Petroleum Industry

Mass Spectrometer 9 (MS9) in operation in Humble Oil and Refining Company, Baytown, Texas. The system was used to identify and quantify compounds and compound types in petroleum, including oxygen-, nitrogen- and sulfur-containing compounds. From left: H. E. Lumpkin at operating console and "Jug" Daniels, Electronics Technician, making tests. CHF Collections.

Meyerson and others in the petroleum industry were convinced that mass spectrometers held great potential for increased precision of analysis and separation. Realization of that potential, however, rested with chemists within the petroleum industry, the bulk of the users. These chemists would ultimately rely not just on instrument manufacturers but on their own scientific research into the science behind mass spectrometry—gaseous-ion chemistry. According to Meyerson, there were definite benefits to mass spectrometers, and the instruments showed a lot of potential:

The first was that there was enormous potential for analytical work—for qualitative work, for structural work, and quantitative applications. And that beyond what had already been published elsewhere, unless we did our own exploratory work and began to develop clear concepts of the underlying chemistry, we were going to miss out on the basis for the claims of analytical results that could reasonably be expected to be useful in all sorts of problems that are going to arise over the years. (Meyerson, 37–38)

In many ways there was a give-and-take relationship between the petroleum industry, its mass spectrometrists, and instrument manufacturers. All three groups relied on mass spectrometers and all three needed better tools. “The petroleum companies were faced with analytical needs to improve upon analyses that were simply far, far too slow, too complex, and too incorrect” until the introduction of mass spectrometers (Meyerson, 14). The petroleum industry allowed its chemists the luxury of conducting not only applied research into mass spectrometry, the research directly applicable to the industry, but also basic research to better understand the gaseous-ion chemistry that informed the principles behind mass spectrometry’s usefulness. Also, mass spectrometrists met with each other to commiserate about technology that did not yet fully meet their needs and to collaborate on improvements. The instrument manufacturers sponsored mass-spectrometry meetings and facilitated these conversations so that they could offer the best instruments. Out of this give-and-take relationship, the mass-spectrometry community flourished.

1951 memorandum on sampling, Standard Oil (Indiana). CHF Collections. Click here for full size


Earl Lumpkin described this complex relationship as one of “natural evolutions” that benefited all involved:

Hear Earl Lumpkin: As far as I’m concerned, the developments in mass spectrometry in the petroleum industry, and probably throughout all of industry, started with CEC because they made the first instrument that was reproducible. Mass spectrometers were used before that time for isotope measurements and elemental atomic weights and things of that nature, but that was mostly in the physics laboratory. The chemistry laboratory finally had an instrument that had a reproducible pattern and could be used for actual analyses and identification of compounds. (Lumpkin, 12)

As the growing mass-spectrometry community met regularly and further developed the science of gaseous-ion chemistry, the petroleum-industry chemists continued to play a vital role. According to Meyerson, “The great bulk of what developed for many years in mass spectrometry came out of industry and predominantly the petroleum industry” (Meyerson, 20). One of the first gatherings of mass spectroscopists was the CEC users’ meeting. The majority of attendees were chemists representing various petroleum companies, including Atlantic Refining Company, Standard Oil (various locations), Union Oil Company, and Shell Oil Company.

Only slowly did the mass-spectrometry community spread beyond the petroleum industry into academia. Meyerson recalls a shift taking place in the 1950s and 1960s as more academicians took an interest in gaseous-ion chemistry: “[M]any of my friends and cohorts working for petroleum laboratories and for chemical companies were quite upset with our annual mass-spectrometry conferences. They said that these conferences were becoming more and more theoretical, and they [didn’t] see how they’re going to be able to continue to persuade their management that there [was] anything useful that [they were] going to learn there” (Meyerson, 20). However, this shift—and growth—in audience and use was necessary to further the development of the field and of more precise instruments.

In 1957 Humble chemists Frank Field and Joe L. Franklin, later the first president of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry, published a book on gaseous-ion chemistry titled Electron Impact Phenomena and the Properties of Gaseous Ions.

So we set out to write a review paper, but it turned out that there was so much material that our review paper ended up too large to go into the review journal. So then came the thought, well, why not publish a book? So somebody had some contact with Academic Press and suggested we submit it there, which we did and [it] was accepted and published. It had a—I would say—profound effect on the discipline of gaseous-ion chemistry because it pulled it all together. (Field, 25)

This basic research was crucial to the growing science and discipline of mass spectrometry, and Field continued this work after he moved from Standard Oil to Rockefeller University. Field’s move also indicated a shift in the mass-spectrometry community beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as academic institutions became a new stronghold of the field and began producing their own mass spectrometrists.

The petroleum industry’s adoption of mass spectrometry propelled the technology forward as significant manpower and money was invested in the instrumentation and methods for analysis. The interest of the petroleum industry—and its insistence on improving the instruments—created a demand for the instruments that in turn created a profitable industry. The great success of mass spectrometry within the petroleum industry demonstrated its usefulness beyond physics and theory, and was a catalyst for the increased application of mass spectrometry in other areas. The development of precise instrumentation, which would be necessary for later developments in the biomedical and biological fields, coincided with the movement of mass-spectrometry analysis into more far-reaching fields—various aspects of petroleum research, organic chemistry, environmental analysis, pharmaceuticals, and biology. Within the petroleum industry some incredible advances were made in gaseous-ion chemistry, and the instrumentation itself became more precise. These early users of the instrument were definitively hands-on and labored to tweak the instrument to fit their specific research needs. As the field moved forward, the mass spectrometer’s capabilities advanced: from unknown ability to seemingly limitless ability.

Sibyl Rock: Instruments and Innovation

A vital part of Consolidated Engineering Corporation’s mass-spectrometry operational team, Rock worked directly with chemists to improve instrumentation in the 1950s. Read More >

Early Pioneer Frank Field

Featured in the Spring 2012 Chemical Heritage magazine, Frank Field  was a vital part of Humble Oil's early mass spectrometry research team. Read More >

Tell Us About Yourself

Please take a brief survey to help us plan future online exhibits.

Hear It Firsthand

The Center for Oral History captures and preserves the stories of notable figures in chemistry and related fields, with over 425 oral histories that deal with various aspects of science, of scientists, and of scientific practices. For more information please visit CHF’s Oral History Program or e-mail oralhistory@