High On Helium
In May 1903, residents of Dexter, Kansas, in Cowley County southeast of Wichita, were thrust into fits of sheer jubilation after a newly drilled well started spewing forth natural gas at the rate of 9 million cubic feet per day before it could be capped.
With the promise of cheap fuel and lucrative industries coming to town firmly in mind, the people sprang into action, planning to celebrate the discovery of this “howling gasser” with games, speeches, music and a lighting ceremony that promised residents “a great pillar of flame” that would “light the entire countryside for a day and a night.” Yet when the time came to light the well, the gas refused to burn. Mystification and dejection ensued.
Word quickly spread across the state, piquing the interest of KU geology professor Erasmus Haworth, who brought samples of the curiously nonflammable “Dexter gas” back to Chemistry Hall (now known as Bailey Hall) at the University of Kansas. There, two KU chemistry professors, Hamilton P. Cady (1903) and David F. McFarland (1900, ’01), began two years of extensive research and analysis of the strange gas.
The culmination of their work occurred on December 7, 1905, with a truly momentous discovery. The gas contained helium and, in time, the effects of isolating and extracting helium from natural gas would come to spawn some of the most advanced modern industries and technologies and would place KU and the Bailey Hall chemists in the vanguard of American science.
Using an air compressor and liquefier that the University had acquired in 1903 – the only one, incidentally, west of the Mississippi – Cady and McFarland were able to discover that the reason the gas would not burn was because it contained only 15 percent methane, which was rendered nonflammable by the presence of 72 percent nitrogen. They also found, to their initial puzzlement, that the gas contained 12 percent of what they called an “inert residue.” Eventually, however, Cady and McFarland were able to identify among this residue a 1.84 percent presence of helium, an amazing discovery since, before then, the world scientific community had assumed that helium was present only in the Sun and in trace amounts of a mineral called clevite.
After expanding their research to other wells throughout Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma, the scientists, by 1906, were able to report that they had “a very unusual opportunity for obtaining helium in practically unlimited quantities” considering how plentiful it apparently was in the Great Plains. According to a story written by the American Chemical Society, when Cady and McFarland “published their complete findings in November 1907,” they asserted that “their work ‘assures the fact that helium is no longer a rare element, but a common element, existing in goodly quantity for uses that are yet to be found for it.’”
“At the time, they just shrugged it off because they didn’t know of any use for helium,” said Grover W. Everett Jr., emeritus professor of chemistry at KU, to the Kansas City Star on the occasion of Bailey’s National Chemical Landmark award. “It was a number of years before its importance was realized.” For years, the United States’ entire supply of helium existed in three glass tubes and gathered dust on shelves in Bailey Hall.
But beginning in 1917, due to the increasing employment of lighter-than-air crafts in World War I, the American government sponsored extensive research into the possibility of using helium to keep these airships aloft. And while nonflammable helium-filled blimps (as opposed to the flammable hydrogen-filled dirigibles such as the Hindenburg) were not ready to be used in WWI, they proved vital in the Second World War, as the US Navy used them extensively as patrol craft equipped with listening devices to detect German submarines and steer US supply and troop ships away from potential underwater dangers. Nowadays, helium is an essential element in low-temperature research, arc welding, lasers, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology; and for its importance in nuclear reactors and ballistic missiles, helium is also considered a national strategic reserve material.
As for professors Cady and McFarland, they both went on to distinguished scientific careers following their groundbreaking work in extracting helium from natural gas. Cady stayed at KU, becoming the chairman of the Department of Chemistry in 1920 (serving until 1940) after Dr. E.H.S. Bailey stepped down and assumed part-time professorial status. In 1910, McFarland took a position as associate professor of applied chemistry at the University of Illinois, then moved in 1920 to Pennsylvania State University where, until 1945, he served as professor and head of the Department of Metallurgy.
It was their work with helium, though, for which the scientific community best remembers them. And Bailey Hall, the site of their achievement, has its share of glory as well. On April 15, 2000, a plaque from the American Chemical Society naming the building a National Chemical Historical Landmark was formally unveiled. It graces Bailey’s interior and intends to “remind chemists, chemical engineers, students, educators, historians, and travelers of an inspiring heritage that illuminates both where we have been and where we might go when traveling the diverse paths to discovery.”
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas