Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

KARCHER, JOHN (1894-1978)

John Clarence Karcher, inventor of the reflection seismograph, was born in Dale, Indiana, on April 15, 1894, to Leo and Mary Madlon Karcher and was raised on a farm near Hennessey, Oklahoma. After graduating from Hennessey High School in 1912, he attended the University of Oklahoma, where he received bachelor's degrees in physics and in electrical engineering in 1916. From Oklahoma he went to the University of Pennsylvania to pursue graduate degrees, completing his doctorate in 1918.

From 1917 onward John Karcher combined his major area of study, physics, with geology, due perhaps to his acquaintance with geologists while at Oklahoma. During World War I, he collaborated with the U.S. navy in trying to develop a method of locating German artillery batteries by tracking the sound and seismic waves that their firing produced. In the process, he was inspired to invent an instrument that could map subsurface geologic structures by measuring blast-induced vertical vibrations in the earth. He subsequently designed, built, and patented the reflection seismograph, or at least an American version of that tool, now an essential aspect of "prospecting" for petroleum reservoirs.

In June 1921 Karcher, several University of Oklahoma professors, and three Oklahoma City oilmen successfully tested the reflection seismograph north of Oklahoma City. In 1925 Karcher combined with Everette L. DeGolyer of Amerada Petroleum Corporation to form Geophysical Research Corporation. For the next few years their crews prospected around Seminole, Oklahoma, and finally identified a structure likely to contain oil. There, in December 1928, Amerada successfully activated the world's first oil well located by reflection seismography.

Karcher's career took off in the late 1920s, when he went into the petroleum production business. His companies, among them Geophysical Service Incorporated (which later was sold and renamed Texas Instruments, Incorporated), Coronado Corporation, Las Tecas Petroleum Company, and Concho Petroleum Company, prospected for oil, drilled the wells, and marketed the product. Karcher received the Anthony F. Lucas Gold Medal, given by the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers, for developing the seismograph. John Clarence Karcher died in Dallas, Texas, on July 13, 1978.

Dianna Everett Oklahoma Historical Society

Green, Cecil H. "John Clarence Karcher, 1894–1978, Father of the Reflection Seismograph." Geophysics 178 (1979): 1018–21.

Perdue, Richard M. "John Clarence Karcher." In The New Handbook of Texas, edited by Ron Tyler et al., 3: 1033. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1996.

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