Spindletop and its lessons

Posted: Jan 02, 2001 12:00 AM
First, mud spilled over the table of the rotary drilling rig. Then, while the crew members' jaws dropped, six tons of four-inch pipe volleyed high into the air, making havoc of the derrick. Next came rocks, then gas; and at last, a great, unstoppable plume of dark green crude oil, nearly 200 feet high. Within a couple of days, a lake nearly nine million gallons in size surrounded the site. No bigger oil well had the world ever seen -- "a sight too grand for intelligent description,'' wrote one enraptured correspondent. It was a century ago -- Jan. 10, 1901, on a low circular ridge three miles southeast of Beaumont, Texas. The extraordinary, the endlessly spectacular discovery of Spindletop (named for a nearby cluster of trees) continues to teach those amenable to instruction. The lesson is: You never know. Because, indeed, in matters technological, in matters commercial, you never do. Where Capt. Anthony Lucas and his drilling crew found oil there was not supposed to be any. Big oil strikes took place in Ohio and California. Everyone knew that. The self-educated dreamer who had envisioned oil at Spindletop -- Pattillo Higgins -- was obsessed, if not crazy. Everyone knew that. Something else everyone knew was that John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Co. -- the Octopus -- controlled the oil industry. Production, refineries, pipelines, wholesale outlets -- Standard had them all, together with 85 percent of the U.S. fuel oil and gasoline market. It called the tune to which America gamely danced. So what happened at Spindletop? Three things essentially. Oil that wasn't there burst onto the scene in an impossible quantity -- oil not just from the so-called "Lucas gusher,'' but from the hundreds of wells drilled in the new field -- and hundreds more drilled in newly discovered fields nearby, such as Humble and Batson. That was the first thing. The second was that Spindletop dislodged the Octopus' supposedly permanent grip on the U.S. oil industry. An unregimented regiment of small production companies sold their output to whoever wanted it. New pipeline companies arose to desire and transport it. In the face of such circumstances, the almighty Rockefellers could do nothing. The third thing that happened was the birth of the fuel-oil age. What was to be done with so much oil, unfit as it was illumination? Aha! Propel trains and steamships with it. Beaumonters had driven out in buggies to watch the gusher gush. The gusher's output soon put their horses out to pasture. The automobile, with its internal combustion engine, became omnipresent. You never know. And because you never know, you must be careful. What seems impossible can happen. The priority becomes, not blocking it but employing its possibilities with intelligence and -- for us conservatives -- piety. A tall order, to be sure, but easily more realistic than seeking through court orders, and executive regulation to choke off innovation, and to strangle growth. Now could he -- you ask sweetly -- be talking about the Microsoft judgment and like phenomena? He surely could be. The Microsoft judgment posits a Standard Oil-like power on the part of Microsoft to throttle competition and have its own way with the marketplace. But so they once said of Standard. Indeed, just 10 years after Spindletop, the U. S. Supreme Court carried that logical to perfection by ordering the Octopus chopped up and parceled out. The bias against bigness persists. It must be engrained in human nature. What we need to recall, based on the history of the U.S. oil industry, is that when one individual or firm stands too ponderously in the way, someone will find a way around. That is how humans are constituted. And it just may be a good thing -- the plaints and pleas of us Victorians notwithstanding. I mean, the train is a superior means of conveyance, both as to style and general efficiency. But what if, at the dawning of the fuel-oil age, someone seized with that conviction had sought to block development of the internal combustion engine. How long do you suppose it would have been before that personage was spied lying helplessly in the dust, as the march of progress went noisily forward? Spindletop teaches about life as it works: large, messy life but more free, and more hopeful than any led under the brooding presence of the meddlers who always seem to know what's best for us. Bless 'em, they may mean well; they just don't know what they are up against.