whale oil right whaleCause and Effect

Prior to the 1800s, the we used oils that were rendered from animal fat for our lighting needs. Whale oil, in particular, was preferred because it burned cleaner and with less odor. Oil from the nose of the Sperm Whale, known as “spermaceti“, was the most widely sought after fuel, and was available only to the rich at an 1800s cost of $2.00/gallon, which today equates to $200/gallon.

With sperm oil being used for lighting, and regular whale oil produced as lubricant for trains, the whaling industry was thriving. The commoditization of whale oil, and the resulting increase in demand, grew the United States whaling fleet from 392 ships in 1833 to 735 by 1846. By 1856, sperm oil sold for $1.77 a gallon and the United States was producing 4-5 million gallons of spermaceti and 6-10 million gallons of train oil annually.

With this much demand, and an healthy dose of shortsightedness, some whale species were driven to the brink of extinction. Scarce varieties of whales, such as the Right Whale, were killed at a rate of 15,000 per year. When the scarcity of this whale was recognized, whalers turned there attention to other species, but the damage had been done and only about 50,000 right whales remained. Had this demand continued, extinction would have certainly claimed several species. Over the next century and a half, the right whale population, subjected to illegal whaling, ship collisions, entanglement in fishing gear, to name just a few threats, continued their decline and now are on the critically endangered list with only 460 remaining.

Along Came the Clean-burning Kerosene “Coal Oil” Lamp

kerosene lampInvented by Michael Dietz, the clean-burning kerosene lamp appeared on the market in 1857. Back in those days, kerosene was referred to as “coal oil”, although we now know there to be a distinct difference between coal oil and kerosene oil. Coal oil is extracted from a type of soft, oily coal called cannel coal, and kerosene oil is refined directly from liquid petroleum (crude oil). Regardless, kerosene was easily produced, inexpensive, when burned let off a better smell than animal-based fuels, and it did not spoil on the shelf, as whale oil did. Kerosene’s effect on the whaling industry was immediate, and the public abandoned whale oil lamps almost overnight. The rise of kerosene plants in the United States ultimately drove whale oil off the market.

Without the invention in the 1850s of petroleum products the like of kerosene and machine oil, many species of whales would have gone extinct long ago. Clearly, the expanding population and economy of the 1800s, together with the development of more deadly hunting tools, would have driven the whaling industry to even greater heights than the banner year of 1856. The September 3, 1860 edition of the “California Fireside Journal” provides the public consensus:

“Had it not been for the discovery of Coal Oil, the race of whales would soon have become extinct. It is estimated that ten years would have used up the whole family”.

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