the 1930s, a Travis
County farmer named Charles Rolff invented something he called
a doodlebug machine to locate large underground deposits of oil. His
gadget consisted of a "secret" tube, sealed at both ends. At the bottom
end of the tube was an opening to insert a 15-inch fork. At the top
end were two whalebone handles which the operator used to point the
fork at the land to tell whether there was oil or not. Only certain
people were supposed to possess the "requisite attributes" to operate
The doodlebug worked on generally the same principles as a divining
rod, which consisted of a Y-shaped twig, or sometimes two wires, that
witchers" used to find underground water. Some people called them
"wiggle sticks" because they allegedly wiggled, or vibrated, when
they sensed underground water.
Rolff and a group of investors sued the Pearl Oil Company for proceeds
and royalties in 1935, claiming that the company used his doodlebug
to find oil on a two-hundred-acre tract of land in Rusk
County. A Williamson
County jury decided that the presence of a doodlebug was irrelevant.
The jury didn't say the doodlebug didn't work, just that it didn't
matter whether it did or not in that particular case.
An appeals court ruled against Rolff. In his written opinion, chief
justice James McClendon said, "We take judicial knowledge of the scientific
fact that there is no virtue whatever in the 'doodle bug' in locating
oil or other substance underneath the earth."
In the early days of oil exploration, a doodlebug or divining rod
made as much sense to some people as geology and seismology or any
of the other emerging oilfield technologies. In establishing the Rule
of Capture as the water law of the land, the Texas Supreme Court in
1904 had deemed that underground water is too "mysterious, secret
and occult" to regulate. If underground water smacked of voodoo, so
did underground oil.
Around the same time that Rolff was promoting his doodlebug, two men
named Ralph Malone and Vivian Buie were hawking a gadget that operated
on the same occult principles as Rolff's. They ended up in court in
1935 as defendants charged with swindling Houston investors out of
$20,000. Buie, described in one newspaper account as the "brains"
of the operation, was sentenced to five years for mail fraud. Malone,
who supplied something other than brains, got three years.
Their lawyers, Arthur Heemann and C. Ray Smith, not only lost the
case but they also ended up as defendants on mail fraud charges. The
losing and indicted lawyers hired some fellow lawyers who said their
clients were ethical and hardworking attorneys, not swindlers, even
though one of them, Heemann, had been charged five years earlier for
promoting a bogus outfit called the Oil Investors Company. The judge
dismissed all charges.
By the late 1940s, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was
investigating Malone for hawking a device he called "a Magnet Logger."
The SEC concluded: "The claims made for its efficacy in discovering
oil were the usual ones and were false." A 1951 injunction put an
end, once and for all, to Malone's shenanigans.
But oilfield fraudsters changed with the times. When America became
fascinated with UFOs, two men named Silas Newton and Leo GeBauer claimed
to have a machine the government had developed-in secret, of course-that
"operated on the same magnetic principles as the flying saucers."
Newton and GeBauer allegedly came across this device after an alleged
spaceship allegedly crashed in Aztec, New Mexico in 1948, a year after
the Roswell incident. Newton and GeBauer convinced author Frank Scully
they were telling the truth, so he wrote a book called Behind the
Flying Saucers that sold sixty thousand copies, making it one
of the best-selling "science" books of the year. True magazine
checked out the book's claims in 1952 and deduced that Newtown and
GeBauer were "oil con artists who had coaxed a gullible Scully."
In October of 1952, the FBI arrested Newton and GeBauer after a Denver
industrialist filed suit against the two alleged scientists. A headline
in the October 14 Denver Post announced the news: "Saucer Scientist
in $50,000 Fraud." They went to trial in November of 1953 and were
found guilty of fraud and conspiracy. The UFO-inspired oil-finding
machine turned out to be nothing more than a box with a bunch of cool
looking dials and switches made from surplus radio parts. They received
probation but were ordered to make restitution to their gullible investors.
More than twenty years before that, in 1936, the Society of Exploration
Geophysicists (SEG) published the inaugural edition of its journal
Geophysics. The lead article warned young geophysicists about
employing "black magic" or "doodle-bug" methods based on unproven
properties of oil, minerals or geological formations.
However, authors Charles C. Bates, T. F. Gaskell and R. B. Rice "in
their 1982 book, Geophysics in the Affairs of Men, noted that
the term "doodlebugger" had taken on a new meaning by the 1950s.
"Twenty years later, it was a badge of honor to be known as a doodlebugger,
i.e., the field personnel of geophysical crews," the authors noted.
"Still later, the term was applied to everyone who worked in exploration
Doodlebuggers, after a scandalous beginning, were finally legit.