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When Doodlebugs Ruled the Earth – A History of Non-Scientific Methods in Oil Exploration


“Doodlebug” is American oil-industry slang for a pseudo-geophysical device used in oil and gas exploration. Before it was adopted by the oil industry, doodlebug referred to insect larvae, foolish people, and small locomotives. The earliest reference I have found to doodlebug as an oil-finding device is in the Wichita, Kansas Beacon of July 13, 1914, where it is applied to the invention of Wilbur McLeary, an undertaker from Altus, Oklahoma. The word quickly caught on. Although the term was coined to describe a pseudo-geophysical instrument, it soon spread to dowsing devices. And when genuine effective geophysical methods arrived in the early 1920s, they were called doodlebugs as well. But this paper uses doodlebug in its original and restricted sense of a pseudo-geophysical instrument. They generally operate on one of three principles: 1) Conscious manipulation. These are frauds by the operator. 2) Ideomotor effect. The operator unconsciously manipulates the device. The same principle controls reactions of dowsing devices. 3) Random indication. The device responds either randomly, or in response to a signal that is unrelated to the presence of hydrocarbons. It is no coincidence that the term doodlebug arose when it did. Doodlebugs were becoming increasingly numerous In the early 20th century, and when something becomes common, it demands its own name. The wave of doodlebugs peaked in the 1920s. A literature search identified a total of 148 doodlebugs, introduced from 1863 to 2003. Of these, 57 (38%) were introduced in the 1920s. In the 1920s, doodlebugs ruled the earth. The rise of doodlebugs closely followed the rise of radio voice transmissions that transformed society, and seemed little short of magical to the average person. Do-it-yourself radio kits were popular, giving hands-on training in radio circuitry to thousands of hobbyists. It should not be surprising that many doodlebugs claimed to harness radio waves. The 1920s also witnessed an increase in oil dowsing, but doodlebugs increased even more, and outnumbered the oil dowsers. France and Germany also saw smaller-scale oil drilling booms in the 1920s, and like the United States, accompanied by increases in oil dowsing. But unlike the US, French and German oil booms had far fewer doodlebugs than dowsers. And unlike in the United States, European doodlebug inventors were almost all educated people. The number of active doodlebuggers rose rapidly 1900-1920, peaked in the 1920s, then declined slowly over the next 40 years. But do not mourn the extinction of the doodlebug. They are still around. Modern doodlebugs have adopted the protective coloration and jargon of genuine geophysics.