Oral History Transcript — Dr. M. King Hubbert
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M. King Hubbert; January 4, 1989
ABSTRACT: Born in Texas in 1903; influence of remote, rural environment on his upbringing and early education. Attended Weatherford Junior College until 1923; studies at University of Chicago, B.A. in 1926, M.A. in 1928, and Ph.D. (formally awarded) in 1937. Comments on courses, teachers and fellow students at Chicago, including J. Harlan Bretz and Rollin T. Chamberlin. Summer research at Amerada Petroleum Corporation (Oklahoma), Illinois State Geological Survey, and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), late 1920s to early 1930s. First teaching position at Columbia University; research on ground-water motion; involvement in Technocracy Movement, 1930s. Marriage to Miriam Graddy Berry, 1938. Senior analyst on staff of Board of Economic Warfare, 1942-1943; deepening commitment to issue of natural resources. Thoughts on limited interactions between geologists and geophysicists; work in advisory committees on geophysics education, 1930s to 1940s. Theory of scale models, 1937; related research involving strength of solids. Career at Shell Oil Company and Shell Development Company, 1943-1964; directs research laboratory at Shell, perspectives on industry environment for scientific research. Lecture tours to geological, industrial, and policy groups, 1940s to 1960s; involvement in Atomic Energy Commission, National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, advisory committees. Research with W. W. Rubey on overthrust faulting. Deepening interest in oil and natural gas reserves; responses from officials in petroleum corporations and federal government to his predictions of local, national, and worldwide reserves, 1950s to 1960s. Research geophysicist at USGS, 1964-1976, after retirement from Shell; studies of natural resources and conflicts over his conclusions involving other scientists at USGS. Visiting professorships at Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University, University of California, Berkeley, 1962-1977. Continued involvement in issue of geophysical education at American universities and in studies of natural resources, 1950s to 1970s.
Doel:Dr. Hubbert, I know that you were born on October 5, 1903, in San Saba, Texas, and that your parents' names were William B. Hubbert and Cora Virginia…
Hubbert:Cora Virginia Lee.
Doel:Lee was her maiden name?
Doel:I would like to hear more about them. Who were they? What did they do?
Hubbert:My father was descended from a line of pioneers from North Carolina — well, Tennessee, and then Alabama. I can't trace them back beyond this, at least I haven't tried. I have a cousin who is much interested in such things and she's given me a few papers she's collected. The earliest direct ancestor that I have any record of in that family was a man by the name of James Hubbert, who was a deputy of John Severe in the American Revolution. There was a Severe Mill somewhere right near Knoxville, Oak Ridge in that neighborhood. But this man was in a sense a notorious SOB. It goes back apparently that his family was murdered by the Indians in Virginia earlier, and he had an undying hatred against all Indians. The records indicate that he provoked a Cherokee Indian chief into a quarrel and killed him in a gun battle. The contemporary records that my cousin picked up refer to him as a notorious scoundrel. But he lived somewhere in that neighborhood. It was a Davy Crockett time and general environment. I've got the record somewhere, but I don't remember at the time which of his sons, or the name of his son, was my descent. I think there was an intermediate, from James Hubbert to the others that I have more direct information on. My great-grandfather was named Matthew Hubbert, and he was born somewhere in that neighborhood. Now, whether he was the son of James or grandson of James, I don't remember.
Doel:Was this in Virginia?
Hubbert:No. It was in Tennessee, the Knoxville area. Now, this man had a flock of something like 50 children, and he migrated with his family down to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Andrew Jackson, you know, carried on a war against the Indians down there. There was then a migration of Tennessee people down to Alabama, and Matthew and his family moved down. His wife was a Thornton — her name was Thornton. Now, of these children, my grandfather was the oldest son. I think there was a daughter older than he. I believe my grandfather was born in Alabama, not Tennessee, so maybe all the children were. Maybe none of the children were Tennessean. But the family came from Tennessee, at least Matthew did. Getting to the generation of my grandfather: the family stayed a while in the Tuscaloosa area and then they migrated west. They had to go north of the swamps of Louisiana, so they came around by about Texarkana, Shreveport, Louisiana, and on down to central Texas. At first they settled in a county a hundred miles or so further southeast. Then they moved to the very frontier region of the San Saba River which is a tributary of the Colorado River of Texas. It's a hilly country. Limestone largely, limestone and sandstone, shale, and very rich river and creek bottoms, heavily timbered with pecan timber, walnuts and that kind of thing. In fact that was more or less the pecan capital of the country in its day. So they settled there. It was absolutely right on the frontier. This, incidentally, was around 1850, close to 1850. Another family that settled in a neighboring part of the same country at that time was named Woods. His daughter married my grandfather and was my grandmother. They came in independently as a group of people, who had done buffalo hunting and scouting around. They settled down, and forted up. They built a fort for the winter, and there are hair-raising stories of Indian raids and so on, and they kept out of Sandro at night during the period of Indian raids which is full moon, Comanche Indians.
Doel:Were they both alive when you were growing up, your grandparents?
Hubbert:My grandfather I just barely remember. He died when I was four years old, between three and four there, about. But his next younger brother I knew well. I'll get to him in a minute. Anyhow, back to this other family, Woods. Their daughter married David Hubbert, and was my grandmother. But going back to the Tennessee background, well, first I might say that my grandfather's name was David and he was a senior citizen of the community and highly respected. As is common in the frontier era, they called the old people Uncle and Aunt so and so. Thus he was Uncle Dave, a very respected person in the community. His next younger brother was my great-uncle Jack, who owned a farm some eight or ten miles distant from the first one. Now, actually I knew Uncle Jack very well. I knew him till I was about 15 or so, he and his daughter, who left and went to California. My cousin recently dug up a family record of the formal names of all the children of that family. I knew one of the sisters, Aunt Lizzie, and another one, the youngest one, Irving. But the great surprise out of this record, when I read the formal names, was to learn that my grandfather's name was David Crockett Hubbert.
Doel:Is that so?
Uncle Jack was Andrew Jackson Hubbert. I never knew that. (Laughter) Tennessee! Right at the time of Andrew Jackson. And Davy Crockett was a Tennessean, time of the Alamo. My grandfather was born about the time of the Alamo, just after, maybe. It's a little bit of curiosity that I ran into only a few years ago. All right. This family moved in. They took up a tract of land, beautiful land on Clearwater Creek, flat farmland wooded with pecan trees and so on, and built a house. They had I think two slaves. This is pre-Civil War. And the house, the main structure, the main rooms were log. The planking was solid lumbering sawed by hand; you'd have a log propped up, one above, one below. Propping back and forth. And I heard my father talk about those two former slaves, who used to be there during harvest time and when other things happened in the family, talk about how they used to bust their hands on that old saw and whatnot. I was born in the same house. My grandfather inherited the place. Matthew was a restless person, and he didn't stay put. He went on to New Mexico with one of the younger sons — Irving, I believe — and took up a tract of land at Carlsbad, New Mexico, on the Vegas River. He didn't stay long enough to firmly establish his title to the land, and went on to California. The only thing that stopped him was the Pacific Ocean. (Laughter) So he settled at Oceanside, which is a seaside town north of San Diego. His wife stayed back in Texas.
He then sent back for her after he'd got a place to live in California to bring the younger children and come on out. The younger ones had settled down in Texas. Well, my grandfather and others tried to persuade her from going on this arduous trip with a flock of younger children. She is reported to have said, belligerently, "I'll stay with Matthew as long as he's got a button on his coat." How she got to California I never knew until recently. I think I got a fragment of the story, that she somehow or other got to Galveston overland, and this was about 200 miles — more than that I guess, nearly 300 miles, and then a boat to New Orleans, then up the Mississippi River to St. Louis. I think the Transcontinental Railroad was maybe in operation by this time. This would be in 1860s probably. Well, anyhow, such railroad as there was, maybe a covered wagon to ferry in between, I don't know, but she went and took a flock of younger children with her to California. My grandmother stayed in Texas and was the inheritor of the principal farm and the house that they had built. Uncle Jack took up a farm seven or eight miles away. My grandfather had four sons, of which my father was second, and they had an adopted daughter. Then my father of course was born there, grew up there, attended the country schools and three miles away the town school, in the county seat. San Saba was the county seat. His place was three miles out of town. And in another community some 15 miles or so away was my mother's community, unrelated to the first one entirely. These people came in different groups and clusters and settled down in different communities. My mother's mother was half Irish, a widow with two small children. Her father was an Irishman, my only known European ancestor.
He had come over by way of North Ireland. County Downes was in the family word-of-mouth tradition, and Tyrone was another name somewhere in my grandfather's branch, growing up. About the age of 15, which must have been about the time of the potato famine, he ran away from home and came to the United States, came to New York, I think. I don't know any details, but he changed his name. It was Adair and he changed it to Ohair so the family couldn't trace him (laughter) and come and bring him home. Well, he finally came to east Texas. There's a mystery there. I got a Christmas card note two or three years ago from a second cousin who mentioned the fact that the Grandmother Ohair that I knew when I was a child, a very old lady, wasn't my real grandmother, she was a step-mother. She was a second wife.
Doel:You hadn't heard anything about that?
No. I didn't know that. But that my grandmother was buried in Rusk in Cherokee County, East Texas, town of Rusk. Then she added cryptically, "She's the one we don't talk about." And I wish to hell I knew what was back of that remark, because it was always a suspicion in my immediate family and some of my relatives that we're part Indian. My mother looks Indian. She's got high cheek bones, coal black eyes, black hair. And one of her sisters, similarly. We always suspected there was an Indian somewhere in the ancestry, and the only place possible would have been this first wife. There was a Cherokee Indian Reservation in that neighborhood. The county was Cherokee County. My suspicion is that he married one of the Indian girls. What happened, I don't know, but anyhow she died and was buried there. If so, then that would make me, what, one third Indian? (Laughter) Well, that's that.
Now, this county, my mother's neighborhood, was called Chabel; it had a post office and a store and a name. There drifted in there a young man who took the job as the teacher in the country school, and his name was Robert Leander Lee. Where was he from? He was from California. But he'd gone to the Wild West as a young man and finally ended up at this place, and married this widow with the two small children. Her married name was Harold. Then he raised a family of mostly girls, a fair sized family. One boy had an accident; he was burned by spilling some hot grease on him and died from it when he was a small child. Maybe the youngest child of this family was another boy who, I'm not sure I ever knew him, was kind of a ne’er-do-well. There was also a whole flock of these girls, and the oldest one was my Aunt Ann and the second one was Mother, the third one Josie, fourth one was Clara and the next one was Eunice, I believe. I've seen family pictures — I don't have one — of Grandfather and his array of daughters when they were getting about grown now. My father got a job working for my Grandfather Lee, and ended up by marrying one of the daughters, Cora Virginia Lee. Now, the history of this Lee is an interesting history. As I say, he came from California, but his family came from Virginia, and they went cross country. How they got there, I don't know, whether they went by across Panama or how they got there.
Doel:Quite a circuitous route.
Hubbert:But they wound up in Napa City, California. It's now dropped the "City" and it's now Napa, California, north of San Francisco in one of the great wine valleys there. Well, the father was a doctor, and he wanted my grandfather to take up the trade of medicine. You did that by apprenticing under a doctor in those days, and my grandfather tried the apprenticeship and didn't like it. He finally left home and went to the Wild West, where I don't know but he finally landed in Texas. After his wife died around 1900, there were two younger girls who still weren't married. He took the younger girls and went out around roaming around in the West. First time that I ever saw him was when we lived in Bakers County, Texas, near Fort Stockton, Texas. My father was in charge of an irrigation land project out there.
Doel:How old were you at the time?
Hubbert:The time I'm talking about now?
Hubbert:I was about eight years old. We were living in a house that had just recently been built. It was on the north-south road and the nearest railroad was about 50, 60 miles away. There was a stage coach that ran from Fort Stockton to Monohans, I believe, which was on the railroad, and this stage coach made I don't know, maybe two trips a week or something. I remember one day in mid-winter, cold weather outside. We were all around the stove and so on in the house, the children, my brothers and sisters and I. The stage coach stopped in front of the house and a gentleman got out, well dressed gentleman wearing an overcoat, and came up to the house. We were all peeking out doors and windows, wondering who the hell the stranger was. (Laughter) My sister just older than I said "Children, this is your grandfather." He stayed for the winter, and his principal occupation was pruning grapevines. They had set out some grapevines out in front. I remember my grandfather going around with pruning shears, pruning these grape vines for the spring planting of the vineyard, and not very much of an impression of him one way or the other.
Doel:You didn't get to know him?
Hubbert:Not well. I knew he was there, but he wasn't a person that children got easily acquainted with. As my mother tells about it, when she was growing up, he was very formal, always wearing a Prince Albert coat made by his wife. He was very formal in his meals, always dressed properly for meals and all that kind of thing. And was very strict with the family, with the children. My mother had the very highest respect for him. But I have very little feeling of any kind of rapport with him as a child. So that's that ancestor. That family came from Virginia and was obviously a branch of the Lee family of Virginia. By word of mouth again, I seem to remember that one of the members of the family, maybe a brother of my grandfather, had been lieutenant governor of Virginia. But that's just word of mouth, no record or anything. I believe his name was Asa Lee. But I've never tried to look it up. As I say, genealogy is to me of minor interest, because I think I can demonstrate that I'm probably descended from Julius Caesar and the whole Roman army! Well, that's broadly the background. This was a pioneer community. When these people came in, Indian massacres were very common. When I was a small child, the most scary things imaginable — and I wouldn't have missed a word of it but it scared the hell out of me — would be to hear the old folks sit around and talk about the Indian raids in the neighborhood. I used to have quite a collection of Indian arrowheads, which I'd just pick up out in the field. They were Comanche Indians, would raid commonly during the full moon so that they could ride at night and see well. If they caught any individuals that they could capture, the men would be killed; they'd capture the women sometimes, but with the purpose of stealing horses. Occasionally there were out-and-out fights between the settlers and the Indians. Once they had Indians rounded up in the cedar brake, and quite a battle locally.
Doel:Was your father actively involved in this?
Hubbert:No, my father and mother came just at the edge of it.
Hubbert:The last Indian ever seen in the community was by my Grandfather Lee, the date I don't know but around 1870. He was down at the creek watering his horse, and happened to look up. Across the creek was an Indian watering his horse too. They saw each other about the same time. And the Indian — my grandfather had a gun — the Indian got on his horse and dashed off, and that was the last Indian seen in the neighborhood. But one hair-raising story that I remember involved a country school teacher and children. The Indians surrounded the school, and were going to kill all the children as well as the teacher. She plead with the Indians to kill her and spare the children. A couple of children, a boy and his sister, managed to sneak out, and they had a horse; they rode the same horse to school. They managed to get on the horse and run, the Indians after them, but they were far enough ahead and they made a curve out of sight. The young man, the boy, told his sister to drop off and hide in the high weeds, about so high, because he could outrun them, he thought, without both of them on the horse, and she did. She hid in the weeds, and the boy did outrun them, and all the rest of them were killed. Another story I remember was a man who was working for my family and he was going to town some distance away, going on some shopping errand, and he was given a commission to buy some lace for my grandmother, I think. He came back with the lace, all right, but a hole through the bottom of it—he carried it in his pocket. So when I was a kid, Indians were real people, and there were Indian arrowheads all over the place.
Doel:What was your father doing during the time you were growing up?
Hubbert:He was a farmer. This was mixed farm and ranch country. You farmed and cultivated land in the creek bottoms. The upland was pasture. We never had a big ranch. We just had a farm with mixed type of land. It was hilly country. But the other part of his career as a young man, why, he went to work for local ranchers as manager and that kind of thing. And oh yes, the first railroad was being built into the community, and my father and quite a few other people of the community worked on this railroad, building embankments. In this hilly country you had to build a railroad embankment across the low areas and cut trenches across the hills and so on to level out the track. My father worked on this railroad for, I don't know, a good fraction of a year.
Doel:How old were you at the time?
Hubbert:Oh, this was before my time.
Hubbert:My older sister was the only child I think at the time. She's six years older than I am. But anyhow, what he got out of this was how to handle dirt, earthwork, and it was done with hoes and plows and scuppers. So on the side, when he wasn't farming, he contracted to build earth reservoirs for the ranch men, to store water for the cattle and so on. He did a good deal of that kind of thing. I used to help when I was 15 years old or so on some of these jobs. In fact, he built one fairly large reservoir on our own place.
Doel:Was that a common undertaking? Did many people have that knowledge?
Hubbert:No, not many. My father learned it on the railroad. Most people didn't know how to do that kind of thing. So he had a kind of a monopoly on it. On the ancestral place, my grandfather — when he was getting old — and grandmother called my father in and wanted to deed the place to him, provided that he would take care of them and look after them for the rest of their lives. And my father refused to do it, on the grounds that the other brothers, three, had an equal interest in the property, and so the only honorable way that he could buy or obtain permission from the brothers for their part of it, for which everybody would be paid. Well, my grandparents, for reasons unknown, didn't agree with that. They wound up by giving the place to the older brother, and so he was the one who continued on in the ancestral home. My father then worked around largely as foreman on ranches and that kind of thing, and was still trying to settle down and get himself a place of his own. He was also scouting around a bit. I remember they took a scouting expedition-by covered wagon, incidentally — into north central Texas, where they had a brother and various relatives, to look the country over up there, with the idea of settling in that area.
Doel:Was this before you were able to travel with him?
This was when I was a small boy, about five years old. And it didn't pan out. About this time, he was offered this job by somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody, as foreman of an irrigated land project in Bakers County, north Texas; county seat Fort Stockton. He took the job, and we went out by covered wagon 300 miles. In the summer of 1909, we lived in a tent while they were building a house. The nearest railroad was 65 miles away. We were on the main road. It was called Piker City, which was a small village on the road. Fort Stockton was the county seat, and we were seven miles from Fort Stockton on the Baker's Road. And this road was the main thoroughfare of travel between the railroad and Fort Stockton. This land project must have been advertised all over, everywhere, because an enormous number of people came in there by railroad. They then hired automobiles, from the vintage of 1909, to drive them over to Fort Stockton to look over this prospect of this irrigated land. There was a heavy automobile traffic on that old dirt road, great clouds of dust, people in these old cars sitting up there with dusters over their suits.
Others came by foot, Mexicans largely, with a two tiered wagon, one front, one behind, and then a team of about, oh, eight or ten mules or burrows. The Mexicans were hauling freight from the railroad to Fort Stockton, and they came right by. We lived in a tent while we were building a house, which we just barely got in. My mother was pregnant with a baby, and we just barely got in the house in time for the baby, who was born on Christmas Eve of that year. Well, this particular project we were on didn't pan out. They were going to do it by irrigated water. They had a flowing well there, there had been drought, and this for some reason or other, it folded or didn't pan out. Another company or the same company, I don't know which, had another project, with an irrigation canal being run from a big spring in Fort Stockton, Comanche Spring. They were going to irrigate a large stretch of flatland about five miles north of town, and were building this canal to bring the water out there. That's where we built the second house, and were putting all those grapes and vineyards in. My sisters, two older sisters — the oldest one was six years older than I, the other one two years older-they were going to the Fort Stockton school, the county school, the only school there was. Then I came along. On the 1st of January 1911, I started to school also. The three of us went by horse and buggy to school, and that was a very exciting experience. The teacher — her name was Miss Laura Hayes — was a very, very competent teacher. I can remember in detail her techniques of teaching. She taught phonetics in reading, and we drilled on the sounds of words. She had little stories that went with them. Here was a little boy and he went along and came to a snake and the snake said, "Hsss, sss." And here was another s and so on, and the cow said "Moo" and that was the letter M, and all that kind of things. Oh, it was great fun.
Doel:I can imagine.
Hubbert:And there were no free school books. We had to buy our school books. I remember my first day in school that she gave me a list of materials to buy down at the local store in town. One of them was a primer and the other one was a book called Stepping Stones to Literature. Well, those were big words. I didn't know what they meant. But I repeated it to myself all the way to the store, "stepping stones to literature, stepping stones to literature," to get down there and buy these supplies including this book. Well, it turned out it was actually a very, very nice book. As I say, she was a very competent teacher.
Doel:How many years did you attend that school?
Hubbert:Just that one semester, really, to the end of school. Then they built a country school within walking distance. The older sister continued going to town. She was in high school by this time. She rode horseback. The other sister and I went to the country school on foot. One day in this second year, the time of the country school, was the sinking of the Titanic. The biggest news item of that year was the Titanic. It was in all the newspapers and all the talk of everyone. People sat around and discussed it and worried over it. Actually our most knowledge of boats was a rowboat on the pond or the river. We really had no idea at all of the magnitude of a big ocean liner. And it was really a subject of very great and concern of all of us for months. That summer, we decided to give up out there and go back to the home county. My father had enough money to buy a farm by this time, so we went back and the farm was about ten miles from town. It was second grade country. There was no really red fertile bottom land, it was intermediate, and of course it was hilly and wooded. There I went two and a half miles to the local country school, originally a one room school, and then after about a year they built on a second room. The state got some money for it, for rural schools, and at the same time they had specifications for the proper design of a school room. The old room just had windows on both sides and a front door. They had to rebuild the existing school, practically. They had to take out the left wall and the back wall, and put in windows on that side, and then you had a blank wall on the other two sides. Oh yes. Before we also had a big wood burning cast-iron stove in the middle of the room. This was when they came out with the newfangled type. it was also a potbellied type stove, but it had an asbestos-lined casing around it that stood about this high off the floor, and also a duct going to the outside to let in fresh air. You'd pull in fresh cold air and then the air would circulate by convection and come in the bottom of this thing and you'd heat the whole room with this stove. That was something new and different.
Doel:You were interested in learning how it operated?
Hubbert:Yes. And also the new rules required that the school, in order to get a certain amount of state financial support, had to have a library, at least a fifty dollar library. These of course were books specially published by the publishers which were mostly in the Boston area. They bought this pile of small books, history and miscellany, some crafts books, historical books, American history largely. I remember one book on four of the leading Indian chieftains, including — I forget now the names, familiar Indian names, though. And then there was historical works on the Civil War. After all, the Civil War was very real — my grandfather was in the Civil War, and many old men in the neighborhood had fought in the Civil War, so Civil War was something very real. It wasn't something that happened a long time ago. The people were still there.
Doel:Were there also science books in the library?
Hubbert:Not very much. But they did have a very interesting book on Thomas Edison, the great inventor. He was my hero. I read everything I could lay my hands on, on Thomas Edison. And I was going to be an inventor. In that connection, when my career started out I wanted to be a blacksmith. Then later on with automobiles and steam engines and what not, I was going to be a mechanic.
Doel:Things that you were familiar with.
Hubbert:Well, things that I was becoming familiar with. The most advanced technology of the time was the most fascinating. In the early stages that was a blacksmith's shop. Later on it was steam locomotives or steam tractors for driving the threshing machine.
Doel:Did you have one on your farm?
Hubbert:Once we had one later, but not then. The earliest threshing machine I remember was run by a horse bar, 16 horses going around in a circle, and running an [unclear] log that went over to the threshing machine. Same way with baling machines. It was all horsepower. The only mechanical powered equipment was the J. I. Case steam tractor for running the threshing machine. That came somewhat later. Then we had the transition over to the internal combustion engine, for the same purpose. I went through all those things. I remember when I saw my first automobile. I remember when I saw my first railroad train, my first electric light. I've traveled a thousand miles by covered wagon.
Doel:Did your father, your parents, encourage your interest in these items? Did you talk with them about engineering?
Hubbert:No, they weren't very — there was not much shared interest in that respect. I was pretty much alone in this. Another thing I remember on that trip to north central Texas was that we spent a lot of time in Sweetwater, Texas, right near the railroad station. Here were these freight engines on moving slowly, stopping, and moving on. I was just fascinated with those things. Here was this piston rod coming up and a leakage of steam spilling out around the piston rods. That was about 1908 or so. Then I was in Pekas County. Somebody had told me-one of the workmen, maybe — that if you put a sealed can of water in the fire, that the steam would blow the lid off the can. So I tried it. My mother had a big iron pot for the family wash. She had emptied a can of lye, which had a big friction type top and about so big around, so long, into this pot. Maybe she was making soap or something, I don't know, I got this can and did what he told me. I put water in it, put the lid back on, put it in the fire, and sure enough, it did blow the lid off. The lid and steaming water hit my younger brother on the hand, and he was screaming and making a lot of fuss. It caused quite a commotion at the time. But I was tremendously impressed with the power of this steam. It went right back to those steam locomotives, which I'd never understood a thing about before. Again, they had boiling water and steam going into these cylinders. So I envisioned this thing as a cylinder with the steam coming in on one side, so it would come back, but how did you get the cylinder back again? Well, they had one on the other side. So I considered these things, working synchronously in phase, and so what prevents it from being stuck on dead center? I puzzled like anything over this thing. And I discussed it with one of the workmen. He said, well, they handle that by having one of them at right angles to the other, so when one is on dead center, the other was off, and so then they went around like so. And not only that, but the steam went on both sides. I puzzled how the steam got out. Well, there must have been grooves in the cylinder, and so when the piston got to the end of its run, steam escaped through the grooves, and then it came back empty, and could let in some more. Well, that wasn't quite true, but I was inventing steam engines. (Laughter)
Doel:Was there anybody when you were growing up that you could talk to about these things?
Hubbert:Very little. I had a chum, you might say, in this country school. His family name was Ragsdale, which is English, but the wife was a Matschler, which is German. Apparently she was a descendant of some of those Texas Germans which settled in the country mostly south of there in the 1840s. Anyhow, my mother knew the Matschler family, she'd grown up with this family in her community, and they were all fascinated with all mechanical things. One of the boys took the family clock apart one day when the family was away from home just to see how it worked. They had a flair for mechanical things, for driven turning lathes and things of that sort.
Hubbert:And we didn't have. So in our community, the only steam locomotive was owned by this family and one of the boys was the engineer. He was a custodian of that — not locomotive, but steam tractor. It was the pride and joy of this man. He was a grown man by the time I was a kid. He was very proud of that steam engine.
Doel:Did you spend a lot of time around him?
Hubbert:Any minute I could get to it, during threshing season. I just hung around them. This son in that family was my age, by the name of Roy, Roy Ragsdale. We were actually very close chums, and rivals and competitors. My older sister got a wartime (World War I) job in Washington as a government clerk. She'd send me all kinds of things to read that I'd never seen or read before. One thing that I got involved with was Popular Mechanics. The Popular Mechanics magazine was my favorite magazine, and was then advertising a volume called The Boy Mechanic, A Thousand Things for Boys to Do. It was a fair sized tome, about the size of a Sears Roebuck catalogue. It was put together out of items from back numbers of Popular Mechanics reprinted in this volume that would be of interest to boys. My sister bought that volume for me. Pretty soon the second volume came out and we got that and finally the third volume, and we just had a hell of a lot of fun, building these various things, anything that we could.
Doel:This was you and your friend?
Yes, and my brothers, and on the other side was this boy Roy Ragsdale. He was mechanically competent and inclined. Then automobiles were coming along, and we all got interested in automobile engines and mechanics. His older brother had a book on automobiles, how they were put together and how they worked. The differential I know was a great mystery until we worked out how it behaved. Then we built — well, when I was a small kid, the family would buy a small wire-wheeled wagon you pulled around, hauled around and so on. Later on then we took these wagon wheels and rigged them up into pushmobiles, with a steering wheel on it, so somebody could ride and somebody would run along with a board or a stick behind it and push. Or if you had a hill, you'd coast down the hill, and you could steer it with this wheel. We had a cogwheel and a wooden spoke from an obsolete buggy wheel or something, a cog on the bottom of it, and a gear chain. You could turn this wheel and steer. I remember my friend Roy Ragsdale was contemptuous of that low grade of technique. The automobiles didn't do that, buggies did, so he built one of these things that had the wheels pivoted on the ends of the fixed axle, so you could turn the individual wheels the way an automobile does. He was very proud of that accomplishment. It was beyond me. I remember, he hurt my feelings once, terribly. He told me — incidentally, my only nickname was Sumpter and they abbreviated it as Sump. I'll explain that later. He said, "Sump, I'm a mechanic and you're a tinker." That hurt me. It really hurt. He was right. He wound up running a local automobile shop and tractor agency and what-not in San Saba and spent the rest of his life at it. He was a mechanic. Well, explaining that little item, the nickname.
My first name is Marion. My middle name is King. People frequently ask me where I got those names, whether they're family names, and the answer is no. Another itinerant man that came through my mother's community and lived with the family for maybe a year, doing farm work, was a Mr. King. Mr. King had been a soldier in the Civil War. He was from Kansas. But he was in the Confederate Army, in a community that was practically all anti-slavery and Northern. This was a bushwhacking area. In the history books, a great deal of local guerilla warfare, and murder went on in those frontier communities, called bushwhackers. While he was off in the Southern Army in the Civil War, his wife had died and somebody broke up her tombstone with a sledge hammer. He came back and was so infuriated over this that he learned who had done it, took his gun and went out and shot the guy. He outran the posse into Texas, and wound up with my grandfather Lee. Well, here were these tall girls growing up. He told my grandfather the institution of highest learning in that part of the country was about 15 miles away in a little town called Cherokee. That was a school that was owned and run by a German professor Francis Marion Behrens. It was called West Texas Commercial College or something of the sort. This man was the owner, proprietor and principal professor of the school. So Mr. King told my grandfather that he didn't have much money but he had enough that he could send one of the girls over to the school for a year. My mother got the scholarship and went to that school. It was the greatest event in her life. She was just utterly spellbound at this opportunity that came her way.
Hubbert:My mother was a very, very bright person, and this was her only touch of higher education. It was the greatest event in her life. So later when I came along, the first born male child, she named me after those two, Mr. King and Professor Francis Marion Behrens. (Pronounced "Barons," "Bahrons") Well, then by a logic known only to children, when we were studying history, we learned that Francis Marion and somebody or other Sumpter, the Swamp Fox, Marion the Swamp Fox — Sumpter I believe — was the Swamp Fox of the Revolutionary Days in North Carolina who harassed the British armies in the neighborhood during the Revolution. This first name of mine was never used by myself and my family; I was always called King. But the kids knew what my first name was, and then they transferred it to Sumpter. And that was the only nickname I ever had. Which they abbreviated to Sump.
Doel:Did your mother talk to you about her experience at that school?
Hubbert:Oh, yes. And another thing — I'm now going back to when I was four years old. We bought a farm again in the same general area where we later lived. It was a dry creek that went through there known as known as Burn Branch. This first one was in the lower part of that where it discharged into the Colorado River. Well, the only people in that neighborhood, pioneers in that neighborhood, were two families of Wallace brothers, and their families. They were neighbors. They were the only people who lived there. We bought a farm next to the Wallaces', and I was at that time just on the border of three or four when we moved there. My mother was shocked over the fact that here were all these Wallace children growing up, from kids my age on up to those that were getting grown now, who couldn't read and write. They were illiterate. No schools. Well, she was so incensed by that, that she went to the county seat. At that time school teachers took an examination to get a license to teach school. They had a two weeks training school, I forget what it was called, and my mother took this school, this two weeks institute. She got her teacher's license, and went back, cleaned out the old auxiliary buildings next to our house and made a school out of it. She got those kids in and began to teach them to read and write, from age 8 up to 17 or 18.
Doel:How many people?
Hubbert:A dozen or so. And there were the two Wallace families and then there was a bunch of our people, cousins or something, and they lived with the Wallaces and were being raised as part of their family, called Blair. My mother organized and taught that school for those kids. And at the same time raised her family of her own, and had another baby shortly after that.
Doel:She sounds unusually talented, to handle all that.
Hubbert:I remember one episode there. I was about four years old, and so I was on my own. There was a Wallace boy my age. He'd come down and we'd play together. And I'd poke around the farm. I remember one day that I found the family mare lying down and groaning. I went back up to the school and told Mother that Daisy, there was something wrong with her. They all went out. Then they organized the school into a veterinarian session. She made up some molasses and soda and water and got Daisy up and held her right up there and poured it down her and it worked. She recovered from the bellyache or whatever she had. Another time, when my younger brother was about two years old, he was sleeping on the bed in the living room. There was a fireplace there and some smoldering coals in the fireplace. I had a dogwood switch that somebody had brought in. I was poking it into these coals and I got smoke on the end of my stick. My mother had a quilting frame. She made quilts also. She had these quilts hung up in the quilt frame, and she could quilt an entire bedspread and did, on occasion. She pieced these quilts together and made quilts, made the children's clothes, and helped run the farm. And so there I had smoke on my stick, and I held it up to the quilt and got smoke on the quilt. Pretty soon I had the quilt on fire. Here I was, up on the bed with my little brother, the youngest. My little brother was crying, was getting smoke in his eyes, and I tried to put a quilt over him to keep smoke out of his eyes. From school somebody saw the smoke. They came charging in (Laughs) and got the burning quilt down out of the frame, put it out, and straightened things up. Well, that episode led to the next one, about this same time. I'm going back now to when I was four years old. My father was in town, having some plows sharpened in the blacksmith's shop. Here was the blacksmith, who was turning his bellows on and the flame would fly up like this (moves his hands). By God, I thought the house was on fire, and I was so frightened that I ran out the back. My father didn't notice, but missed me after a while. There I was carrying on out back on account of the house was on fire. When I found out that it wasn't, and I saw the blacksmith taking this hot iron out and laying it on there, boy, that was fascinating.
Doel:That was your first experience with smithing?
Hubbert:I was going to be a blacksmith after that. I went home and on wash day I'd get the family plowshares and put them in the fire. I probably took the temper out of several of them, and would hammer them. This was before we had the steam tractors. All we had was a horse-drawn plow. Then when these more interesting things came along, why, I was going to be a mechanic. And then I got interested in electricity. I was interested in these cogwheels and all that sort of thing, and then that was no longer of any great interest, but electricity was a mystery. How did this thing work? I knew you could get a jolt out of electricity. We had a home telephone, country telephone, and we installed that about the same time I set the house on fire. I remember it was a Saturday. I was flabbergasted when I could hear my father when he called in on the telephone. I could hear his voice, and how in the world did it come over that wire?
Doel:How did you learn about electricity?
Hubbert:Well, my friend Roy Ragsdale's older brother had been away to school for about a year. He had a textbook on physics, a high school textbook, by Carhart and Schult from the University of Michigan, I think. I borrowed this book from my friend Roy, and it had very interesting stuff on electricity, which I digested completely. And also a lot about Thomas Edison.
Doel:Of course, you had no prior background in that.
Hubbert:Oh no. Nothing except things like the telephone, and the ignition on the internal engine, the old one-cylinder engine, and later on the automobile engine and so on. No. No background whatever.
Doel:But practical experience.
Hubbert:Direct hands-on experience. The telephone, for example, you turn the crank and get shocks from the magneto.
Hubbert:Then the ignition of the automobile and what-not. That would knock hell out of you, and sooner or later somebody would do that. Earlier than that, when we were still at Fort Stockton, I think, somebody got from the Sears and Roebuck Catalogue of that date an electric shocking machine. It was supposed to be therapeutic. You could buy this thing and by adjusting it, have it run by a DC or ordinary dry cell battery like that. It had a vibrator that would make and break contact on what's called a primary and secondary. You had several adjustments on this thing, high, low, and you had metal hand things that you hold. You went from a tiny charge up — you'd set it so you just had a tiny tingle, up to where it would paralyze you. You couldn't turn loose. I saw one of those things. That was curious. But the real interest was when it came to the matter of the telephone and ignition and what-not of the engines. I digested everything on electricity that I could lay my hands on, and heard other details from my sister in Washington. She was having a great time, everything was new to her, things she'd never seen before-the Smithsonian and the museums and what not-and besides that, she was a clerk in the Signal Corps of the Army, and the officers were largely MIT graduates in electricity. That's where they were from. She wrote back about seeing all these pioneer electrical things at the Smithsonian. I remember, we carried on quite a conversation. She was my principal member of the family that I could deal with.
Doel:The one you felt closest to?
Hubbert:I had no liaison on things of this sort with my parents. This older sister didn't know much about it, but she was sympathetic to whatever I was up to. I remember telling her for God's sake to learn how these things worked, not just look at them. To her they were just a bunch of wires. There was an early telegraph or something of that sort. Oh yes.
Doel:Did she tell you how they operated?
Hubbert:No, but she was sympathetic to my interests. And incidentally, my friend Roy and I—Roy Ragsdale—who were more or less rivals in school, we were both among the top students maybe in the school.
Doel:How big was the school?
Hubbert:It was a two teacher school. They had about four grades in the upper grade room, four grades in one room. It went through the eighth grade. We were by this time in the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th grades. My sister put up a kind of a scholarship contest between us, and whoever won the best grades in school this particular year got a subscription to POPULAR MECHANICS. I think I won.
Doel:That's an interesting idea. So you got the subscription?
Hubbert:Yes. POPULAR MECHANICS MAGAZINE.
Doel:Were you already in the 8th grade by then?
Hubbert:No, I was about maybe 6th or 7th grade. At school, incidentally, the school term depended on the available money, and that fluctuated with the town economics. One school year was four months. The longest school year was seven months, during that period. The average was about six months. And what you did all the rest of your time was farm work. I practically displaced the farm hand from the age of 10. I worked with horses and plows and that kind of thing and could do a man's work. Then in the summer time you worked like hell all summer, and my father didn't have much of a sense of play. He was a workaholic. You know, you have a rainy day, wouldn't that be great to go fishing? "Boys, don't you think we ought to go down and fix that fence?"
Doel:And he won.
Hubbert:He was a killjoy. Once we did have a trip to the river to go fishing, camped out for two or three days or so.
Doel:Was your mom more of a free spirit?
Hubbert:Oh, my mother was a fun person. Yes, they were quite different personalities. My mother was a hell of a lot smarter than my father was. She was really brilliant. She was a brilliant person.
Doel:Did she encourage any particular interest that you had?
Hubbert:Not much. But they both were principal leaders in the community in supporting the schools. My father was a trustee of the school part of the time. But they would go to bat on any day in the week for good schools. Always. Still, neither of them had any significant education. Their basic education was about 5th grade. On top of that, my father had no intellectual interests outside of work. He was potentially a civil engineer, you might say. He had this experience with building earthworks and what-not.
Doel:But that's something he didn't really communicate to you?
Hubbert:Not much, no. My mother was a fine person, and always a defender of the underdog and so on among the neighborhood kids, and encouraged them. She was a good person.
Doel:How many were in your family, including your brothers and sisters?
Hubbert:Three brothers and three sisters. I had two older sisters, three younger brothers and the youngest was another sister.
Doel:One of the very interesting things that you've raised so far is that your early interests were centered on applied engineering and practical matters. Did you also have a strong interest in the sciences themselves?
Hubbert:I would say all the interests that I had were scientific interests. I was trying to understand how these things worked. That's science. Learning things I was vastly interested in. And as soon as I found out how they worked, I lost interest in them.
Doel:The principle of the thing.
Hubbert:Well, yes. I'll give you a concrete example. We had a dismantled telephone crank magneto, and what I had was the horseshoe magnet from that thing. Well, POPULAR MECHANICS had an article in there, how to build an electric motor. There were detailed instructions, using one of these big magnets like I had. You could use a magneto for a shaft. You could build a wooden block or something on this shaft, using a couple of bolts, and wrap this wire around this over the commutator and a couple of brushes. Then you hook it up to a dry cell. Well, I knew that if you passed a current through a wire and you had a bolt in it, it made an electromagnet. And if you reversed the current, it reversed the polarity of the magnet. That I already knew. Here's the magnet like this (demonstrates with his hands), and you have these pole pieces about here. If you ran a current through this, your north and south pole would be opposite here, (pointing) and your north and south pole would be opposite here. If you had the thing off center and turned it on, it would swing over to here. Well, why wouldn't it stay there on dead center? Here was this mysterious thing, the commutator — what was that for? I ended up puzzling my head over it. I never built one. But why did this thing work? Why didn't it stall once you got over there? And I puzzled and puzzled over this thing. I remember it came to me like a revelation. I was on a load of cedar posts out in the pasture one day, puzzling over it and driving along and puzzling over this thing, and all of a sudden it occurred to me what happened. When this thing swung over, instead of stopping on dead center, the brushes switched over to the other side of the commutator and reversed the current.
Hubbert:And you got repulsion till you got over here, and it did the same thing again. I don't think Archimedes could have been any happier than I was, when I made this discovery, and made this thing work. Later on, I was away at school — the same school my mother went to, which had by this time become a private junior college. There was another kid there and I was rooming at the same place. He was taking a course in physics. He was the only physics student. I proposed to him that we build an electric motor. I had this magnet. I knew how to build it. Why don't we team up and build one? And we did. We stole the dry cell out of the telephone, hooked them up, and sure enough, the thing ran!
Doel:That's interesting. Is that Weatherford Junior College, the school you're referring to?
Hubbert:Well, it was called Cherokee Junior College by this time. When it was founded by this German it was called West Texas Commercial College, I believe. And it folded soon afterwards. I went there one year, and it folded in the postwar Depression right after World War I.
Doel:Was that right at the time that you were finishing high school?
Hubbert:Well, my high school, I'll have to explain to you. I finished the 8th grade in this country school. As I say, the school term ran from a minimum of four months to a maximum of seven, average about six months. When I got out of that, I went away to this private school for a year. At the end of the year, the school folded financially. The postwar Depression of 1921. So at the end of the school year — I was the valedictorian of the class, incidentally — my teachers fudged all the credit they could possibly justify and graduated me from high school. Gave me my high school diploma. One of the credits was a year in agriculture. But I had several years in agriculture! (Laughter)
Doel:You certainly had.
Hubbert:But they gave me formal high school credit for it. Anyhow, they put together everything they could possibly justify and graduated me from high school. The principal of that school talked to me during the summer. I was stuck what to do. The family had no money, in the middle of this postwar Depression, and we'd been through three years of drought like they're having down there right now. In the middle of the war, when prices were sky high. And the only thing that saved our lives was that we got lots of rain and a good crop year in 1921, before the prices collapsed. Then they did collapse. Well, this teacher talked to me in the summer time and said that he was now the president of another junior college, Weatherford College, 30 miles west of Fort Worth. Would I come up? He'd look after my getting jobs and that kind of thing. Actually I had no money but I had a young cow, milk cow. I think I sold her to my father for $25, which was enough to get train fare for the 200 miles or so that I had to go to this school. I got there when they were remodeling the buildings, partitions were going up — it was an old school that was going to pieces, and they were rejuvenating it. I had a job as a helper all around the place during the summer. Then I was the janitor during the winter. (Laughter) The second year I was assistant librarian. I held every job in the place, just about. I got through high school, so I went to this junior college in Weatherford. Well, I was really the protegee of the president of the college.
Doel:What was his name?
Hubbert:His name was Fred G. Rand. And his wife, before marriage, had been on some kind of a small circuit of readings, elocution and what-not. She was a very lovely person. I had a very pleasant time in the school. Most of my curriculum in freshman year, why, was history, English, freshman English, rhetoric and that sort of thing, not much literature. The second year was mostly literature. Then there was mathematics. I took two full years of mathematics at that place. The mathematics teacher was very able, but a very poor teacher. He was a competent mathematician for the level he was working in, but a very poor teacher. I really didn't learn very much mathematics, although I took two years of it.
Doel:What level were you working at?
Hubbert:Well, for freshman, trigonometry, college algebra, analytical geometry and calculus. Calculus was the second year. Trigonometry, algebra, analytical geometry, first year. I had history, English, Spanish, foreign language. I took two years of Spanish, and no science at all, unfortunately. There wasn't any science in the school. Just a small school. The second year, we had a chemistry teacher, and by the grace of God, he was good. He'd been in the medical branch, driving an ambulance in France, came back and graduated from a Texas college in chemistry. But he was a very competent chemist, and so he organized this whole chem lab and taught the year of chemistry during that second year I was there. He and I became very good friends. In fact, in this dormitory I was in, we ended up as roommates. At the end of the second year, I was again completely at my rope's end, what do I do now? I had a very low regard for most of the Texas colleges. Football and oil are the principal item of the curriculum.
Doel:Were you the first person in your family to go on to college?
Hubbert:Yes. Well, I was just broke. I had no money, and as a matter of fact, I owed the dean $50 and the president $50, on two separate loans.
Doel:What were you thinking to do at that point?
Hubbert:Well, I decided that I knew I had a basic interest in science, physics and so on. But I was so fascinated in chemistry that I decided I was going to major in chemistry, if I got any place where I could. What do I do now? Where do I go? I had no regard for the University of Texas and most other Texas colleges.
Doel:Were you able to talk with the other people at the school about universities?
Hubbert:Not very much, because their knowledge was mostly local too. They were all local people. Two of the principal teachers were from SMU in Dallas. We were approaching the end of the year. Here I was assistant librarian and at night the library was closed, so it was my private study. After dinner, along about 8 o'clock in the evening, the president dropped in one evening. He said, "What do you want to do next year?" I said I didn't know, I was in a quandary. He said, "Why don't you go to the University of Chicago?" I nearly fainted. I hadn't thought of going beyond the boundaries of Texas. The problem was money. I had to go some place where I could get a job. All these little schools, whatever local jobs there were working in the restaurants and that kind of thing, were all hard to get. You stood in line for them. There just wasn't any means of supporting oneself. That was the job situation. And by God, here I've got the whole city of Chicago to get a job in!
Doel:Had he a connection with the University of Chicago?
Doel:Do you know why he recommended that school?
Hubbert:No. At that time, this school that I went to was a church school. It was Methodist, owned and run by the Methodist Church. And SMU, Southern Methodist University, the same thing. Well, in among the two or three brighter members of the faculty in this school was a great deal of interest in modern unorthodox thinking with regard to church issues and questions of religion. There was quite a controversy going on nationally between the fundamentalists and the liberals in the Protestant religion. We had a radical in Fort Worth who was a radio preacher, the beginning of that thing that we're still involved in now, the same psychology. These guys were utterly stupid but vicious type people. One of their prize hates was the University of Chicago, because the theology teachers in Chicago were on the liberal side. They had no use for them. And then there was Harry Emerson Fosdick in New York, who was the chief of the New York Cathedral or whatever it was called. He was also one of their hates. And so I had a sympathetic interest in Chicago because of this religious thing. After all I should remark that I was brought up in the same kind of country religious background. That's a major thing. I should back up and should have brought that out.
Doel:Were both your parents religiously conservative?
Hubbert:Well, we just grew up and this was just the culture of the community. My parents were members of the local Methodist Church, which was the principal country church — the only one there in fact. But in the smaller towns, they had Baptists and occasionally a Presbyterian Church, but Methodist was the dominant church in the whole community. So we were brought up in all of the church dogmas and literature, the Sunday School type of thing. Then they had these evangelistical preachers who would come around and hold a week of highly emotional preachings, saving souls, you know. I went through all of that as a kid, and I remember wishing that all this hocus pocus wasn't so. I mean, I was so brought up in it, it never occurred to me to question the authenticity of the Bible. But I found myself doing so. And one thing, I'd heard of from a cousin of hypnotism, and how these guys could put a person under a spell and they wouldn't know what they were doing. I realized that was roughly the same thing they were doing in the church. Especially these spellbinders that came in for a week.
Doel:That's very interesting.
Hubbert:They would raise them up to a great emotional state, and it was a form of hypnotism. No question about it. And earlier than that, they had outdoor camp meetings, which was a more primitive pioneer thing. People at that time just turned out the cattle and the livestock and went to camp meeting. They camped there for a week.
Hubbert:They went through all of this hocus and pocus there for a solid week. Anyhow, I found myself beginning to question. Then I went to college, and they had arrangements whereby anybody who intended to be a preacher could attend without tuition. It turned out that all of the future preachers in the school, of which there were two or three, were the dumbest men in the student body. Then my mind went back to this psychological situation, how did these guys get hooked? Well, a part of the rigamarole of these revival meetings, as they called it, one part of the dogma was that you got called to preach. The worst sin you could possibly do was to resist that call to be a missionary or something. Then they put on all the heat so that this call got very real. I knew exactly how these guys got hooked, because the weak-minded ones were the most susceptible to this. But in the English course, we were reading very fine literature, the novel and plays and poetry. Then we got to the essays. What I found was that the essay was a literary form that was going around in my brain all the time, practically. It was a natural.
Hubbert:And so came a time for an assignment to write an essay, and I just wrote one on out flat, on the fallacy of being called to preach.
Doel:That's good. Were you a freshman?
Hubbert:No, sophomore. It happened that the two principal persons intellectually on this faculty was an English teacher and a history teacher. They were close friends, and the English teacher was renting a room with the history teacher and his family. These guys could discuss things like this with each other, but they couldn't dare say them out loud because they could cause a ruckus in the community. I turned in this essay and all of a sudden I was in the inner circle.
Doel:Do you recall discussions with them?
Hubbert:Oh, I had many discussions with these guys over people, and about this controversy that was going on in the national press between the fundamentalists and the liberals in the churches. But this part was just what went on internally and I didn't do much reading of the national press. Only then perhaps I began to get aware of the magnitude of this ferment across the country. That was my first intellectual tie to the University of Chicago.
Doel:That's fascinating. What happened after you had the recommendation to the University of Chicago?
Hubbert:Well, I reached over on the shelf and pulled out the University of Chicago Catalogue, and took a look at it. The first thing I looked at was how much, what's the tuition. Sixty dollars a quarter. And the whole city of Chicago to get a job in. I said, OK, I'll go to Chicago.
Doel:Sixty dollars didn't seem an extraordinary figure to you?
Hubbert:Well, it was manageable. These present figures aren't manageable. My God, twelve or thirteen thousand dollars a year now!
Hubbert:Yes, more. Here you could go to Chicago for $180 a year tuition. The other expenses were your clothes and your room and board.
Doel:Did you know anybody at all in Chicago?
Hubbert:No. I didn't even write any letters. I just went.
Doel:You planned to be there in September?
Yes. All right. This was in May. School was out about the first of June. As I say, I had almost no money. The only clothes I had was a lightweight coat. I didn't have an overcoat or anything of that sort. My plans was that I'd go up to Oklahoma and get in on the wheat harvest. I was an experienced farmhand; threshing and all that kind of thing I knew how to do. I'd work the wheat harvest northward, Oklahoma, Kansas, to the Dakotas. Then I'd save my money, no expenses to speak of, get to Chicago in September. Those were my plans. I had enough cash to get to Oklahoma City, and as I say, I owed the president $50 and the dean $50. I got there and the wheat harvest hadn't opened yet. It was still two or three weeks off. So I went to a farm, a government-run farm labor agency. They sent me to Norman, Oklahoma, where the University of Oklahoma is now, about 20 or so miles away from Oklahoma City, to work on a farm, just as a general farmhand. I did that till the harvest opened. Then I got on a threshing crew, and we worked there until that was cleared out. Then we went on to Kingfisher, Oklahoma and threshed that out. One of the workmen there had a Model T Ford and we drove up to northern Oklahoma, looking for further work. We finally wound up in northwestern Oklahoma on the Kansas-Oklahoma boundary, and that got us into headed wheat country, not bundled wheat. That was something new. What they do is cut off about that much of the wheat stalk and stack it. Then they have shovels to handle this.
These were pronged shovels with about 12 prongs, and they will pick up more wheat than you can lift. With the bundles you could choke the thresher down. You had to feed it in a measured role or you could choke it down. The thresher would take any amount of this headed wheat you could shovel into it. The temperature — this was mid-July or early July by this time — was hotter than hell, and we were working about a twelve, thirteen hour day roughly. Sun up to sun down, sleeping in haystacks. It was a mankilling operation. The boss would sit in the shade in his car out there and once in a while come running and prod you, you weren't working hard enough. I stuck that out a few days, and I decided I'd never handle another shovel of wheat, ever. So I collected my pay and went to Kansas City. I spent a week looking for a job unsuccessfully, any kind of a labor job. I could find only one. One ad was running in the papers for an employment agency in Kansas City, Kansas, wanting workmen on the UP Railroad in western Nebraska, North Platte, Nebraska. I went over and looked this over, but I was trying to get to Chicago.
Doel:That would be going in the other direction.
Hubbert:So I went back and hunted some more and I got down to my last dollar, just about. I began to wonder, what do I do when this is gone. Maybe I'd better take that job, or in case it folds, I was trying to get a hole card. So I went over and signed up. They had three old retired passenger coaches behind a freight train full of itinerant workers, mostly men in their twenties and thirties and up to forty years old. I was the young guy of the cars, maybe. We headed out for North Platte, Nebraska. Sandwiches and coffee were served on the train occasionally. When we got to North Platte, there had been a big rainstorm and hailstorm the day before. It had washed out the main line of the two track line of the UP Railroad. Our first job was the emergency one of getting the UP Railroad back in operation.
Hubbert:We were put up in a work train, which was oh, a dozen or so cars, several bunk cars, a dining car, then several cars of work materials, rails and other equipment. We got the main line of the UP back in operation. The trains were backed up for miles in both directions; they couldn't get through. The whole UP was blocked. We finally got that fixed, got the trains running again. Then we got orders to go to Eaton Colorado, halfway between Denver and Cheyenne, on a little spur track between Denver and Cheyenne, also UP. So we went there. That was just heaven, as far as a job was concerned. I'd been in this seething hot broiling sun down in Oklahoma and Kansas. Here, it was 5000 foot elevation, cool nights, and a warm day was 90 degrees. It wasn't any hotter, and easy work. You only worked 10 hours a day and you got Sunday off. We only worked six days a week. You slept in a bunk car, and meals were served in the dining car.
Doel:It was a very new experience for you.
Hubbert:Lovely. Well, of course I was a stranger to everything we were doing, outside of handling a shovel. My principal thing was tearing up old track that had been laid down originally, light rails, 60 pound per foot rails, and putting in heavy rails, 90 pounds per foot rails. Well, this was strange to me. The lowest level job in that kind of work was what they called the bore gang. The bore gang was the gang that had to lift and haul these heavy rails around. You have tongs that grip the railhead, and come up, going out, with one man on each end of this tong. Then you have four pairs of men on each end of the rail. Your rails are 33 feet long and weight 90 pounds per foot, so they were very heavy. Most of us were green at this. You'd try to lift up. You didn't. The other guy would try to lift; he didn't lift. So we'd wind up dragging the rails. I remember the boss kind of chuckling. He said, "The damndest bore gang you ever saw." Finally, after this misery for a week or so, a big guy with a loud voice came along. He got on the bore gang too, and he and I teamed up. He said, "Kid, let's show these people something, these guys something." So he started giving orders. Of course what you need is coordination. Everybody has to work at once. So he just took charge and started giving orders in a loud voice: "Now, men, steady men, get set, heavahigh!" Everybody would snap at the same time, we would lift this thing, go up to your chest. We were a mixed gang, Negroes, Mexicans, and southeast Europeans. It was an awful conglomerate of people. After you got it up, there were only two directions to walk, walk Denver or walk Cheyenne. All right. "Walk Cheyenne." Then you get around to the place where you were going to let it down. "All right, easy men, easy down." You would have to move it up and the guy would have a little piece of wood to put in, to keep the rails separated right along. You'd move it easy up to that point. Then you'd go back for the next one. We got to be a very fine disciplined bore gang. We got all that work done, and the rails laid out. Then there was the matter of driving spikes. That scared hell out of me, because I saw two of these experienced guys drive spikes. You have a spike hammer with a handle about this long. It weighs about 80 pounds or so. You have to hit a small — and you've got a small surface, quarter sized, at one end of it, and about a half a dollar size at the other end. You're hitting a spike about so big. These guys were swinging it over like this, and I had visions of tearing up the railroad track and missing the spike and getting fired. I did everything I could find to keep off that work, until I finally had to do it.
Doel:But you had to?
Hubbert:Oh yes. Well, we usually worked in pairs. Sometimes you drive the same or sometimes each man drives his own spike. You get hollered at if you drive your own spike. Well, I grew up handling an axe, so I found out it didn't take very long to feel completely at home with this spike maul. You broke into a very nice rhythm. You'd reach over, both of you, pick up a spike, and just lightly tap it. That would set it. Then without breaking your rhythm, you back off and over, wham. It comes over. About three of those and she's down. You move up, do the same thing at the next one. But it gets to be a timed rhythm. You can do that ten hours a day and still feel good.
Hubbert:Well, I actually got fat. I weighed 180 pounds when I got off the job. It was great, healthful outdoor exercise.
Doel:Did you stay in that part of Colorado for the rest of the summer?
Hubbert:We were up and down. Our main quarters were Eaton but we worked the small towns up and down the track there for several miles in each direction. We laid the side tracks in all these towns. Just about the end of August, we were transferred to Julesberg Colorado, which is the northeastern corner of Colorado. This was moving back slightly towards Chicago. (Laughter) There were two events during that couple of weeks or week or so I was in Julesberg. One was the Japanese earthquake. The other was the Dempsey-Firpo fight. Those things happened during that little spell I was in Julesberg, because I remember that was a great event to associate with the location.
Doel:How much interest did you have in the Japanese earthquake?
Hubbert:Well, nothing outside of the usual interest.
Hubbert:Curiosity, the destruction that went on. But no technical knowledge concerning it.
Doel:Had you developed an interest in geology by that point?
Hubbert:No. I'll have to back up. That's another thing I have to back up on. Why don't we preserve this thing for Chicago.
Doel:That sounds appropriate.
Hubbert:And pick up the geological interest and go back to the beginnings on that. I did get to Chicago the 15th of September. I expected school to open about that date. Oh yes, after I decided to go to Chicago, my chemistry teacher decided he'd go too.
Hubbert:The difference was that he had some money and I didn't. So we went different routes and then we would meet at the university in the fall.
Doel:He was planning on getting a graduate degree?
Hubbert:He was going to do graduate work, yes. So I took the train in to Chicago, and arrived there at about 7 or 8 o'clock in the morning, early in the morning. First thing I did was go down to the university, check with the registration and find out what his address was and find my friend.
Doel:What was his name?
Hubbert:His name was Kenneth Luechauer. There would have been an umlaut u. Luchauer I guess it is; he changed it. Kenneth Luchauer. He was German, a Texas German. I went to the university and found out it didn't open for two weeks yet, not till the 1st of October. There was no way of locating my friend even if he was there. The next thing on my agenda was to get a job. I got the newspaper and read the want ads, and started out to look — to job hunt. So I went, 12, 1 o'clock, I was in downtown Chicago — are you acquainted with Chicago?
Hubbert:Well, I was in the Loop on State Street, in the middle of the Loop, going down the sidewalk, when I met my friend! (Laughter) Out of the whole city of Chicago. He had fallen in with a bunch of medical students who, the lot of them, had rented rooms in a private house with a woman who had a small daughter who ran this one floor of the building and rented rooms then to these medical students. My friend had fallen in with those people, got acquainted with them, and had moved in. They were all teamed up, and he was with them. He invited me to come in as his roommate, and of course I did. That was a few blocks away from the university. I then went down to the university, and applied for registration. For the money, I don't know whether I did that immediately or a little later. I don't recall. Anyhow, at the university, when they looked my credentials over, there was considerable misgivings: this high school credit and courses from Weatherford College and so on. Essentially they took most of my college credits and used them as entrance credits in lieu of high school. I think I wound up with five college credits out of two years. The two years would have been about 20 credits or so, 15 or 20. What I had was about a half a year of college allowed. The provision was that if I didn't flunk out, they would reconsider after a year or so.
Doel:Re-evaluate the amount of credit.
Hubbert:Yes. They would reconsider the earlier college credits that they had disallowed if I didn't flunk out of the University of Chicago. Again, I couldn't start immediately because I didn't have the money. I had tuition for one quarter but I didn't have it for the next quarter. I was going to have to have enough money for the second quarter, or to finish out the year, really, before I entered. I had to make enough money to cover the tuition for two quarters. The plan was that I wouldn't try to enter until the 1st of January. The first quarter ran up to Christmas. The second quarter was Christmas to March, then March to late June. On the job hunting thing, the first place I went to reading the ads was to answer the ad for Western Electric. In fact, they offered me a job. Then they gave me the medical exam. Well, I was strong as an ox from that summer I'd just been through. I took the medical exam, and dammit they flunked me on the grounds of potential hernia. Endronal hernia. I'd never heard of such a thing before. But they found a little bulge there when I gripped down and they turned me down. If I'd known that was a possibility, I wouldn't have used all my strength. But I turned around again and applied to Bell Lab, Bell Telephone. This time I was a little more cautious in my medical exam and I passed it. So I became a telephone installer.
Hubbert:That was my first job in Chicago. My little knowledge of electricity got me that job. I installed telephones in the poorer parts of southwestern Chicago.
Doel:This started during the first month of your time there?
Hubbert:This would have been the first quarter, the fall quarter. But it only paid $85 a month. I began to realize that I wasn't going to have enough money left over to make this deadline for the 1st of January. Well some of my friends among this group of medical students were expert job hunters. One guy in particular found jobs for everybody else all over the place. Among other things, they were table waiters in the local restaurant down half a block away on [unintelligible] Street. They got me a job at the restaurant also. Here I was working telephones — now, wait a minute, another step. I was a telephone installer for $85 a month but I wasn't making enough money. I had to buy an overcoat. I had to get myself some winter clothes. And I just wasn't going to have enough money for the tuition. So I ran into another boy who was a native Chicagoan and grew up as a street kid. He knew about the post office, that you could apply for a job as a postal clerk, and that paid $115 a month. Under his guidance I applied for that and got it. But the hours were from 4 in the afternoon till midnight. Actually it was 12:30, I believe, when we got off. Then I had a streetcar ride home, which was about an hour. As long as that was the only job, I was OK, but I still wasn't earning enough. I gave up the telephone job, but I still wasn't. I didn't get this transfer until somewhere around mid-November or 1st of December or so. Then these guys got me a job waiting tables in this restaurant where two or three of the others were. That was 7 o'clock in the morning to 11, I believe. Here I was getting home from the post office at 12:30 and getting four or five hours sleep and then picking up this 7 o'clock job at the restaurant. Then the post office put us on four hours overtime. Christmas rush. I was working round the clock.
Doel:How did you manage that?
Hubbert:It nearly killed me. But I hung on until I had the right amount of money. Then I quit the post office, kept the restaurant, and did start school the 1st of January.
Doel:That's quite an achievement.
Hubbert:And I continued to work at the restaurant, at least the winter quarter. I don't remember whether it was spring also or not.
Doel:What courses were you taking?
Hubbert:Well, my friend that I met among the medical students said, "Well, look, you've got to take a foreign language." I didn't have a foreign language. "You have to, and it had better be German, because scientific literature is mostly in German, at least that's the important foreign language. You'd better just make up your mind to take German." I did. I signed up for German, and I knew my mathematics wasn't good, because the teacher I'd had before wasn't any good. He knew mathematics but he was a hell of a teacher. I think I signed up for college mathematics, trigonometry. I took all my college math over, all of it, because I knew it wasn't good enough. Those were the only two courses. Three courses is a normal load at Chicago because they ran five hours a week. Since three courses is the normal schedule, I took two. Then come spring, I must have continued mathematics and German. Whether I took anything else I don't know. By summer, I got a job with Standard Oil Company of Illinois. I was helping run a service station within walking distance of where I lived, about a mile across the park over to the station. That was like a vacation. It paid even better, and nice open air work, pleasant walk. These guys and I—they got interested in playing some golf. There was a public golf course out in the park. So we bought a minimum number of clubs at least and went out and played golf in our spare time. As far as I was concerned, it was strictly for recuperation from the hell of a winter I'd been through which nearly killed me. That summer was really a kind of a recuperation affair, and saving more money for school time.
Doel:Do you recall at that time what you were thinking you'd do when you had your undergraduate degree from Chicago?
Hubbert:Well, I was going to major in chemistry. I don't know, maybe I started in on chemistry in that second quarter. I don't remember. But what developed was that the long hours in the chem lab were incompatible with the hours I had to work for sustenance. I was working a four hour day even after I got through with this preliminary emergency. And there just wasn't enough time to take a whole lot of chem labs and do the table waiting and other menial chores that I had to do to make a living. So I had to table chemistry. As I say, I had intended to major in chemistry when I went there. Up to that time my interests were very diffuse, and I had a very broad interest. I was interested in forestry, for one thing. I was interested in physics, mathematical, of course. And so it never occurred to me to major in anything. I was actually up there for an education. Then I got called up by the dean one day who said, "You haven't declared your major." And I said, "I don't want to major in anything." "Oh, but you've got to. The university rules require it. Not only that, but you have to have a minor." So I said, "Well, I may consider it." I got the university catalogue and I studied it very carefully.
Doel:This was the beginning of your junior year, that is, your second year at Chicago?
Hubbert:This is my second year. Second year, about. I think early in second year. So I studied it very carefully, to see what I could major in that would interfere the least with what I was interested in doing anyway. I found a provision in the catalogue for a joint major in geology and physics. Well, I should remark that I had taken Geology. Maybe that was the course I took in the second quarter. I believe it was. First year.
Hubbert:I signed up for a course in geology. I was interested, and the reason I was interested in geology at this time was for the history. After all, I know Biblical history. I'd learned that geologists had a different chronology and I wanted to know about it.
Doel:That's an interesting way of approaching the subject.
Hubbert:So I signed up for this geology course, largely to offset the Biblical upbringing that I had in past history.
Hubbert:And I was disappointed in it because it wasn't historical geology. It was about the contemporary events that were going on on the earth, rather than the historical.
Doel:Do you recall who taught that course?
Hubbert:Yes. It was a graduate student who was finishing his Ph.D. that quarter by the name of Frank Melton from Oklahoma. I went into this course with a certain amount of skepticism when I found out it wasn't a history course. I grew up in good geological country and I knew quite a lot about rocks and such things.
Doel:How did you get your background in geology?
Hubbert:I had very little knowledge of geology per se, but I had a lot of knowledge about geological phenomena. Anyhow, what I discovered was that this guy really did know what he was talking about. And so did the textbook. Because I had a lot of first-hand knowledge. So that was my first course in geology. After that, the second course was historical. This was long about the time that second year that I got called up about majoring in something. I got this catalogue, went over it, and I found a provision for a joint major in geology and physics. Nobody had ever exercised that major, so far as I know. But it covered that range that I wanted, the two things I was interested in. Then the almost essential minor would be mathematics. Outside of that I would free lance. So that's what I signed up for. And it had the breadth that this teacher, Frank Melton, had encouraged also of getting mathematics and physics as a background for geology.
Doel:Was that unusual among the geology instructors, that he encouraged you to take mathematics and physics?
Hubbert:Well, this one teacher had done so. But no one else. I picked this out as covering my own range of interests in related subjects. It turned out to be a very fortunate choice, because it had the breadth that I wanted, and it gave me status in two ranking departments simultaneously. I continued the same thing in graduate work.
Doel:Before we go on to your graduate years, do you recall any of the undergraduate classes that were particular memorable to you, either in physics, mathematics, or geology?
Hubbert:Well, several were. In geology, after the first two courses, which were routine, there were standard basic courses everybody had to take.
Doel:Descriptive geology and historical geology.
Hubbert:Yes. Basic. Following that, at the end of that second year, that's where I got caught on the having to major in something. The minute I did that, that I turned on to this curricular. Then I immediately had an advisor in geology. So I went over to see this faculty advisor, a man by the name of J. Harlan Bretz. And some of my fellow students said, "Oh, he's a terrible person, too bad you have to put up with him." Well, I hadn't committed any crime I knew of. I went over with no fear and trepidation, and he was perfectly straightforward, a man about 40 years old. I didn't see anything wrong with him. He said, he started marking down in my book the courses I'd have to take. One I'd have to take almost immediately was a field course, and that would be up in Baraboo, Wisconsin in September of that next summer. The next summer was coming up right away. Well, that jolted me, because I was short on money. I had a summer job as a camp cook on an archeological expedition digging Indian mounds up on the Fox River in Wisconsin. That would only last about half the summer. Then this fall course was thrown at me, and I needed tuition for that and expenses. He said, "Well, do you drive?" I said, "Yes." He needed somebody to drive the Rill(?) station wagon, which was a kind of a bus. This field course was limited to 12 students, so the station wagon would carry that entire contingent of 12 students and the professor on various trips that were beyond walking distance. Well, would I drive the Rill [unclear] station wagon from Chicago up to Baraboo. That was a godsend, for otherwise I'd have to buy train fare. So I drove it up, and met him up there. He'd been on another field trip out to the Washington area, and he'd meet us at the appointed time, 1st of September, in this camp site on Lake Baraboo, Wisconsin. This course was one of the major intellectual experiences of my life. I remember asking him, was there anything I could read? I was going to be out in this camp, I'd have a little bit of time for maybe reading if I could take something along to read on this area. He said, "Not a thing. Nothing."
Doel:That you would have so much to do?
Hubbert:No. Another reason. He didn't want any reading done. We would tackle this thing cold, as if we really were the first people that ever saw the area. We had no prior information about it, good or bad. We were to find out by ourselves what the situation was.
Doel:Was Bretz the instructor as well?
He was the teacher. Well, we got up there, and we established camp. We were living in tents. Incidentally, there was a lake there, Lake Baraboo, about a mile long and half a mile wide. There was also a canyon, between two 500 foot cliffs of quartzite. Well, on our first day out, we took a walk along the Milwaukee railroad. A two-track railroad came through this canyon, along between the canyon wall and the lake. We walked along the railroad track and came to a slab of solid rock on the side. We stopped, and he started quizzing us: what kind of rock was this. Well, somebody said it was granite, maybe. Well, that didn't quite fit. What for, what's the evidence? And we batted it around for a while with his quizzing, and finally concluded that it was a bedded rock and that it was quartzite, which is a consolidated sandstone, solid quartz, with all the forespace filled with quartz also. And he said, "Well, if we were the first people here who'd seen this, we'd have the privilege of naming it, but since other people have been here ahead of us, why, we'll have to accept their name, and they have already named it, it's the Baraboo quartzite." There was that name. We went on around and then we climbed up a slope on up to the top of the cliff. Along the way up there was some sandstone outcrop on the side, and that was duly observed, horizontally embedded. We got up on top and we were on this solid quartzite again.