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Early Mainframe Aids Oil Exploration

System/360 users recall their experience using the mainframe to record seismic profiler data


When IBM launched the System/360 series of computers it inadvertently (or maybe advertently) entered the oil business by way of the realm of the “doodlebug”—the generally accepted name for people engaged in seismic prospecting for oil.

 

Doodlebug is the common name for the Antlion, which spends its time digging holes in the sand into which unsuspecting small insects may fall and become lunch. Evidence of this activity is a pattern of semi-collapsed holes linked by the tracks of said doodlebug. Similarly, the seismic profiler spends time drilling holes all over the desert, filling them with dynamite and blowing them up, while leaving heavy and visible tracks between the holes.

In between the holes, lines of shock detectors (geophones) were spread out to detect and time shock wave echoes reflected back from deep subsurface strata. Output from these many detectors was fed back to a central recording apparatus located in an air-conditioned truck referred to as the doghouse. There, the data was plotted as sets of wiggly lines representing time in milliseconds versus voltage amplitude—referred to as seismic records. These records, when suitably corrected, could inform geophysicists where oil might accumulate if it existed in the area, and hence pinpoint the most appropriate spot to drill an oil well.

These records were originally recorded on paper. Advancing technology allowed the data to be recorded on magnetic tape for entry to special purpose analog computers for automatic correction and display. In the late ’50s, work carried out at MIT and Stanford demonstrated that, were the data available in digital form, the records could be input to digital computers and subjected to far more sophisticated correction methods, allowing for much better interpretation.

One geophysical contractor GSI, a subsidiary of Texas Instruments, built a special purpose computer called TIAC (Texas Instruments Automatic Computer) that featured a non-standard, one-inch, 21-track tape drive format and many unbreakable patents. This computer was initially a great success and for a time it appeared a single company would dominate the industry and subject others to expensive licensing agreements.

In the highly competitive oil business, such a condition could not endure for very long and the other contracting companies looked around for a solution. In 1964 they believed they had found it in the announcement of the IBM System/360 series, a general-purpose, commercially available computer with an industry-standard tape drive and no messy geophysical patents. IBM made haste to encourage this approach, as there was a lot of money to be made in oil!

In 1964 the primary oil source, Saudi Arabia, was dedicated to the TIAC system. However the latest boom area was the Kingdom of Libya and in this country the most prolific and successful of exploration companies was a small Houston-based organization called Robert H. Ray Geophysical (RayGeo). Under a contract with this company, IBM in mid 1965 ventured to the shores of Tripoli with one of its earliest released models: a System/360 Model 40. This joint venture proved highly successful and by 1970 the general purpose nature of the 360 series made the “special purpose” computer obsolete. Ultimately GSI abandoned the TIAC in favor of the IBM line of computers and “IBM compatiable” became the new industry standard.

 

Don Townsend was educated at Acton College London and by the Royal Air Force. In 1965, while employed as a Seismic Observer by Ray Geophysical in Libya he received some training from IBM. He then assisted with the installation of the first RayGeo system 360 Model 40 in Tripoli, Libya and in the generation of the initial seismic software system. In 1973, he was manager of worldwide system support for Petty-Ray Div. Geosource Inc. In 1995, he retired from Halliburton Exploration Services as manager of systems development. He currently enjoys retirement in Texas and Oregon, depending on the season.

George Dalrymple graduated from the University of Glasgow and, after an undistinguished five years in the missile industry, joined RayGeo in Libya in 1961 advancing to seismic observer.


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