The gas that wouldn't burn

Far from the great scientific centers of Europe, a jubilant crowd gathered in the small town of Dexter, Kansas, in May 1903. Situated in the vast Great Plains, Dexter was pinning its hopes for economic prosperity on a newly drilled well that had unleashed "a howling gasser." As nine million cubic feet of gas escaped each day before the equipment could be found to cap the well, the drilling company wasted no time in selling stock and planning for additional wells. The citizens of Dexter envisioned new industries such as ore smelters and brick and glass plants coming to their little town. To celebrate their good fortune, the people of Dexter planned a huge celebration, complete with band music, patriotic speeches, and games. The lighting of the escaping gas was planned as the spectacular climax to the day's events. Promotional circulars promised that "a great pillar of flame from the burning well will light the entire countryside for a day and a night."

After an appropriately exhilarating address by the mayor, the excited gathering watched with anticipation as a burning bale of hay was slowly moved into contact with the gusher. Instead of the expected conflagration, however, the flames of the burning bale were quickly extinguished.

Undaunted, the mayor repeated the process several times, but with the same results. Disappointed and puzzled, the crowd slowly dispersed, calling this strange emanation from the well "wind gas." Others said it was a well of "hot air." Understandably, the company "did not wish that it be given great publicity."

Dismay over the gas well's failure spread throughout Dexter, but Erasmus Haworth, the official state geologist, was intrigued by this unusual event. Haworth, a geology faculty member at The University of Kansas in Lawrence, arranged for a large steel cylinder to be filled with the Dexter gas. Upon his return to Lawrence, Haworth discussed the gas with chemistry professor David F. McFarland, who began a routine analysis of the cylinder's contents. The results readily gave a scientific explanation to the Dexter puzzle. The gas contained only 15% combustible methane, which would not burn in the presence of almost 72% nonflammable nitrogen. Haworth and McFarland reported their results to a Geological Society of America meeting in Philadelphia on Dec. 30, 1904. They revealed that the Dexter gas also contained 12% of an "inert residue" and promised that the investigation of this residue would "be carried out as soon as time would permit."


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The gas that wouldn't burn | "Helium is no longer a rare element" | Helium production in the United States
Hamilton Perkins Cady | David Ford McFarland | Bailey Hall | Landmark designation and acknowledgments

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