The perilous work done on oil fields was particularly dangerous a century ago. Pressure control systems often failed, leading to catastrophic well blowouts, or the uncontrolled release of oil or natural gas. Oil fields were made much safer with the work of two of our 2022 National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductees, Harry Cameron and James Abercrombie, inventors of the world’s first reliable blowout preventer, or BOP.
Building a Specialized Reputation
Born in Indianapolis in 1872, Harry Cameron received his early education in the public schools of Washington, D.C. He went on to study both architecture and mechanical engineering at Christian Brothers College (now University) in Memphis, Tennessee.
Following school, Cameron worked for a cement company and in oil fields before beginning an apprenticeship in a machine shop. He soon established himself as a skilled machinist and opened a machine tools company — Humble Iron Works — in Humble, Texas. In his business, he specialized in repairing tools and equipment used in oil fields, in addition to manufacturing tools for drilling and other oil-field operations.
In the early 1900s, Cameron met Texas oil driller James Abercrombie, who knew that Cameron had “a reputation for being able to build anything.” At this time, Cameron and a group of his associates had established, as a successor to Humble Iron Works, the Cameron-Davant Co., an oil drilling parts and supplies business with two locations in Houston. Abercrombie would bring work from his independent drilling operation, the James S. Abercrombie Co., to Cameron so that the machinist could apply his well-known expertise.
Abercrombie partnered with Cameron in July 1920 to form Cameron Iron Works, which grew to be a leading provider of oil well supplies. In late 1921, Abercrombie had begun working out a solution for Monarch Oil and Refining Co., to address a well outside Houston that had experienced several blowouts, one of which occurred while using the blowout preventer that had been on the market at the time. Abercrombie brought Cameron his idea for a blowout preventer that would use hydrostatic pistons, or rams, to clamp the drill stem, creating a seal against well pressure.
Abercrombie had sketched a rough design and when he introduced the idea to Cameron, he used a soldering iron to draw the outlines of this design in the dirt of the machine shop floor. From these initial plans, Cameron lived up to his reputation and built a reliable blowout preventer. This device was patented in 1926, and soon after, Cameron developed and patented an improvement on the original design, providing a better seal. This innovative device was not only highly profitable for the company but also potentially life-saving for those involved in the oil industry.
Setting an Industry Standard
In collaboration with Abercrombie, Cameron had produced an invention that revolutionized the oil and natural gas industry and became a safety standard for drilling operations. Although modern models differ from their original design, blowout preventers continue to protect drilling rigs, workers and the environment from expensive, dangerous blowouts.
Cameron Iron Works evolved into Cameron International and eventually became part of Schlumberger Ltd. in 2016. Today, Cameron is a leading manufacturer of oil and gas pressure control and separation equipment, and the company remains one of the leading providers of blowout preventers in the industry.
To learn more about the other inventors Inducted in Harry Cameron’s class, view our Inductee search page.