics of oil 
exploration did not occur until the 1960s, but that they were widely used at 
refineries earlier.

On von Neumann and Carter Oil see: Aspray, _John von Neumann and the Origins of 
Modern Computing_ (1990), pp. 105-108

Here is a paper on oil extraction that credits with von Neumann with some help 
(talks about moving some stuff from desktop calculators to a card programmed 

My estimate of SSEC usage is based mostly on an unpublished manuscript 
(substantiated from the published record and elsewhere where possible), 
"Appendix B: SSEC Operation" (no date) in "SSEC, the first electronic computer" 
by A. W. Brooke, pp. B1-B12. A. Wayne Brooke Collection, University North 
Carolina at Raleigh, special collections, MC#268, Box 1, Folder #9: Series 2.3 
writings. A. W. Brooke was the supervising engineer of the SSEC during its 
operation 1948-1952 and apparently found the summary of SSEC operation in IBM 

Yours Truly,
Allan Olley


On Mon, 13 Sep 2010, Deborah Douglas wrote:

> Colleagues,
> Recently, I received a question about a claim that the petroleum-seeking 
> geophysics industry was once the greatest consumer of computers, only 
> surpassed at some later point by the federal government.  No citation was 
> given and there is quite a bit of skepticism but where would you advise us to 
> look to refute this claim (or perhaps my own aerospace bias is too strong and 
> the claim is true!).
> Thanks,
> Debbie Douglas
> Deborah G. Douglas, Ph.D.
> Curator of Science and Technology
> MIT Museum, N51-209
> 265 Massachusetts Avenue
> Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
> ddouglas at mit.edu •  617-253-1766 phone  •  617-253-8994 fax
> http://web.mit.edu/museumhttp://webmuseum.mit.edu> http://museum.mit.edu/150
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