Sam Gibbs revolutionized the way a rod pumped well would be managed dozens of times over. As a brilliant engineer, mathematician, and disciplined man he worked passionately to change the trajectory of rod pump technology for generations.
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Alrighty everyone, welcome back to the RARE PETRO podcast! If you are tuned into YouTube, thank you very much! It’s good to see you, and you will definitely get more out of this as you have the opportunity to view plenty of visuals and interesting bits of info that pop up during the episode. If you are just listening, head on over to YouTube and search for the RARE PETRO podcast and you will be sitting pretty. But, I’ll try to keep the plugging to a minimum and get on with today’s episode which revolves around a historical figure in oil and gas known as Sam Gibbs. Now, if you recognized him, well done! If you are like me and had no idea who it was the first time I heard his name, that is A-okay as we will break down his contributions to petroleum engineering in this episode.
Everyone has to start somewhere, and Sam Gibbs started in Lufkin Texas after being born in 1932. The city was home to Lufkin Industries which specialized in manufacturing oilfield equipment. He says that everyone in the area was pretty knowledgeable about the pumping unit business as everyone had a family member working for Lufkin Industries, but he wanted nothing to do with oil and gas. He simply wanted to become a cattle roper although his father pushed him to be more like his cousin who went to A&M to become an engineer. In a compromise, Sam Gibbs agreed to attend A&M like his father requested, on the grounds he was allowed to bring his roping horse. So his father dropped him off at campus, rolled down his window, and said, “Become a mechanical engineer.” So, Sam did. After graduating in 1954, he was drafted into the military as he avoided the Korean War while in college. To make up for it, he was stationed in Alaska as a computer operator in an anti-aircraft gun battery. It was at this time the self-described “mathematically illiterate” Sam Gibbs fell in love with the stars and realized he could not map the celestial bodies in the ways that he wanted without improving his mathematical skills. As soon as he got out of the Army, he buried himself in books, got his math abilities where they needed to be, and landed a job with Shell Oil Company. It was a simple entry-level gig where he would spend time in roughneck crews, work to maintain infrastructure, and sign his name at the bottom of dynamometer cards that he didn’t quite understand.
Now that word, “dynamometer,” is very important to understand. Today we have Sam Gibbs to thank for his contributions, but more on that later. A dynamometer card plot at that time measured load and position in a way that allowed you to get a quick read on pump efficiency. Take this card for instance. We have this bottom shape that is the pump card, and this top shape that is the surface card. On the pump card, we can see the system “expand” as the upstroke begins. From there, we see intake across the top where the standing valve of the pump opens to admit fluid into the system. The top right corner is representative of the top of the stroke and from there, compression begins as we begin the downstroke. Once the standing valve reseats, we eventually encounter a pressure that displaces the traveling valve on top allowing fluid to travel up and out bringing us back to the bottom left corner of the card. This is a very brief overview to give you a general idea of how the card works. Back then, you would typically just plot load versus stroke length, but Sam Gibbs is the man who allowed us to plot both of those things versus time. If you would like to learn more about how to read these, I’ve linked a short course in the comments below that even Mr. Gibbs himself reached out to correct. Back to the history.
Shell ended up sending Sam back to school to study mathematics. Once he returned to Shell, he was a part of a research team for rod pumping research. One of Sam’s bosses, Bob McIntee, had a love for rod pumping and fought to keep funding for his research. At the time, people weren’t super impressed with rod pumps. Asian cultures had been using the technology for several hundred (potentially thousands) of years in order to produce groundwater. Still, the program received a little money, and Sam was new to the team. With his fresh PhD from Rice University, he hit the ground running working on differential mathematical models using computers. This laid the groundwork for the “Shell Diagnostic Technique” which would later evolve into something incredibly revolutionary. Before that though, things began to stagnate.
At a time, Sam was the head of drilling research and was later transferred to a management position. Sam hated it. While he liked serving as a leader to a team of mechanical engineers, much of his job was taking care of the region’s vacation time scheduling, and other seemingly mundane tasks. His ideas were implemented less and less, and eventually he reevaluated his career. He decided to take a teaching gig at the local University of Texas Austin. While there, he maintained his relationship with Ken Nolen, a friend who still worked at Shell. They had the dream to improve the well diagnostic technique. At the time the best possible technique involved loading up dozens of different tools and instruments, mounting them to the well in question, recording data, finding a phone (remember it’s 1960, so no mobile phones) to read the data to someone in a lab who could punch up the IBM computer cards to run through a mainframe computer to solve the problem. While the results were mind-blowing, so was the amount of labor that went into testing. There was no real commercial use because it would be way too costly to send the whole team out to conduct this on a single well. Sam wanted to use his Diagnostic Technique he developed at Shell in order to bring computers straight to the site, run the test, and immediately deliver the data to a customer. He called up his old Shell colleague, Ken Nolan, invited him to his new company, Nabla Corporation, and started the next chapter of his career. The reason for naming his company Nabla is captivating, so I’ll put up a short screenshot here for you to pause and read, should you be interested.
According to HP, their computers had been mounted in planes before, but never on bumpy service roads, so Sam, Ken, and a computer were quite literally blazing new trails. At the stat, they were renting out the program from Shell as it was proprietary knowledge, but it was never patented. Sam ended up publishing the wave equation design program research paper with SPE which allowed him the right to reproduce at his own company. Nabla continued to grow from there and even began research into the new territory of deviated wells. After testing a well for a customer, Sam was able to report that the motor was kicking out because the rod was rubbing up against the tubing causing too big a load. With that evidence, the operator was able to sue the drilling contractor to redo the well correctly. Sam couldn’t get that idea out of his head and worked hard to develop a deviated version of his wave equation predictive program which afforded him a 12-year jumpstart (or more appropriately monopoly) on the tech. Now he could advise companies on how to access oil reservoirs that could not be accessed vertically (like reservoirs under lakes or developed residential areas) and eventually laid the groundwork for horizontal well technology.
From there Sam and Ken began to get older, but their final hurrah was the development of a pump-off controller based on his previous work with downhole pump cards. They called it a pump card monitor, or PCM, and it sold like hotcakes. Eventually, at about 65 and 63 years old Sam and Ken sold the company to his hometown company, Lufkin, who created a new division for automation and well controls. They improved the PCMs design and sold it as the SAM Well Manager. Now that computers had become better, you no longer needed Sam and Ken to drive out to the site, you simply needed a single SAM Well Manager computer per unit and it would work in almost any environment. Even today it is still one of the world’s (if not the) best-selling control devices for rod-pumped wells. A true modernization of the oilfield. Sound familiar?
Sadly, Dr. Sam Gibbs passed away in 2019. By then he was a man of many patents and an impactful legacy. People all over the world are still using his tech and ideas to push the boundaries of petroleum engineering and mathematics even further. He was an incredibly bright man who will be remembered for a long time thanks to his contributions to the industry. Still, it makes you wonder who will be the next inventor to revolutionize tech in the way that he had.
But that is the end of this episode. Do you have any historical figures we should analyze for Hydrocarbon History? Maybe you’d like a segment on Red Adair and his firefighting techniques? Whatever it is, go ahead and send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we just might turn your idea into an episode. Always reading the YouTube comments too, so keep leaving suggestions and feedback! Thank you so much for joining us in this episode so we could explore Dr. Gibbs’ modernization of the oilfield. This has been Tavis Kilian with RARE PETRO, and until we see you next time, take care, everybody!