Like people, every statistic is famous for fifteen minutes. For the Hughes Tool Company’s rotary rig count, the moment in the sun came in early 1982. That’s when the company’s tabulation of how many oil-field rigs were burrowing into the earth’s crust plunged. It signaled the collapse of the energy industry—and placed a set of obscure four-digit numbers on front pages across the nation.
But to those in the oil business, and to those with money in it, the rig count has always been a subject of great interest. It is, simply put, the preeminent barometer of the health of the drilling business—and thus a key indicator for the entire energy industry. Stocks of giant companies can rise and fall with its release in Houston every Monday morning. The plummeting figures of 1982 foreshadowed a $91 million loss for Hughes Tool the next fiscal year—the company’s first red ink in half a century.
The Houston-based oil-field-equipment company began compiling the rig count in the thirties to plan its production. As low-profile as its reclusive single shareholder, Howard Hughes, the company nonetheless began releasing the numbers in January 1940 with hopes of gaining a marketing edge. The only weekly indicator of drilling activity, it immediately acquired great importance; the number of rigs dictated demand for expensive tools and oil-field employment and reflected the oil companies’ outlook regarding future oil and gas prices.
While most statistics are the product of mysterious calculations, compiling the rig count requires the arithmetic skills of an eight-year-old. It is merely a manual count of all land, inland, and offshore rigs in the United States. Hughes’s field salesmen gather the information in the course of their regular calls on rig operators. (Hughes also compiles a monthly worldwide count,