Percussion drilling, first with spring poles, then with cable tool rigs, was prevalent into the late 1880's. Two brothers from South Dakota, water well drillers they were, decided that rotating pipe had definite advantages over banging chisels downhole, particularly in unconsolidated sands. These two fellas developed the first rotary table and by 1896 the rotary table was used in the first commercial oil wells drilled in Corsicana Field, Navarro County, Texas. Tapered chisels at the bottom of the drill pipe worked pretty efficiently when rotated, but cuttings from wells still had to be bailed out of the hole.
Captain Anthony Lucas, of Spindletop fame, took to experimenting with crude fan, or fish tail bits, instead of chisels, and rates of penetration in sand/shale sequences common to the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coasts. Fish tail bits could be heat sharpened, or redressed on location, some like cable tool chisels, and did OK even in hard cap rocks and/or lignite streaks.
Left, Spindletop era fish tail bit, courtesy Bob Bullock Museum of Texas History, Austin
In spite of rotary table success and an increase in drilling rates and hole stability, rotating pipe took a full decade to really catch hold, mostly because it was hard to find cable tool drillers that would "convert." Some likened the self-inflicted rivalry between cable tool drillers and rotary table drillers as something akin to cattle ranchers and sheep herders. Many a fierce fist fight broke out between the two entities in local beer joints.
Early rotary tables were indeed a pain in the ass. They were big bulky things like the one on the right (with a giant fish tail bit, by the way) as the were designed to clamp around drill pipe. Rotary table clamps. or locking screws acted as slips to hold the drill string while another joint of drill pipe was added, or screwed into the drill string, the table screws backed off and re-tightened after the connection was made.
Two brothers also working at Spindletop with Tony Lucas, named Hamill, then got the idea to circulate cuttings out of the hole with a closed system whereby fluid was pumped down the drill string and up the annular hole to the surface. Then circulated water started to get muddy as the bit drilled thru thick gumbo clays and damn if that didn't seem to help speed up drilling, lubricate the bits and create hole stability before casing strings could be run.
So these same two Hamill fellas started messing with making drilling mud on the surface to be circulated down hole, not water. In Spindletop a big pit was dug hear the rig and a team of mules plowed up the bottom of the pit, water was added and the pit got muddy, but not muddy enough. So the local rancher's cattle were herded into the pit where the milled around, balling and trying to get the hell out, making heavier mud and, well, the rest is history.
Then things got lots better in 1915-1916 when some Texas Gulf Coast hands invented the square kelly and kelly bushing that would simply drop into a square rotary table, like putting a square peg in a square hole. This sped the entire connection process up significantly and improved the ability to apply torque to the drill string.
Inside a 20 year period, in the early 1900's, rotary table/square kelly drilling was developed and nearly perfected along the SE portion of the Texas in the coast plains of the Gulf of Mexico. 120 years later we're still doing to the same way, some of us anyway.
Fish tail bits and tri-wing fish tail bits slowly gave way to the genius of Howard Hughes, from Houston, and by the late 1920's the first conned, journal (self rotating) bits were developed.
Fish tail bits are now a thing of the past and rotary tables are giving way to top drives the size of two story office buildings with enough torque capacity to spin the earth off its axis, like the one below.
Photographs by Russell Lee, Library of Congress, Kilgore, 1942.
Sloane Galleries, Houston
Russell Richie, SMU Libraries