T. I. Harkins

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T. I. Harkins was an infuential but largely unsung leader of the exploration seismic industry.


Clark, R. (1984). ”T. I. Harkins.” The Leading Edge, 3(4), 14–18

While in college, for reason or impulse long forgotten, T. I. Harkins jilted agriculture, an early and late romance, to study civil engineering. It was a felicitous choice, soon leading him back to intimate association with the earth and in an area, exploration geophysics, for which he likely had greater gifts.

Within three years of entering exploration, Harkins, despite scant background in geology or physics, ranked with the most innovative seismic party chiefs and had developed a historically important field method; within five years, he cofounded one of the leading geophysical contracting firms; within 10 he was its president. He stayed in the job another three decades, maintaining the company's place among the industry elite and his individual status as being among the most skilled in the hybrid art/science of seismic interpretation.

Harkins's blitz through the geophysical ranks made up for a relatively late start. He had no contact with exploration until 1927, following graduation from Louisiana State University at the relatively advanced age of 25. His introduction to geophysics came a few months later, one of those comic opera improbabilities which occurred so regularly in petroleum exploration's early years and which, in spite of overwhelming odds, often put the right man in the right job.

His drift into exploration turned on such ordinary events as the disbanding of a football team, his curious decision to study civil engineering instead of agriculture, and a friend who worked at a hotel cigar stand.

Harkins began his higher education at Centenary in northern Louisiana, basically to play football. However, the team had scheduling problems and evaporated. Harkins left. Later, he enrolled at LSU where he inexplicably chose to study civil engineering despite a lifelong background in and love of farming.

Early Years

He had been born and raised on a farm and has "always loved watching things grow." His mother told him that even when very young, barely beyond infancy, he would gather discarded vegetation and replant it in a vacant corner of the yard. Today, he cannot remember why he made the anti-agriculture decision that would have such impact on his life. But because he chose civil engineering, his academic background included considerable mathematics, knowledge he wouldn't have had if he had studied agriculture and knowledge that provided his ticket to exploration.

Early Career

A few months after graduation, then working for the Louisiana highway department, Harkins stopped by a hotel cigar stand to visit his friend. "You studied quite a bit of math, didn't you?" the latter asked. "A man was just here looking for a mathematician. He'll be back in a few days."

The mathematician-hunter was Eugene McDermott, one of the key figures in Geophysical Research Corp., a two-year-old firm created to adapt seismology to mineral exploration. McDermott, only a few days after receiving his Master's Degree from Columbia University, had been the first scientist hired by GRC boss J. C. Karcher. Shortly before, Karcher, who had been experimenting with seismic techniques since the end of World War I, had been hand-picked by Everette DeGolyer, then the most famous oil-finder in the world, to spearhead the seismic revolution.

McDermott had set up GRC's laboratory in Bloomfield, New Jersey, and co-designed (along with Karcher) the company's first instruments. For the past year he had been chief of its Field Party #2.

A meeting was arranged between McDermott and Harkins with the mutual contact at the cigar stand handling the particulars. Harkins "- made no attempt to pass myself off as a mathematician" but still was impressive. McDermott hired him on the spot. He wanted him to leave for the field the next day. Harkins accepted, even though he'd never heard of geophysical exploration before, but delayed his departure a week to give his current employers notice.

The abrupt career shift had one immediate, though temporal, benefit. Harkins lost the nickname "Pops" which he had been tagged with in college and never liked. However, when working in Louisiana a few years later, he ran into some old college friends who immediately called him "Pops." Some crew members overhead the resurrected moniker and it again attached itself to Harkins, this time permanently.

The crew Harkins joined in the Louisiana marshes in 1927, headquartered in an abandoned sawmill at the end of a newly cut road, was soon to be one of the most spectacularly successful in exploration history. Within the next two years, it found 10 salt domes, the most by a single refraction crew and 20% of the total discovered by refraction between 1924 and 1929. Harkins was the crew's computer and thus often the first to see the records.

"If you crossed a salt dome, you could tell by the way the first impulses looked," he says. "They had a little less amplitude than normal. You could tell almost immediately when you crossed one."

The fantastic success of McDermott's crew was ironic because refraction was doomed to be quickly supplanted by a close relation, reflection. GRC had been experimenting with the latter for several years. Some of the first shots which Harkins participated in were primitive reflection experiments - one geophone, amplifier, camera, and obviously one trace. "I don't think anybody even knew what a reflection looked like at that time," Harkins says. "McDermott had been fooling around with it for quite a while. He was an optimistic soul and thought we were getting some. I don't think we did."

The great reflection breakthroughs were made by GRC crews under J. E. Duncan and Henry Salvatori (TLE, August 1983) in Texas and Oklahoma, almost simultaneously with the dazzling reflection success in Louisiana. The seismic revolution was almost complete. Harkins, despite coming to the method fairly late, would play a major role, the most prominent display of a flair for seismic interpretation that some colleagues regard with awe.

In a perhaps unique departure from a self-effacing personality, Harkins concurs. "I love looking at records from the start," he says. "I picked it up pretty fast. It wasn't totally strange to me because I'd had a little geology in college. I'll bet I spent half my time in geophysics looking at records. I always felt, after I looked at one, that nobody knew more about that particular record than I did." 1929 found Harkins, now a GRC party chief, back in Louisiana after a brief stay in New Mexico. While working on the Darrow salt dome about 30 miles south of Baton Rouge he developed the concept of dip shooting, one of the giant strides in reflection's evolution.

From Refraction to Reflection Seismic

A report of an oil show in a water well had drawn prospectors to the Darrow dome area in the mid-1920s. However, two years of refraction and torsion balance work had failed to produce definite evidence of a salt dome. Late in the summer of 1929, Harkins's crew was equipped with reflection instruments and sent there even though it was not thought suitable for reflection due to the softness of the surface alluvium (which absorbed much energy) and because the subsurface formations were also soft, apparently containing none of the hard rock interfaces which had been the reflecting horizons in Oklahoma and Texas where reflection had been developed.

The new method, though, worked brilliantly - for unexpected reasons. Harkins and co-author J. Brian Eby later described the circumstances in The Geophysical History of Darrow Dome, Ascension Parish, Louisiana:

Up to that time, it was thought that the only way to make use of reflections was to obtain prominent or persistent reflections that could be correlated. This was found to be almost impossible in most of the Gulf Coast area worked, so it was necessary to obtain some aid for the correlations.

At Darrow, for the first time, reflection shooting was attempted where, unknown to the geophysical party, there were very steeply dipping beds; that is, the salt flank and the sediments above it. The field method used was to set detectors first in one direction from the shot point and then in the opposite direction. In this area the first setup was along the highway, so that the two opposite directions were nearly north and south, and at a position on the south flank of the dome.

In the method just described, the reflection time of arrival at more distant detectors should be greater than those nearer to the shot point, and if the reflection horizons are horizontal, the times on both lines from the shot point would show similar time differences between the reflection arrivals at near and distant detectors.

On this location at Darrow, however, the reflections on the north line actually showed less time for the far detector than for the near one, and the reflections on the south line showed much greater difference in reflection time between near and far detectors than is normal for the overall time. This can be due only to a steep south dip on the reflecting horizon -

The first well drilled after the completion of the reflection picture, the Rio Bravo Oil Company's Community No. 1, found Miocene oil at 4,025-4,035 feet and topped the salt at 4,627 feet. This well was drilled on reflection information, and not only proved the dome but is the highest salt well drilled in the field to this time (1942).

The ability to execute such an elementary but invaluable concept as dip shooting, unique to reflection among the geophysical tools of the time, had an immense impact. Three wells were drilled in the Darrow dome area prior to Harkins's first reflection work. None found any oil or dome material. Only five of the first 13 using that initial, primitive reflection work found no dome material.

The knowledge quickly spread. Soon, anomalies previously discovered by other methods were being reexamined by reflection. Some producing structures were found - dramatic evidence that the new method was soon to emerge as exploration's dominant technique.

GRC had felt all alone, even before the conclusive proof of the early 1930s, that this was reflection's destiny. Because the technique had been developed by GRC with virtually no outside contributions, the company tried to keep it strictly proprietary.

However, the monopoly lasted only until 1930. Then, Karcher and McDermott, secretly financed by DeGolyer who strongly disagreed with the decision to keep reflection in-house, abruptly resigned to launch Geophysical Services Inc. Reflection's potential and GSI's founders were so esteemed that the new firm landed a phenomenal 10 contracts for crews in its first two months, instantly becoming the leader in the field.


And several of GRC's key technical people soon left to join the new company. Harkins, as a McDermott prot g , planned to be part of the exodus but was dissuaded by another of the most prominent of early explorationists, E. E. Rosaire. (Rosaire was the Society of Exploration Geophysicists' first vice-president, and fourth president. McDermott was SEG's third president, Karcher the seventh.) Rosaire had been GRC's first party chief and the first to discover a salt dome by refraction. "He was supposed to go with the others but he got mad at the last minute and didn't," Harkins says. "He advised me not to go so I didn't."

But Rosaire did leave GRC two years later to become president of the newly formed Independent Exploration Co. GRC had been badly hit by the depression and forced to lay off its Houston-based southern division. Many of those now out of work joined Rosaire in launching the new firm.

The group of founders included Harkins, a daring gamble since he had not been dropped by GRC and the odds against the undercapitalized (less than $10,000 in start-up money) new firm were prohibitive. "You couldn't buy an exploration job in 1931," Harkins says. "But I'd worked mostly with the guys in the south. They asked me to come in with them so I went along." Despite the grim economic conditions, Independent Exploration was an immediate success. It put out "eight-to-10 crews the first year. We'd start a crew and it would seem like we'd need another right away."

Founding of IX

Unwittingly, Harkins and colleagues had founded IX, as it came to be called, at the onset of a phenomenal surge in reflection demand. In 1929, the only reflection work anywhere had been done by four GRC crews. About 30 were working three years later when IX was formed, but in another four the US total approached 250, the crest in the first upward cycle in the industry's boom-or-bust history.

IX grew steadily throughout the surge. It ranked among the strongest challengers for the No. 2 spot behind GSI. During those years, it also had a distinct edge over most of its rivals - better instruments. IX's were built by F. M. Kannenstine (SEG's fourth editor and eighth president), the principal designer of GRC's pioneering equipment. Kannenstine's association with Rosaire antedated their entry into exploration and he had joined IX at the company's birth. The new firm thus used essentially the same, field-proven instruments as GRC.

GSI obviously had access to this design, but because of delicate questions concerning its relationship with GRC, it decided to develop entirely new instruments. It was at least five years before GSI's new apparatus equalled that of GRC and IX. GSI maintained its leading position in the industry only because of its superlative technical personnel.

McDermott, who had been GRC's first instrument designer, assumed the same role at GSI. Harkins recalls: "McDermott was one of the smartest guys I ever knew and a good instruments man. When he was building them for GSI he'd come set up right beside me in the field and see how we compared."

At Independent's founding Harkins had the title vice president but served as a field party chief the first year or so. Then he began spending most of his time at Houston headquarters, as Rosaire's chief assistant. In 1937, when Rosaire abruptly resigned to form Subterrex, the first US firm to do contract geochemical surveys, he suddenly inherited the presidency.

"Rosaire was a very interesting man, a very smart individual but he'd sold himself on this new method and he was convinced it was going to take over," Harkins says. "He thought it was the end of geophysics as we'd known it. He told me that sticking to reflection seismology was like riding a dying horse. He compared it to refraction and said the same thing was going to happen to reflection that had happened to refraction."

Within a very short time, Rosaire's doomsday forecasting appeared on target, though not for the scientific reasons he had projected. Geophysical exploration plunged into the first of its periodic downturns, the crew count sinking below 180 and apparently not close to bottoming out. "In the late 1930s, we'd gone back into a bad depression again," Harkins says. "By 1940, I'd been forced to put about half our men on notice. We were down to a single working crew. The executives went on half pay and often took no salary at all."

World War II

The industry savior was that fastest of all economic stimuli, war. "As soon as there was even a rumor of war, demand picked up," Harkins says. World War II triggered exploration's longest sustained growth period, an 11-year surge (interrupted only briefly by a slight post-war decline in the late '40s) in which seismic activity more than tripled. Less than a year after it bordered on zero business, IX could not meet the demand. "At the start of the war, companies were desperate for crews," Harkins says. "A guy from British Petroleum did his damnedest to get me to send a crew to Iraq. I wouldn't do it. I felt it was wrong to send inexperienced men overseas and into the desert. He always held that against me and I'm sure it cost us some business."

The revived IX quickly reassumed its prominent place in the industry. It remained there until the mid-1960s when, after a series of mergers, it became part of the giant Teledyne scientific conglomerate and Harkins retired after 40 years in exploration.

He had ranked with the industry's most influential figures throughout almost all those four decades, a remarkable feat since his background contained little related to exploration. However, his major role was appreciated by relatively few because Harkins kept a low profile within and without the profession, eschewing personal publicity and avoiding leading roles in industry-wide politicking.

Founding Member of SEG

But he was a founding member of SEG (his membership application is dated Nov. 8, 1930) and has been a staunch supporter of the Society for more than half a century. He has long been one of the most generous donors to the scholarship fund. However, he limited his high visibility participation to a 1942-43 term as secretary-treasurer.

Harkins probably achieved as much fame, in and out of industry, from two avocations - horse racing, and his work in soil conservation. He bought his first thoroughbreds in 1952 and only six years later ran one, Benedicto, in the Kentucky Derby.

"He challenged for the lead at the head of the stretch but wasn't trained for the distance. He finished in the middle of the pack," Harkins recalls.

Although he never had another Derby caliber horse, his stable has produced a room full of trophies and he has been honored as Texas Thoroughbred Breeder of The Year. Horse breeding led Harkins full circle back to his roots when he began experimenting with ways to limit soil erosion from pastures. This work, chiefly importing new strains of grass to Texas, has been cited by soil conservation agencies.

Avoiding Center Stage

Harkins's success at avoiding center stage throughout his career has probably kept him the least recognized among the industry pioneers. But several noted associates, eyewitness to most of the evolution of seismic, assert that he ranks with his most distinguished contemporaries, i.e.:

Roy Lay, SEG president 1953-54: "In addition to being the first person to recognize slope on a seismic record, he was, to my personal knowledge, the first one to use multiple-shot holes to eliminate ground roll while using shallow, hand-dug shot holes. This was a forerunner to the use of multiple geophones for the same purpose."

George Wagoner, SEG president 1950-51: "Pops was a top hand, one of the pioneers in the whole business and one of the outstanding geophysicists of his time."

Roy Bennett, SEG president 1956-57: "He was exceptional in his ability to judge people and to encourage them in their careers. He was always a very fair person to his employees. He was a great developer of people. He had the respect and loyalty of a great number of the early people in geophysics."

C. H. Broussard, a long-time Harkins's associate and an SEG member since 1941: "Independent Exploration made a lot of innovations in the early days. They were able to turn out data more rapidly than other companies. Pops was probably as fine an interpreter as I ever saw. He had a feel for it that I have never seen anywhere else. He could take records, just flip through them like a deck of cards and point out things nobody else had seen - people who had been working on them for days. For a long time, until the business got too big, he checked every prospect. He signed it along with the party chief.

"He was responsible for a lot of geophysicists using geology in their interpretations. He thought they were intertwined and couldn't be separated.

"I'll assure you he has the respect of all the older geophysicists who knew him. He was a strong advocate of the utmost honesty and secrecy. He believed that what you did for the customer was strictly for that customer. It's men like him who have given the geophysical industry the reputation of being such an honest business."