“This cylindrical mechanism with suspended prongs has found oil hidden in prairie dog holes, squirrel holes and post holes – in fact oil can be located in any place by this ‘doodle bug’ as it is popularly known here.”
– Wichita (Kansas) Beacon, July 13, 1914
The newspaper described the invention of Wilbur McCleary, an undertaker from Altus, Okla. This is the earliest known reference to a “doodlebug” as an oil-finding device. That was when doodlebugs were becoming common, and when a thing becomes common, it demands a name. The word filled a need, and quickly caught on.
The word itself was not new. For decades before it was adopted by the oil industry, “doodlebug” was American slang for the insect larvae known as the ant lion, and later applied to frivolities and small locomotives. It was no doubt an extension of the centuries-old English word “doodle,” meaning a foolish person (“Yankee doodle” was not a compliment).
As a slang term, “doodlebug” is often used carelessly, leading to confusion as to the meaning. 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, a habit that persists in informal usage. This article uses “doodlebug” in its original sense of a pseudo-geophysical instrument.
Early Oil Doodlebugs
The idea of an oil-finding instrument was also not new. Water dowsers were common throughout the United States and among most people of European descent worldwide, and they were quickly adapted to looking for oil. Some dowsers modified their water-finding forked rods by tying an oil-soaked rag to the tip of the rod or suspending a small bottle of crude oil to the tip. Some oil-dowsing rods became increasingly complicated, until they acquired geophysical pretentions and could be classed as supposed geophysical devices.
Soon after the Drake well in 1859, people started working on inventions to detect oil by geophysical methods. One of the earliest supposed oil-finders was the machine invented by William Reed. Reed came to the Pennsylvania oil fields in 1859, dowsing for oil with a forked twig without success. He soon switched to a machine of his own invention, described as a tube hanging from a tripod. Reed never explained it other than it operated by electricity, but he was reportedly very successful in finding oil. He said that his doodlebug could also detect gold, so he took it to the seashore in 1887, and drowned while searching for sunken treasure from a skiff off the shore of Atlantic City, N.J. His mysterious oil- and gold-finder was lost to the sea.
Houston oil pioneer Peyton Standifer Griffith brought his oil-finding machine from Tennessee following the Spindletop gusher in 1901. His doodlebug was a box with three tubes: two served as handles, and the third went in his mouth. A capsule was attached to the end of a coil sticking out the front of the box. As odd as it may have appeared, his oil-finder gave him the confidence in 1913 to buy the Stevenson Survey near Humble, Texas, a tract which proved rich in oil and made him wealthy.
Defining Features of Doodlebugs
Doodlebugs generally operate on one of four principles:
- Conscious manipulation: These are frauds by the operator.
- Ideomotor effect: The operator unconsciously manipulates the device. The same principle controls reactions of dowsing devices.
- Perceived sensory change: The operator may notice a slight change in pitch of a sound, or stickiness of a surface stroked with a finger. This is the mode of operation of most radionics devices.
- Random indication: The device responds either randomly or in response to a signal that is unrelated to the presence of hydrocarbons.
Doodlebugs can come in many shapes and guises. For most doodlebugs, what they did and how they worked is lost to history. The doodlebug operators, who were often also the inventors, guarded the devices from prying eyes. Descriptions in journals and newspapers are usually brief. Some would not even use their doodlebug unless they were alone. Few doodlebugs have been preserved; most seem to have been thrown out with the trash.
Most doodlebugs were one-of-a-kind instruments for the exclusive use of the inventor. A few doodlebugs were franchised out, and some were sold without restriction.
Modified Dowsing Instruments
Many doodlebugs appear to have been adapted from dowsing devices, of which there are many: traditional Y- or V-shaped rods are held by both hands, L-rods held in one hand or one in each hand, straight flexible rods held in one hand, or pendulums.
Wilbur McCleary’s original doodlebug was a modified dowsing rod: a V-shaped rod, with each end of the V connected to an electric battery, and a sample of crude oil at the apex of the V. Many doodlebugs, rather than utilizing crude oil, incorporated a secret mixture of chemicals said to have an affinity to crude.
The defining feature by which a dowsing device becomes a pseudo-geophysical instrument is a difficult line to draw and opinions vary on where to draw it. Incorporation of electronic circuitry is almost always confined to doodlebugs, not dowsing devices. One telling difference is that a doodlebug has some pretension to a specific geophysical basis, while dowsing devices generally have no fixed physical theory. Dowsers might have some provisional ideas on why dowsing works for them, but their belief in dowsing does not depend on a particular theory. Dowsers generally insist that the most important consideration is that dowsing works, and theory is therefore secondary.
Some doodlebugs were radionic – sometimes called “psionic” – devices. These are often in the form of the classic black box and are based on the quack medical devices invented in the 1910s by San Francisco physician Albert Abrams, who claimed that his Reflexophone and Sphygmobiometer machines could diagnose diseases, which his Oscilloclast would then cure – all by radio waves. At first the patient was connected to the apparatus, but later refinements allowed Abrams to analyze a drop of blood on a piece of filter paper, or a lock of hair or even the patient’s signature or photograph.
Abrams trained thousands of physicians in his method and leased his equipment to them. Thousands more used imitations of Abrams instruments. A committee from Scientific American magazine investigated Abrams’ methods and demolished his theories in a 12-part series from October 1923 through September 1924. They concluded that radionic instruments were nonsensical in theory and useless in practice.
Although invented as medical devices, Abrams said that they could detect minerals and oil. Later versions of the machines, notably by English engineer George De La Warr, were applied to oil exploration. Other radionics instruments were Heironymus machines and Wigglesworth Pathoclasts. Radionics devices are still being made and are widely available through the internet.
Some simple magnetotelluric detectors were used as water and oil finders. The most widely advertised of these was the British-made Mansfield Patented Automatic Water and Oil Finder. The number of Mansfield instruments manufactured and sold probably numbered in the thousands. It was advertised in magazines, first as a waterfinder in 1908, then in 1913 as a water and oil finder. It came in various models with different depths of investigation, from 200 to 8,500 feet. The instrument was advertised until at least 1933.
The Mansfield instrument was based on an earlier version by Swiss inventor Adolf Schmid. Prominent French dowser Henri Mager also created a similar apparatus which he used to search for oil. They all had in common hundreds of wire coils and a sensitive compass needle. They operated on the assumption that magnetotelluric currents were strongest over water or oil.
Radio was the sensation of the early 20th century and numerous oil-finding inventions used radio waves. There was the radioscope, radio oil finder, radio cameraphone, radio seismograph, radio emanator and radiologeometer.
One of the most famous doodlebugs of the 1910s and ‘20s was the Schermuly polarizer, invented by master engineer Philipp Schermuly of Frankfurt, Germany. The mechanical device was patented, but it needed to be used with capsules containing different substances depending on the sought-for material. Schermuly kept the contents of his capsules secret. Although criticized by many, Schermuly used his polarizer to try to find oil in the United States, Germany, Canada, Brazil and Switzerland. Faith in the polarizer benefitted from the respect given to Schermuly as a master engineer, as well as the high prestige of German technology. The polarizer fell into obscurity following Schermuly’s death in 1929. Schermuly’s instrument inspired a number of other German inventors to design similar devices, but none became nearly as popular as the Schermuly polarizer.
Dawn of the Doodlebugs
Assuming that mentions in journals and newspapers are representative, the number of doodlebugs increased greatly in the early part of the 20th century. The wave of doodlebugs peaked in the 1920s. A literature search identified 192 doodlebugs in the United States, introduced from 1863 to 2003. Based on contemporary as well as modern reports, this appears to be only a fraction of the actual total but is assumed to be representative. Of the 192, 72 were introduced in the 1920s. In the Roaring ‘20s, doodlebugs ruled the earth.
The rapid growth of doodlebugs took place in the 1910s, the same period in which geologists first entered the U.S. oil industry in great numbers. It might seem paradoxical at first, but the increases in both geologists and doodlebugs were likely driven by the increased belief that science could find oil.
Doodlebugs also came to prominence in the 1920s in Canada, France and Germany. Canada and the United States had similar patterns in doodlebug use. But unlike the United States and Canada, French and German oil booms of the 1920s seem to have had fewer doodlebugs than there were traditional oil-dowsers. In addition, European doodlebug inventors were almost all from the educated class, generally engineers in Germany and doctors and clergy in France. In the United States and Canada, in contrast, doodlebug inventors were widely spread across occupations and education levels.
Twilight of the Doodlebugs
When genuine geophysical methods such as gravity and seismic arrived in the early 1920s, those instruments were called “doodlebugs” as well, and had to compete with the original doodlebugs. When refraction seismic equipment came to the U.S. Gulf Coast from Germany, it was called the “German doodlebug,” and its crews were called “doodlebuggers.” The name stuck, and seismic crews are called that to this day. Although often called “doodlebuggers,” geophysicists were eager to separate themselves from spurious methods, and they scorned doodlebugs.
The number of active doodlebuggers rose rapidly from 1900-1920, peaked in the ‘20s, then declined slowly over the next 40 years. The decline seems to have been caused by the introduction of real geophysical methods in the 1920s, and by the increasing influence of professional geophysicists within oil companies, making the companies more sophisticated judges of questionable geophysics.
Most modern doodlebugs have adopted the protective coloration and jargon of genuine geophysics. They often call on poorly understood phenomena such as neutrinos or gravity waves, or such supposed particles as “microleptons,” which have gone undetected except by those selling certain mineral- and oil-exploration equipment.
Despite the increasing sophistication of doodlebugs, some unsophisticated doodlebug swindles in the middle and late 20th century were surprisingly successful. In the late 1940s, Denver oil promoter Silas Newton and his partner Leo GeBauer made minor modifications to a $3 Army-surplus radio tuner and claimed that it contained an oil-detector salvaged from a crashed flying saucer from Venus. In the 1970s, an eccentric Belgian count named Alain de Villegas, and the Italian TV repairman Aldo Bonassoli, took millions of dollars from the French company Elf for two amazing geophysical instruments which essentially turned out to be disguised photocopiers.
But conscious frauds are the exception. Most doodlebug operators today, just as in the past, are sincerely convinced that their instruments can detect oil or minerals. The Technology Assessment Group has prepared a brochure which lists common characteristics that help distinguish good geophysics from bad, which can be found online by searching “Technology Assessment Group July 2020 flyer.”
A current database has about 80 recently active doodlebugs. Do not mourn the extinction of the doodlebugs. They are still with us.