The way the Giant Sperm Whale Contributed to the Industrial Revolution

Posted on August 30, 2011 @ 2:39 am

If you are like most folks, you think about the birth of the Industrial Revolution coinciding with the discovery of petroleum in the mid-1850s, and like those other folks, you will be wrong.

You see, the Industrial Revolution began in the early decades of the 18th Century, not a century later with the discovery of oil. Oil proved indispensable as a lubricator, source of light, part of consumer products, and industrialization on a massive scale.

That said, since crude oil was not discovered until about 1850, where did the oil that fed the Industrial Revolution come from?

Whales. And, particularly, sperm whales. Each a swimming oil well.

Though we tend to think of whales being hunted for their meat back then, it is not correct.

The reason? Whale meat had no commercial value.

Whaling expeditions frequently lasted three years. Without refrigerators or freezers, the meat quickly rotted and was thrown overboard to feed the sharks and other sea creatures.

Blubber, on the other hand, could be rendered into oil, stored in barrels, and sold upon return to port. It was very , very valuable and indispensable to the dawn of the Industrial Age.

Back then, there were likely more than a million sperm whales coursing the oceans. The biggest bulls could produce a ton and a half of the finest oil on the planet and even average sized sperm whales produced 30-40 barrels.

It’s not accidental that the whale in Moby Dick was a giant sperm whale hunted by the whaling ship captained by the fictional Captain Ahab. These were by far and away the most valuable creatures on the planet.

It was quickly discovered that whale oil burned much brighter than tallow so much so that New England light houses were able to be seen by sailors far out to sea.

It also burned much cleaner, with a lot less smoke, allowing it to be employed in houses of the growing American and English middle class.

More than a century before Thomas Edison formed the Edison Electric Light Company, the large City of London had several thousand street lamps—the most of any place on earth—lighted with whale oil.

Sperm oil was so fine it was used for the most fragile instruments of the Industrial Revolution, from watches to chronometers.

It not only lubricated the earliest machines of the Industrial Revolution, it was responsible for the development of entire industries like England’s textile industry. The oil was employed to light newly developing textile plants, lubricate newly invented machines, and even blended with raw products like jute to make the fabrics people wore.

50,000 workers were employed in textile plants alone—thanks to the sperm whales.

However naturally, sperm whales were not limitless and by the middle of the 19th century their numbers had fallen by just about a third.

Luckily, for approximately a century thereafter, they received a respite because, once crude oil was discovered, it reduced the use of whale oil.

But, the relief from commercial exploitation did not last.

Sadly, the resumption of commercial whaling operations on an industrial scale after WWII just about exterminated whales when whaling was taken over by large fleets of factory ships.

But, in 1980, commercial whaling was banned world wide (apart from subsistence hunting in some places) and so called “research” whaling by Japan and some Scandinavian nations.

Sperm whales are now recovering, even tho slowly.

Today, whale watching has become a significant, and increasing, source of income for states around the globe as tourists flock to see them swim majestically.

While all marvel at these wonderful creatures, nearly anybody alive today knows or appreciates the part they played in the development of the Industrial Revolution that has led on to our ability to develop modern machines, light our streets and buildings, even travel the planet.

For 250 years, our industrialized society needed these magnificent living oil wells to power and lubricate new machines, develop new industries, and even make products from fabrics to lipstick to ointments and clean lights.

But now you know. Hence, the next time you see a whale, tell your friends and family that these whales are not just another pretty face.

Without them, the Industrial Revolution would look very different.

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