Technology: From Model T’s to the Hall of Fame

At 95 and still going strong, Allan R. Nelson has a lifetime of engineering ingenuity.

By Steven Berg, VP Operations

Allan R. Nelson was born in Bassano, Alberta in 1922 and raised on a large stock farm a few kilometres east in Cluny, Alberta. As he and his brother David attended school in southern Alberta, they would assemble Model T Ford cars from parts scavenged from local junk yards. This childhood experience gave Allan a chance to learn manufacturing and mechanical skills, as well as an appreciation for machinery design.

He entered McGill University to study Mechanical Engineering and upon graduation in 1948 he worked for one year at Dominion Engineering Works Paper Machinery Division, Lachine, Quebec as a mechanical draftsman. This allowed him to visit a very large machine shop and specialty manufacturing plant, where there was much to observe and learn.

Returning to Alberta in 1950, Allan went to work at Barber Machinery Ltd. in Edmonton, a machine and repair shop which was a branch of the Calgary-based plant. This was a new shop that catered to drilling and service rigs which were going up at a record pace in the Leduc area. The shop’s owner, Earl Griffith, and hand-foreman Henry Gilbertson, both men of great experience, were patient with Allan, stopping him before he made inexperienced mistakes and pushed him forward as he was learning the industry, and learning from each of the skilled machinists, welders and mechanics.

Allan was fortunate to come into the industry as a young enthusiastic engineer able to grow with the industry’s superintendents, drillers, and rig hands, no matter how humble, often found an easier way to do a difficult task. They were engineers able to grow with the industry, from jaw clutches to current technology with variable frequency AC drives and electronic control. Each of the engineers and working people in the industry has a small part to play in the development in the industry as it is today.

Allan recalls an incident where he played a small role in influencing industry policy:  “There had been several fatalities that had been blamed on locally made parts and there was a strong lobby to the Alberta Government to force owners of equipment to only use parts from the original equipment manufacturers. This was done in the name of safety. At a public meeting in Nisku on this question as a member of the audience I spoke strongly against this request. I agreed that safety was paramount, but this would place a heavy burden on the industry due to first availability of parts and costs from a single source. I also pointed out that Alberta was developing a strong secondary industry that was capable of producing quality products. I also pointed out that Alberta had developed a strong group of Professional Engineers capable of assuring quality safe products. I suggested that the local manufacturers combined with the certification by a Professional Engineer skilled in the art would produce an equivalent part to the manufacturers. After a number of meetings and deliberations by EUB, Occupational Health and Safety, and industry this type of format was adopted. This offered the industry a choice and prompted manufacturers to produce some of their product in Canada and supported many strong Canadian industries.”

In the early 1950s, it was with great courage, very little money, and no business sense that he and Tommy Hallet bought a hollow spindle lathe and shared a shop in Stettler, Alberta. “It took a year to run out of money and many years to pay the debts.”

Allan moved to Edmonton after that and started working for Curtis Hoover Industries. At this time, he met and married Margaret Palmer, his wonderful wife and life-long partner of 65 years and still going strong. Margaret developed a keen business sense and managed the company’s finances until retirement in 2014 at the age of 83. Their four children, Anthony, Sharon, Leslie and Randall, all learned the value of hard work and have all done very well in their chosen careers.

Allan worked at Curtis Hoover Industries from 1952 until 1966. Mr. Hoover was a self-made man who invented a number of machines — including his own airplane and engine — and built them into products which he manufactured and sold. Curtis Hoover was killed in an automobile accident in 1953 but Allan continued to work for Mrs. Hoover for a short time after his death. Mrs. Hoover had been working with her husband since they had started and knew how to run a business. Allan contends that she was an extremely fine person and that he was fortunate to work with her.

Hoover’s main operation was threading AP drilling string tool joints. During this period, Allan developed a drill collar straightener that could straighten up to 11-inch diameter by 30 ft. long drill collars. Handling the drill collars, drill pipe tubing and casing was always a challenge. They were involved in a wide range of mud pump and drawworks repair and overhaul, as well as the building and repairing of masts and substructures. Curtis Hoover established a build-up process to rebuild flash welded tool joints and then recut the threads.

No drawworks! Allan R. Nelson from Edmonton, along with Mark Widney, designed and built this custom service rig back in the early 1970s. It was one of many engineering triumphs conceived and built with Allan’s direction.

After Curtis passed away, Allan and Mrs. Hoover undertook to build a flash welder that allowed them to cut tool joints that were worn out and manufacture replacement joints, and weld them to the salvaged tubes that still had life left. Warren Hoover also purchased new tubes from steel mills in Japan which allowed the Canadian firm to manufacture new drill pipe. This was a major undertaking for all Canadian companies. And they had many struggles with the financing of the project. At one point, Allan had located a larger flash welder and an induction heating unit in the U.S. military surplus that he modified to flash weld drill pipe. This type of an operation was difficult to finance as the Canadian banks did not believe that Canadians were capable of developing new products without foreign monies and technology.

In the late 1950s, Allan started a shop in Fort St. John B.C. with Hal Seitz, who was Hoover’s lead machinist in Edmonton. They built the shop during a –59ºC winter assembling a structure that they had found. Allan admits that Seitz did a great job and it was through his effort that they built a strong business. Both Mrs. Hoover and Allan spent a lot of time in Fort St. John. They were able to locate a large trepanning lathe which would allow the manufacturing of drill collars from steel bar. They eventually sold this machine to Atlas Steel Well in Ontario which manufactured the 30-foot bar stock. Mrs. Hoover had great instincts and worked hard to continue Curtis’s vision.

By 1966, Mrs. Hoover’s son, Warren, had taken over much of her work duties so Allan left to start his own engineering consulting business, which is still operating to this day.

Although Allan is very well established and greatly respected in the industry, starting a new business is always difficult. He admits that the first few years were actually very difficult; Margaret went to work at Woodward’s to feed the family. Allan had an excellent knowledge of the drilling and service industries, as well as wire with the insurance industry.

Rig moving was a major industry and there were many claims. Allan started working with insurance adjusters on rig claims. Mr. Dick Hicks of James Taylor Adjusters taught him that an insurance policy was a contract and your job was to see that the claim settlement was to meet the terms of the contract, no more and no less. All proper claim settlements did not mean that everyone always came away happy. It was Allan’s job as a consultant to see that the insurance company did not pay more than was necessary, but the insured was paid everything that was owed to them even if they did not understand that they were entitled to it. Allan made it a strict rule to do all insurance work on this basis and he became trusted by both sides of the claims because of it. For many years he worked for both the insured and the insurer.

Allan worked for a wide range of industries, construction, forestry and mining. This meant a lot of travel and many long freezing days of flying through western Canada. Greg Cassidy worked with him for 12 years but eventually left to start his own business building rigs. During this period they designed a number of rigs, both drilling and service rigs. There were a number of changes in technology in both engineering and drilling structure, which developed the need for more precise rating of the equipment. The downhole operations were more precise, which required better ratings and operation of the surface equipment. The CAODC worked with EUB and Occupational Health and Safety to establish rating and certification systems for the industry. All phases of engineering were critical and formed the basis for the codes and practices.

The Alberta Government through EUB, Occupational Health and Safety wisely decided to work with industries through the CAODC to establish a series of recommended practices, which were then treated as requirements that industries were obligated to follow. This allowed flexibility for changes without lengthy legislation. Allan’s consulting business continued to evolve and began doing more finite element analysis specializing on the rig centre section and pipe handling systems. Allan is frequently called as an expert witness in a courts of law and does extensive work with lawyers on items related to the oil industry.

In his childhood, Allan developed osteomyelitis, a rare but serious infection in his right leg bone which he has endured all his life. As a life-long problem-solver, he doesn’t allow it to prevent him from moving forward with his life. He gets around using a pair of crutches that he himself built!

Allan R. Nelson was inducted into the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame in 2014.