Olive Petty

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Olive Petty
O. S. Petty headshot.png
Membership Honorary Member

Olive Scott Petty (1896-1994) was a pioneering inventor, geophysicist, and leader in the early days of the oil and gas industry.

Obituary [1]

O. Scott Petty, Early Oil Explorer And Geophysicist, Is Dead at 98


Published: March 09, 1994

New York Times

O. Scott Petty, a geophysicist and inventor since the early years of oil exploration, died last Wednesday at his home in San Antonio. He was 98.

He died of pneumonia, his family said.

Mr. Petty, who had remained active until two days before his death, looking after his interests in ranching and the oil industry, held many patents in geophysical instruments and equipment. In 1925 he developed what he called his "little jigger," an electrostatic seismograph detector about the size of a suitcase that was used to find deposits of petroleum by picking up vibrations in the earth. Years later the device was made smaller for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which used it as an instrument in space exploration. Taught Advanced Physics

In 1925 Mr. Petty also founded the Petty Geophysical Engineering Company, one of the first seismic service companies in the oil industry. It later merged into Geosource Inc., which eventually became part of Halliburton Geophysical Services Inc. of Houston, a joint venture with Scientific Software-Intercomp Inc. of Denver.

Biography Citation for SEG Honorary Membership

Contributed by W. Harry Mayne

O. S. Petty is truly one of the pioneers of exploration geophysics.

After graduation from The University of Texas in 1917, he entered the First Officer's Training Camp at Leon Springs, and served in the Corps of Engineers through 1918. In 1920, he received an advanced degree in civil engineering from The University of Texas, taught civil engineering until 1923 and worked for a structural engineering firm until 1925.

In 1925, he joined his brother Dabney E. Petty, and with the encouragement and financial assistance of his father and older brother, Van A. Petty II, formed Petty Geophysical Engineering Company.

No instruments were available at the time, and it was necessary to develop them and the methods for their use. The science of electronics was just beginning to emerge and Mr. Petty was quick to appreciate the adaptability of this new science to his problems. The simplicity of design and superior performance characteristics of his low-frequency condenser plate refraction geophone systems still qualify them as models of ingenious design by today's sophisticated standards of electronics.

Mr. Petty also pioneered in the application of the reflection seismic method and holds a number of "landmark" patents in exploration geophysics. Many principles and techniques which he developed are still in general use today. Always a perfectionist, he remains dedicated to technical excellence and still insists on the highest standards of professional competence.

Mr. Petty was instrumental in the formation of SEG and is also being honored here as a Charter Member and Founding Father. His continuing interest in SEG affairs is illustrated by his unwavering support of activities like the Scholarship Foundation. Mr. Petty remains active as Chairman of the Board of the Petty Companies in addition to his interests in ranching, conservation and the community. He is a Registered Civil Engineer in the State of Texas, a Director of the Texas Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, a member of American Society of Civil Engineers, American Society of Military Engineers, AIME, AAPG, AGU, AAAS, and numerous other scientific and professional societies.

He is a member of Chi Epsilon and Tau Beta Pi Honorary Engineering Fraternities, Theta Xi Fraternity, and The Charity Ball Association of San Antonio.

The University of Texas College of Engineering honored Mr. Petty in 1962 by presentation of their Distinguished Graduate Award. He is also an Honorary Member of the Geology Foundation Advisory Council and the Chancellor's Council of the University.

SEG can be truly proud and grateful to honor the contributions of Mr. O. S. Petty to the Society and the industry.

Biography [2]

"If we had a seismograph that we could operate without using great quantities of dynamite - no dynamite at all, I mean - we would be able to put it all over these big companies" - O.S. Petty, April 1, 1925

It is easy in these times of giant business conglomerates to lose sight of individual beginnings. In 1973, when Petty Geophysical Engineering merged with Geosource (integrating with the Ray Geophysical Division to form Petty-Ray Geophysical) Petty was geophysics - on a large scale. The company had run a neck-and-neck race with the other greats in worldwide seismic coverage. Before 1940 it was operating in seven countries outside the United States and had 17 seismic crews. At one point in the Petty Company history it owned more geophysical patents (among them the common reflection point method) than any other contractor or oil company in the world.

Beginnings of Petty Geophysical

What about its beginnings? It all began in a couple of letters between brothers Dabney E. and O. Scott Petty (O for Olive, Texas, where they were born and which is a town named after their maternal uncle, Col. S. C. Olive). Dabney, an associate state geologist for the Bureau of Economic Geology in Austin, sent Scott a copy of a report by Dr. Ludger Mintrop's firm, Seismos, on its portable seismographs. Three companies were already using them in the Gulf Coast, and their potential in shallow oil reservoir exploration seemed tremendous. The accompanying letter invited Scott to spend some of his spare time studying the method and learning to interpret the readings. In doing so, perhaps there was a possibility to go into consulting work, Dabney pointed out.

Scott had just turned 30, and was employed by R. O. Jameson of Dallas as a structural engineer. After reading the technical paper, he set off to the public library where he undertook a self-taught crash course in seismology, digging out anything available on the subject. On April 1, less than a week after receiving his brother's suggestion, Scott answered with: "If we had a seismograph that we could operate without using great quantities of dynamite - no dynamite at all, I mean - we would be able to put it all over these big companies." And he added: "Do the Germans employ the vacuum tube in their seismograph? If not I believe we're fixed! ... my idea is simply this. Let's try to invent a seismograph using a vacuum tube ... so that it would be sensitive enough to register the vibrations made by simply dropping a heavy chunk of lead on the ground."

There were no vacuum tubes in the German instruments and their method was such a novelty that no one was trying to improve on it yet - except for the Pettys. So they quit their jobs and returned to San Antonio, their home town. "We were as happy as if we had good sense," says Scott Petty.

The third floor of their parents' stately, up-to-then quiet house became the brothers' shop and lab. The basement proved to be an adequate testing ground because nearby trolley cars provided measurable vibrations. And their father - successful in the lumber industry - lent his enterprising, penniless sons $5,000. The money lasted three months. The road to commercial work was still long.

Older brother Van, an attorney and independent oil operator, proposed a way to obtain funds - create a corporation and sell stock. Not surprisingly, only the family could be sold on such ethereal assets as vibrations and sound waves. Yet even Edwina, Scott's shop and field assistant and wife since 1921, contributed $800 to the birth of Petty Geophysical Engineering Co.

Not tea leaves, entrails or crystal balls could divine what the company was to achieve. "Luckily we couldn't foretell the difficulties," says Petty, "or we might not have tried it." A questionable statement for none of the obstacles they would soon encounter managed to slow them down.

By November 1925, they felt their theories were ripe and the instruments ready for more revealing ground waves than trolleys could produce. They hired an unemployed blacksmith, Conrad Reichert - who would stay with Petty for 25 years - and spent that unusually cold winter shooting refractions, reflections, profiles, fans, short lines, long lines, and freezing to numbness in an abandoned hill country farmhouse they used as headquarters.

"We were overworked, wet, cold and poorly fed. By day we surveyed and we shot at night, when noises were minimal. But what a thrill it was when we found that we could get good salt dome records with as little as 20 pounds of dynamite whereas the Germans were using hundreds to do the same."

A nagging question remained, however: were they using such large charges because their instruments were not sensitive enough, or because they were getting something the Pettys weren't? Curiosity - perhaps Nature's most effective way to check overpopulation - prompted them to set 300 pounds of 60% straight nitroglycerin dynamite in an eight-foot hole and pile all the dirt possible on top of it.

"At 5 o'clock in the morning it sounded like what it was - 300 pounds of dynamite," Petty says. "But then, an instant later, the sound of a second explosion five times as loud as the first. Dabney and I thought we knew what had happened. The big clod of dirt blown by the explosion had fallen on the extra boxes of dynamite. What horrified us, though, was that Reichert, our shooter, had this extremely bad habit of using them as chairs. We had cautioned him relentlessly but it never did any good. Dabney and I cried there in the dark and the rain, shaking at the thought of doing back to the shot point."

Silently they drove to camp. They couldn't believe their eyes. There Reichert was, fixing a pot of coffee over a cozy bonfire. He explained to the puzzled and extremely happy brothers that the shot had lifted a huge cone of earth about 20 feet into the air, and that a second explosion occurred in the air, under the cone, scattering it in all directions, raining lumps as big as cars all around him, which he somehow dodged. Reichert never sat on dynamite boxes again. Only years later would Scott Petty incidentally find out that the phenomenon, known as "secondary muzzle flash", is well known to artillery experts.

A volatile business, dealing with dynamite. In 1934 it would kill seven seismograph workers while Petty's Party #1 was shooting for Sinclair in McClain County, Oklahoma - the bloodiest mishap ever to befall a geophysical party. The cause was never exactly determined, but everyone in the industry learned an indelible lesson on safety. Since then, shooters were warned ad infinitum never to prepare charges ahead of time nor to cap more than one charge at a time, and only authorized personnel would have access to the shot point. No similar multiple death calamity has recurred in seismic work.

The Pettys, hardly cured of their avid professional curiosity by their earlier 300-pound big bang, theorized that recording closer to the shot point would yield stronger reflections. The quality of the record was lacking, for the blast rocketed their instruments - and nearly them - up in the air.

In between explosions, getting their science on the road to commercialism took them to unusual sites. To establish whether sulphur would reflect the same as salt, they ventured into an area (where no salt domes existed) near a sulphur plant whose processing method was so zealously guarded rumor had it that intruders wound up in the big boilers' fire boxes. This not being a sufficient deterrent, they rehearsed loading the shot and setting up instruments in the dark, driving their Model T at its slowest pace in high gear in order to make the least noise. They also plotted an escape route. Scott Petty recollects:

"At about 2 in the morning we drilled an auger hole for one pound of dynamite, which was primed before we started. When the shot went off we threw our instruments in the open Ford as every floodlight at the plant flashed on us. The guard's car was headed towards us, and I never drove any faster in my life than I did racing to the paved road. We turned our lights off before getting to it so he couldn't tell in which direction we were headed, drove a few hundred yards in pitch darkness and turned into a preselected hideout in the brush. Our hearts were in our mouths as he passed by us several times. He finally gave up." (That life-threatening shot record was good and proved that the sulphur cap produced the same "beautiful salt reflection.")

Testing went on endlessly. With each result the instruments were adjusted - Scott being the main tinkerer. Eventually it all evolved into a highly accurate seismic system which was to win a sterling reputation in the petroleum industry. A case in point would take place in 1930. Humble Oil & Refining had been shooting a prospect near LaFitte, Louisiana without results. Yet Petty's mapping of same showed a deep-seated salt dome. Humble ventured to sink a well and found an oil field where Petty expected one. Impressed, the vice-president of exploration - none other than the great geologist and oil finder Wallace Pratt - recommended that Humble buy Petty's refraction crew and the non-exclusive right to operate under their patents. Before the transaction, Humble's geophysical department was asked to evaluate Petty's instruments involved in the purchase. The report was not encouraging ("They are a typical example of the peculiar paths the human mind will take if allowed to run wild.") but Humble bought them any way.

"Thank goodness," comments Scott Petty, "because reflection was replacing refraction for general use. Those instruments were soon to become obsolete and we had no reflection equipment. But Mr. Pratt and Humble had such confidence in us by then that they agreed to finance Petty's reflection research in exchange for the right to copy anything we might invent." (A reorganization of Humble's geophysical department followed.)

Still in the developing stage, Petty's first commercial job was marked, and almost botched, by youthful enthusiasm. In February 1926 they were shooting on 20,000 acres in Hardin County, Texas. In years past Dabney had done some surface geology there which led him to expect at least one salt dome. Incredibly their first shot confirmed it. They moved to find the edge. Another dome. The story repeated itself. Overjoyed, they drove to a phone in the wee hours of the morning to tell the CEO of Olive Petroleum, their brother Van, there was a nest of domes in the lease.

"Next day we continued to find more until finally we concluded there was something rotten in Denmark," Scott Petty says. "So we made a reflection shot where we knew no domes existed and we still got dome records. A lock nut had loosened on our steady mass and the shot of dynamite started it vibrating at just the time we expected a reflection to arrive from salt."

They drew straws to see who would tell Van, who probably had already spread the good news among his associates. He was an angry client - "He should have shot us both!" exclaims Scott 56 years later. But before the job was over they exonerated themselves by mapping a promising formation more than 10,000 feet below the surface.

"We found the Olive Field by a combination of refraction and Rayleigh waves. The normal pattern of Rayleigh waves changed completely on every line that crossed it. We double checked it by taking shallow cores with a 20-foot earth auger - the surface formations grew harder as we approached our subsurface high point." Petty is still proud of that accomplishment, for it was the first time in the world such a structure had been discovered with a seismograph.

The Olive prospect, a block of timberland owned by Van Petty, Sr., holds many memories for Scott Petty, and at least one for his wife. One night when they were to explode 300 pounds of dynamite on a potential salt dome site, Edwina was to assist Scott who was the observer. But there was an unforeseen problem. The clearing where they had chosen to install the instruments was taken over by cattle whose stomping would render the recordings worthless. Since they couldn't communicate with their shooters - Dabney and Reichert being unaware of the couple's tribulations - and since the location was ideal in reference to their target point, they proceeded to scare the cows away.

"There was a big bull with them, too, who was mad," says Petty. "By the time we had the instruments set up, they were back, so we decided to make a trial run. We drove the cattle a good 200 yards and then hurried back to see how long before they came close enough to ruin our recording. As we watched the instruments we were amazed to see someone's footsteps approaching. Now, if you want something spooky, just try to sit inside a little tent at night in the deep woods and watch on the seismograph some unknown person walking up on you, not knowing from what direction he's coming or what he wants."

But there wasn't much time to think. The cattle would return quickly if left alone, and the agreed time for the shot was near. One of the party would have to chase the animals away and stay with them, while the other watched the instruments. "Edwina did not relish the idea of chasing cows in the dark with a prowler nearby," Scott says. "So she'd remain in the tent (with my Colt .45 in case the visitor wasn't friendly). But she was more worried about the responsibility of recording that big shot than the stalker. We rehearsed the procedure as well as the pressing time permitted and I also explained to her how she could tell whether there was a dome by watching for the small salt forerunner. Five minutes before the blast, we wished each other good luck, and I started out to drive the cattle - it wasn't easy for they had decided I was harmless. On the appointed second the shot went off. Breathless, I returned to the tent and yelled 'Did we get a dome? Did we get a dome?" Her reply: 'I don't know, I fell asleep!'" Local inquiry didn't produce any information about the stalker, who probably fled with the cattle or succumbed to heart failure from the blast.

From the foregoing one can discern that Petty Geophysical wasn't run from a plush office suite. Scott Petty's hangouts were swamps such as the Chacahoula in Louisiana, where by standing in one spot for three minutes he counted 32 cottonmouths in the water and the trees. Or south of New Orleans, braving clouds of "he-man" mosquitoes who the locals had seen killing cattle. And then there was shop work. Scott, a 1920 graduate of the University of Texas in civil engineering and a student of advanced physics until 1923, was supremely adroit at it.

Only months after Dabney's inspired suggestion ("See if you can learn to interpret the readings of the German seismograph ...") Scott had developed the first displacement-sensitive seismograph, capable of recording earth movements in their true shape and amplitude. Also in 1925, he invented the first complete seismic system to accurately map anticlines and deep-seated salt domes with as little as 50-100 feet of relief. The following year Petty developed a short-cut method of locating shallow domes without accurately measuring the length of each shot line or recording the times of explosion. The reverse profile method of reflection shooting (adopted around the world) was a 1931 Petty brainchild.

Other industry firsts in the company's life are too numerous to mention. (As are the honors Petty has received during his career, of which Founding and Honorary Member of SEG are but two.) Suffice to say that the modern version of one of his earliest inventions (which he refers to as a "little jigger") is now operating on the Moon and Mars.

One of Petty's other professional milestones is his company's long association with the Sinclair Oil Corp. of Tulsa, the seventh richest oil company before it merged with Atlantic Richfield in 1969. Overtures were made by Petty, who decided to have a long talk with Sinclair's chief geologist, Fred Bush. He suggested that it would be an excellent idea to do continuous profile shooting in northwestern Oklahoma. Soon Petty Party #1 started work (October 1932) for Sinclair and kept at it until November 1967 - an industry record.

Beginning in 1936, the Great Depression notwithstanding, the growth of the company gained momentum. At home, too, the Pettys expanded in 1937 with the addition of their only son, Scott, Jr. who predictably would become a petroleum engineer and president of Petty Geophysical from 1967 until the merger with Geosource.

World War II touched everyone's life and Petty was no exception. By October 1940 the uncertainty stemming from the hostilities in Europe brought several crews back to the US. Places could not be found for these men in the domestic parties, and so about 60 terminations were given to the less senior employees. Overall, however, the conflict didn't curtail Petty Geophysical's progress. In fact, during WW II it had more seismic crews operating than any other company in the world. Venezuela, Cuba, Trinidad, Ecuador, Mexico, India, Sumatra and England (where they discovered the first commercial field in 1938) had all been visited by Petty crews before or during the war.

The birth of offshore seismic is estimated at 1937, when a Shell crew led by Dr. Sidney Kaufman executed a program in the Gulf of Mexico. The new frontier posed many questions and Kaufman eventually developed a pioneering marine method. But Petty wouldn't venture seaward until 1944. Then, once more, his affinity with geophysics - enhanced by his choice of inventive lieutenants such as Harry Mayne* - was proven. It happened on a 7-million acre lease off the Florida Keys. Their savvy in open waters was wanting, their fleet non-existent.

A barge rigged up as the drilling boat, a cabin cruiser for the instruments, miscellaneous boats such as shrimpers for the detectors, were all rented. It was a make-shift operation with little time to consult the annals of industry on the matter - the characteristics of marine seismic demanded solutions on the spot, and those were found by the Petty crew - the result being that the Kaufman offshore method was "reinvented" practically to the T - something they became aware of much later. In 1946 Petty, contracted by Phillips, embarked on the first truly "modern" well-planned seismic program offshore. For this trend-setting operation in the Gulf they purchased former government property - mothballed air-sea rescue vessels. By 1969, two of Petty's 25 seismic parties were doing offshore work with two 165-foot vessels, the O.S. Petty and the Dabney E. Petty - the latter now working for the National Oil Company of The People's Republic of China.

Scott's bulldog courage during the early years in geophysics evolved into an elegantly daring business manner he is quick to prize in others. "Oilmen can be absolutely depended on to keep their word," Petty says, "It is as good as a written contract." This code of honor - probably more relied upon in the quixotic era of the oil industry - worked for Petty even without a handshake.

"An old client of ours, and an independent oil operator in Houston, Perry Scranton, called me because he needed a seismograph crew for a few days work. I told him every crew we had was under contract. He insisted. If I got a crew somehow, and charged him actual cost, he would split whatever he made out of a field he was sure existed in the area he was trying to survey (although a Petty competitor had just shot it and condemned it)."

Not only did Petty have no crew available at that point but they were short of cash, and he told him so. Then Scranton suggested Petty borrow a crew and lend it to him, and he would get a friend of his, also an independent, to pay the actual expenses. Scranton's friend would split with him, and he would split his half with Petty.

"I made some calls and arranged to borrow a crew for three days from a job not too far from Charenton, Louisiana, where Scranton thought oil existed. That three days' work verified Scranton's theory, and he started at once getting a farmout from the oil company owning the leases - which was easy since their prospect had just been condemned. He got a Petty crew as soon as it became available, and we spent months shooting - his friend paying actual costs. We found not one but two oil fields. Yet it was several years before Scranton was able to drill a well. Finally, when the field [later to become the biggest oil field in Louisiana for years] was brought in and oil was produced, we started getting our monthly royalty checks - half of Scranton's take - which he sent religiously for years without ever having the scratch of a pen confirming our deal. You just can't beat the handshake of an oilman."

The "shadow of luck" theory, whereby every person is followed by a stubborn cloud of good or bad fortune, was a tenet of one of Scott Petty's friends. About his own, Petty muses: "My shadow has always been good, although at times it could have fooled me. If one of those huge clods of earth had fallen on Reichert and his box of dynamite our company would have been wiped out. Or if I hadn't found a crew for Scranton's use at Charenton we'd have missed an oil field. Or I could have been snake bitten in the Chacahoula Swamp ..."

What-ifs and luck aside, Petty's chosen course in geophysics has earned him and his family over 52,000 acres of ranch land, extensive timber holdings in East Texas, plus sundry chattels. From his office overlooking Travis Park in San Antonio, Petty keeps track of his ranching operations, investments, and oil business. He also actively pursues "too many hobbies," such as photography, fishing, and relocating horned lizards. Petty explains: "They used to be plentiful in the Texas hill country, but now there are none. Probably due to fumigation which killed the ants, their food staple. However, there are many at my ranch, and so we capture them and release them in their former hilly habitat. I guess I should have been a naturalist. I have this great curiosity to see what makes things tick." Yet another favorite pastime is to occasionally escape somewhere with Edwina, as they did last August, to an Alaskan cruise.

At 87 Petty hasn't forgotten the beginnings of the company he and his family started on little more than pin money. In fact, he has recorded in candid narration the strides and nearly fatal setbacks in Seismic Reflections, a book he published seven years ago. And just recently, leaping further back in history, he edited A Journey to Pleasant Hill - a collection of letters of his grandfather, a prominent lawyer of the period, who moved to Texas in 1852 and became a captain in the Confederate Army. He was killed in the battle of Pleasant Hill, in Louisiana.

O. S. Petty's own place in the history of oil, science and finance is already secured - one evidence being his inclusion in Who's Who in the World. His is not one of those inspirational American stories of paperboy-turned-magnate. The model he set is: taking advantage of an advantageous background and of circumstances - and taking great chances. Which is to say, Fortes fortuna adjuvat - fortune favors the brave.


  1. Obituary The New York Times, March 9, 1994
  2. Proubasta, D. (1982). ”O. S. Petty.” The Leading Edge, 1(7), 16–24.