6.  Tales of Destruction...Drop Weight Disasters

The Roberts torpedo was lowered into the well and suspended upon a wire.  When the proper location (next to the oil bearing sand) was reached, a weight with a hole through it, allowing it to slide down the wire, was dropped into the well.  When the weight, or "Go Devil", reached the torpedo it struck a waterproof firing mechanism that contained a percussion cap.  The cap set off the priming charge, which in turn set off the main charge of the torpedo.  The torpedo was an ingenious device (patent 59,936), but had a flaw which today would produce another flood of litigation, but with Roberts as defendant rather than plaintiff.  This fatal flaw involved misfires which would sometimes occur when the weight struck the percussion cap and failed to fire.  At this point another weight could be dropped with hopefully a happy result.  If not, the ultra hazardous job of slowly drawing the torpedo, with weights resting on top, back up the well would begin.  More than a few beads of sweat were worked up during this procedure over the years...not to mention the loss of life.

One particular accident occurred when a group of men attempted to lower a Roberts torpedo into a well.  Instead of waiting until the torpedo suspended by the wire had descended into the well and was positioned next to the oil bearing sand, W.H. Ingram held the weight on the wire directly over the torpedo as it descended.  The following was reported in The Titusville Morning Herald on Sept 4, 1868:  "Yesterday morning about ten o'clock, while Messrs. A.T. Ballentine, E.O. Emerson, and W.H. Ingram were engaged in sinking a torpedo in the Morse well on the Weed farm, Church Run, a premature explosion occurred, from which all were considered injured.  Mr. Ballentine had his right thumb severely lacerated and was slightly burned in the face.  Mr. Emerson was badly burned with powder about the face and eyes, but it is thought his sight will not be permanently impaired.  Mr. Ingram received a severe cut in the forehead, from a fragment of the torpedo, and one of his eyes is so seriously injured that it is feared its vision will be totally destroyed.  In view of the circumstances attending the accident they are to be congratulated on having escaped with their lives.  It is stated that the torpedo had been lowered but a few feet from surface, and the men were all watching its descent.  Mr. Ingram, who held the drop weight , let it slip from his fingers, and rapidly descending the wire, it produced an instantaneous explosion.  The tubing was jarred down several feet from its effects, and fragments of the torpedo were shot upward through the derrick. The sufferers were conveyed home as soon as possible, and received proper medical attention."

Needless to say, Mr. Ingram's decision to circumvent the most basic common sense safety procedures proved disastrous.

And another drop weight disaster as told by McLaurin, "Venango, Crawford, Warren and Armstrong Counties had furnished nearly a score of sacrifices and Butler was to supply the next.  Alonzo Taylor, young and unmarried, went in the summer of 1875 to torpedo a well at Troutman.  The drop-weight failed to explode the percussion-cap and Taylor drew up the shell, a process that had cost Captain West his life and was always risky.  He got it out safely and bore the torpedo to a hill to examine the priming.  An instant later a frightful explosion stunned the neighborhood.  Taylor was not mangled beyond recognition, as the charge was Giant powder instead of Nitro-Glycerine.  Nor was the damage to surrounding objects very great, owing to the tendency of the powder to expend its strength downward.  This was the only torpedo-fatality of the year, the number of casualties having induced greater caution in handling explosives."

See the saga of Captain West at I'm Quitting the Nitro Business for a classic drop weight disaster.

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