From Chinese chisel….

The Chinese were the first people to drill wells, in around 2000 BC, using the cable tool percussion method to produce brine. A chisel on bamboo rods was lowered into the well on cables 1-4 cm thick and woven from Indian reed. The first wells in Russia (percussion-rod method) were drilled in the 9th century and were also used to produce a solution of common salt.

The development of oil production began with subsequent advances in drilling technology. Oil had been extracted in only small amounts until the mid 19th century, usually from shallow wells around naturally exposed oil. From the second half of the 19th century, the demand for oil and especially its components began to rise. This happened with the increased use of steam engines and other industrial developments, which required huge quantities of lubricants.

Recent research has established that the world’s first drilling of an oil well, to a depth of 21 metres, took place on the Absheron peninsula (in the Bibi-Heybat region of Baku) in 1846. Major Alekseev, director of the Baku oil fields, supervised the operation which employed the percussion method, with wooden rods [1-5]. Prince Mikhail Vorontsov, Viceroy of the Caucasus, confirmed, in notes dated 8-14 July 1847, the completion of the world’s first oil well on the coast of the Caspian Sea (Bibi-Heybat), with positive results. The oil historians I.G. Fuchs and V.A. Matishev, wrote of this achievement:

Even though the oil flow was not large, the precedent was more important: in 1846, for the first time in the world, drilling for oil to positive effect had been completed. This happened 13 years before the first oil well was drilled in the United States - in 1859 by ‘Colonel’ Edwin Drake, (in truth, he was a railway guard) [1].

….to Baku boom

Prince Vorontsov in his communication to State Secretary M.P. Vronchenko noted:

I permitted the Shemakha Official Chamber to carry out oil exploration in the Baku province, on the coast of the Caspian Sea, in the Beybad well, with the use of earth drills and financed from the 1000 roubles in silver assigned by you in 1845 for this purpose. As a result, the Acting Director of the Baku and Shirvan mineral fields has reported the discovery of reserves of oil in Beybad… [Acts collected by the Caucasian Archaeographic Commission, 1885, t.10, doc. № 1143, p. 145].

An interesting fact: Caucasus Viceroy Prince Vorontsov led the Russian delegation to the Great Exhibition which opened in London on 1 May 1851. Samples of Baku oil were displayed in the Chemical Products section under the numbers:

32) Black oil from the Shemakha province of Baku district, from the Bibi-Heybat, Balakhani and Surakhany wells;

and 33) White oil from the Surakhany well. Note that this was eight years before the drilling of the first well in the USA.

1859 is recognized as the beginning of the American oil production industry. There were 75 wells in the Oil Creek river valley by November 1860. More than 500,000 barrels of oil were produced by the end of that year.

Ivan Nikolayevich Glushkov (1873 – 1916) Ivan Nikolayevich Glushkov (1873 – 1916)
Russia joins in….

The birth of the Russian oil industry dates to 1864, when Colonel Ardalion Novosiltsev drilled the first oil well (to a depth of 55 metres) in Kuban in the Kudako river valley, by mechanical cable tool percussion. The first oil gusher was registered in February 1866.

Global oil production underwent intensive development from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries with the invention of diesel and petrol internal combustion engines and their application to industry. Mining engineer G.D. Romanovsky used a steam engine to drill a well near Podolsk (Moscow province) in 1859. A productive well 45 metres deep began operating in Baku in 1872, and this spelled the end of oil sump construction in the Baku region and a transition to drilled wells. The first steam engines appeared in Baku’s oil fields in 1873, within ten years they had totally replaced horse traction.

The percussion method was developed in the first stages of well drilling (rod, cable and rapid-percussion drilling with flushing of the well-face). Rotary drilling with a circulating flow of fluid to flush the well was applied for the first time in the United States in 1901. In Russia, rotary drilling with flushing was first used in Grozny to drill a well 345 metres deep. We should note here that lifting rocks with a circulating flow of water was invented by a French engineer, Fawell, in 1845, who applied the method to drill an artesian well in the Saint Dominique abbey. He circulated liquid into the internal cavity of the pipe with the cutting transport to increase the efficiency of rod tool drilling.

A gas production well was launched in Surakhany near Baku in 1901 at a plant owned by Vasily Kokorev’s plant. One year later, gas extracted from a depth of 207 metres was used to heat the plant; the gas was also transported to other areas of the Absheron fields via pipelines. The Surakhany well was the first in the world to be drilled for gas.

….and Baku fuels Russia

Russian geologist Dmitry Golubyatnikov (1866-1933) predicted the existence of large oil deposits in Surakhany area and a gusher of white oil (1906) rising from a well drilled for gas, proved him right. A second gusher (1907), of black oil, producing 200,000 poods (1 pood = 16.4 kg) per day from 545 metres, signalled the start of drilling for oil in Surakhany; it was soon second only to Sabunchi in terms of oil production volume. The accelerated development of oil drilling on Absheron led to Russia becoming the world’s leading oil producing country in 1898; it maintained this position until 1901. The Baku region provided 95 per cent of the empire’s production.

The first initiatives to develop down-hole motors, i.e. a motor on the drilling bit at the bottom of the well, were taken in the 1870s. Engineers and constructors from a number of states worked on its development, designing it on the principle of using hydraulic pump energy and, later, using electrical energy. Thus, in 1873, the American H.G. Cross patented a machine with a hydraulic single-stage turbine for well drilling; a turbine down-hole motor was constructed in 1883. However, neither invention was implemented and the problem remained open. In 1890, Baku engineer K.G. Simchenko developed a turbo-drill (a rotational down-hole hydraulic motor for rotary drilling); he received a patent for the invention five years later. In 1897 another engineer from Baku, V.N. Delov, developed a turbo-drill and later received a patent for his percussion electric drill on a cable.

In the early 20th century, a Polish expert, Volsky, invented a rapid-percussion down-hole hydraulic drilling motor (ram of Volsky), which found a practical industrial application and became a prototype for contemporary down-hole hydro-percussions. The first electric motors replaced steam engines in the Baku oil fields in 1901.
Prince Mikhail Vorontsov (1782 – 1856) Prince Mikhail Vorontsov (1782 – 1856)

Manuals for mineral miners

1904-1911 saw the appearance of the four-volume Guidelines for Well Drilling. This was the first fundamental work on drilling and was written by mining engineer I.N. Glushkov, a member of Baku branch of the Imperial Russian Technical Society. Another engineer-oilman from Baku, Yaakov Idelson, issued the three-volume Atlas for Drilling. Following the nationalization of the oil industry, Idelson led the drilling department and, later, the technical-economic office of Azneft. There he led the way in implementing rotary drilling in Baku.

Earlier, in 1885, Mining Magazine had published engineer A. Vasilyev’s first thesis in Russia: The production of oil on Absheron Peninsula and the current state of drilling work there. The first American reference book, by Suman, was only published in 1921. Rotary drilling was first used in Baku by oil industrialist von Haber in Surakhany in 1911. Then, in 1914 in Baku, Professor M.M. Tikhvinsky invented a method of well-oil extraction via compressed gas (gas lift). It was first applied in the Nobel brothers’ company’s Baku oil fields. In 1915-1916, deep-well pumps were placed in the Ramana oil fields and gas lift was tested for the first time. The United States began using this method only in 1924.

Engineer M.A. Kapelyushnikov (1886-1959) elaborated and tested single stage turbo drilling with reduction gear in 1922-1923, marking a fundamentally new direction in the development of technology and techniques in oil and gas well drilling. The first 600m deep well was drilled in Surakhany in 1924 using Matvei Kapelyushnikov’s turbo drill.

In 1936-1940 Eyub Taghiyev was one of a group of engineers who devised a strong, multi-stage, direct-drive, turbo-drill able to compete with rotary drilling and turbine drilling became predominant in the USSR. Professor Taghiyev was awarded the State (Stalin) Prize three times for his scientific work: in 1942 for the development of turbine drilling; in 1947 for directional side-drilling; and in 1952 for simultaneous drilling. The whole oil world, from the North Sea to Kuwait, has benefited from Eyub Taghiyev’s discoveries. The Soviet double-simultaneous drilling unit was exhibited at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958: the inventors, led by E.I. Taghiyev, were awarded a gold medal.

In 1938, N.V. Alexandrov and A.P. Ostrovsky developed an electro-drill in which the bit was rotated by a wholly new submersible motor. The first well drilled in 1940 using Alexandrov and Ostrovsky’s advance was in the Azerbaijani Gala field.

A few words about offshore drilling

On 3 October 1896, mining engineer V.K. Zglenitsky (one of the initiators of sea-bed oil production) appealed to the Baku mining department for permission to carry out well-drilling in Bibi-Heybat bay. In July 1900, he published a methodology of exploration by drilling on the sea bed. However, the Caucasian Mining Board rejected his inquiry.

In 1924, the world’s first offshore well (№71) was drilled by the rotation method in Ilyich bay, near Baku (now Port Bayil) on an artificially created island, which yielded oil from 461m. In 1933-1934, the Khubentsov brothers suggested the construction of a floating base in the form of a flooded wooden pontoon; the first exploratory well from this base was drilled to 365m. The first floating drilling unit in the Caspian Sea began work in September 1934. In the same year multiple drilling was conducted by N.S. Timofeyev and K.M. Mikhaylov on Artyom Island (now Pirallahi) in the Caspian Sea, while in 1935 the first offshore metal platform was constructed in the same place.
Farman Salmanov (1931 – 2007) Farman Salmanov (1931 – 2007)

From the 1950s, drilling was used to produce both oil and gas from the Caspian Sea bed.

The turbo-drills invented were to be significant in the drilling of deviating wells. In 1941, an oil well 2000m deep was drilled successfully by Aga-Neymatulla’s team in Ilyich bay by turbine directional drilling; this method then spread throughout the world. Improvements to directional drilling have sped the exploration of undersea fields and in rugged terrain (the marshes of Western Siberia etc.) Here, several deviating wells are drilled from one small area (cluster drilling); this reduces the cost of construction and up to 20 wells can be drilled in this way.

On 2 October 1948, in Surakhany, a oil gushed from the first ultra-deep well (№ 1308) in Europe and the USSR, drilled by Ali Yulla to a depth of 3800m.

In 1949 the unique offshore field, Neft Dashlari (Oil Rocks) was founded on the Absheron shelf with the construction of offshore steel topsides begun on 24 August. The first well was completed on 7 November: oil was struck after drilling down 1000m. and 100 tons of crude oil was produced daily.

In Western Siberia, the first well to produce natural gas did so on 23 October 1953; it was near the Berezovo settlement of North Tyumen province. The first Western Siberian oil well gushed on 21 June 1960 in the Konda River basin. It is appropriate to mention here that the Azerbaijani geologist F.K. Salmanov (1928-2007) worked on the development of oil-and-gas in Tyumen province and across Northern Russia for more than 30 years.

Down, down….

In 1969, the average depth of functioning oil and gas wells in the USSR was 2-3 km; two ultra deep wells (6.7km and 6.8km) were drilled in the coastal lowlands, Baku region and in Aralsor, West Kazakhstan, for oil and gas exploration work. In the same year, the Americans carried out the first manual drilling on the moon during the Apollo expedition.

In 1977, preparations for a well 15km deep in the Saatli region of Azerbaijan were completed and drilling works begun. The well reached a depth of 8.324km (the deepest drilled in Azerbaijan); however the work was terminated in 1989 for technical reasons. The Americans were drilling ultra deep oil wells (7-8 km) in the 1960.

Currently, the world’s deepest wells are:

1) in Russia - OP-11 (12.345 km). The drilling of the world´s deepest hole was completed in January 2011. OP-11 is in the Odoptu oilfield in Sakhalin; the horizontal length of the well bore is (11.475 km). Drilling was completed by Exxon Neftegas in 60 days.

2) in Qatar - BD-04A (12.289 km). This well in the Al-Shaheen oil field was reported in May 2008. The horizontal length of the well bore is 10.902 km. It was drilled in 36 days by the Maersk company.
Eyub Taghiyev (1912 – 1967) Eyub Taghiyev (1912 – 1967)

3) in the USSR - SH-3 (12.066 km). The well was drilled in 1984 on the Kola Peninsula, Murmansk region, and was included in the Guinness Book of Records as the most profound human intrusion into the earth’s crust.

This short history of the progression of oil and gas well drilling in the world. The outstanding role played by Baku and its specialists and oilmen in the beginning of this process is all too clear.


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2. Mir-Babayev M.F. Azerbaijan’s Oil History. A Chronology up to the Soviet Era // Azerbaijan International Magazine, Sherman Oaks (US), 2002. Summer AI 10.2. pp34-41
3. Crain E.R. A True History of Oil and Gas Development // Canadian Well Logging Society, Sept. 2004. pp9-12
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About the author: Mir-Yusif Mir-Babayev is a Doctor of Chemical Sciences and Professor at the Azerbaijan Technical University.