Karcher, John Clarence (1894–1978)

By: Richard M. Perdue

Type: Biography

Published: March 1, 1995

Updated: May 19, 2021

John Clarence (Karch) Karcher, geophysicist, was born in Dale, Indiana, on April 15, 1894, the son of Leo and Mary (Madlon) Karcher. When he was five the family moved to a farming community near Hennessey, Oklahoma Territory, where he earned a high school diploma in 1912. At the University of Oklahoma he received both an E.E. degree and a B.S. degree in physics in 1916 and was at the head of his class. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa when the university was granted a chapter in 1918. He married Lydia Kilborn on October 16, 1920, and they had two children. After college, Karcher accepted the Tyndal Fellowship in Physics at the University of Pennsylvania and began his advanced studies in September 1916. For his Ph.D. thesis he studied X-ray emissions, but he also continued to pursue his interest in geophysical theories. He was encouraged to continue research in this area by Johan August Udden, professor of geology at the University of Texas, and D. W. Ohern, professor of geology, and W. P. Haseman, professor of physics (both at the University of Oklahoma). Karcher thought it would be possible to vibrate the earth's surface and thereby determine the depth of underlying strata by precisely recording and timing the returning waves of energy.

His graduate studies were interrupted by World War I and his assignment by the United States Bureau of Standards to locate heavy artillery batteries in France by studying sound waves the guns generated in the air. He noted an unexpected event in his research and switched his concentration to seismic waves in the earth. Eventually he invented and commercialized the reflection seismograph, the means by which many of the world's existing oil reserves have been discovered. In 1919 he applied for patents in reflection seismography. While he completed his doctorate, his former professors Ohern and Haseman organized Geological Engineering Company, the first company to commercialize the concept. On June 4, 1921, in the words engraved on a monument near Oklahoma City, they "proved the validity of the reflection seismograph as a useful tool in the search for oil."

But within three months, discovery of new wells gushing oil for as little as fifteen cents a barrel signaled that the market could not afford a new oil-finding technology. Karcher therefore resumed his work with the Bureau of Standards, then joined Western Electric Company to do research on ocean-bottom telegraph cable. The industrial expansion after World War I, however, produced new demands for oil and gas that lucky finds by wildcatters could not satiate. By 1925 the price of oil had crept back to more than three dollars a barrel and thus generated a market for more scientific techniques of exploration. When Everette Lee DeGolyer of Dallas learned of Karcher's 1921 experiments with the seismograph he arranged a meeting in New York City that culminated in the organization of Geophysical Research Corporation as a subsidiary of Amerada. Karcher was made vice president and given a 15 percent stock interest and a $300,000 research fund. One of his first actions after establishing headquarters in Bloomfield, New Jersey, was to hire a young Columbia University graduate student, Eugene B. McDermott, who had been his associate at Western Electric.

Relatively shallow salt domes could be located successfully with a refraction technique, and this constituted most of the firm's activity in its early years. In December 1928, however, Amerada's drill penetrated the Viola limestone in the Seminole, Oklahoma, area and produced the first oil well in history to be drilled in a structure found by a reflection seismograph. This discovery convinced Karcher and McDermott that reflection crews would be in growing demand. Accordingly, with DeGolyer's backing, they resigned from Geophysical Research Corporation and in May 1930 set up the world's first independent company to provide such services-Geophysical Service. They established operating headquarters in Dallas and a laboratory in Newark, managed by J. Erik Jonsson, a former Alcoa sales engineer. One crew chief who began a period of on-the-job training was Cecil H. Green, a future founder of Texas Instruments. Karcher led the company to acquire ownership of producing fields; the company therefore decided in 1938 to separate production from exploration. Two subsidiaries resulted: a production subsidiary, the Coronado Corporation, headed by Karcher, and Geophysical Service, Incorporated, managed by McDermott. Beginning in 1941, Karcher pursued his growing interest in organizing additional companies to find and produce oil. This resulted in the purchase of Coronado by Standard of Indiana (Stanolind) and the purchase of Geophysical Service, Incorporated, by Erik Jonsson, Cecil H. Green, Eugene McDermott, and H. Bates Peacock. In 1951 the manufacturing and the geophysical exploration services of GSI were given separate business structures. The laboratory and manufacturing division of GSI became Texas Instruments, Incorporated.

Karcher served as president and general manager of Coronado Corporation from 1939 to 1941, as chairman of the board of Las Tecas Petroleum Company from 1941 to 1945, and as president and chairman of the board of Comanche Corporation from 1945 to 1950. He was president of Concho Petroleum Company from 1950 until the time of his death. In 1976 Karcher was given the Anthony F. Lucas Gold Medal by the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers for the development of the reflection seismograph. Among his professional and academic honors, he served as president of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists and was a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science and in the American Physical Society. He was also a charter member of the Dallas Petroleum Club. Karcher was a member of Highland Park Presbyterian Church. His career was well documented in a memorial issue of Geophysics magazine published in June 1979. That journal records that the monument near Oklahoma City, placed in 1971 by the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the first successful field tests of the reflection seismograph, which enabled the discovery of "billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of gas" and "allow[ed] our nation to pass from a horse and coal economy to an industrial petroleum economy." Karcher died in Dallas on July 13, 1978.

American Men and Women of Science, 1976. Lon Tinkle, Mr. De: A Biography of Everette Lee DeGolyer (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970).

  • Oil and Gas Industry
  • Science
  • Geologists and Geophysicists
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Richard M. Perdue, “Karcher, John Clarence,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 19, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/karcher-john-clarence.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

March 1, 1995
May 19, 2021

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