An Oil Arc

Our economy powered by sea mammals.

There was an era between the use of rudimentary candles and lamps and the petroleum and coal powered economy of today. In the time between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, a type of different oil was king. At one point in the U.S., about 20 percent of the economy was whale oil based. The story is also a reaffirmation for my love of renewable energies.  

According to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the first recorded whaling campaign in the colonies was in 1644. In tandem with the local Native American tribes, boats were launched from the shores of Long Island, New York to chase after whales near land. Two hundred years later, whaling ships would be making round trips from the northeast states to the coast of what is now Alaska. 

Derek Thompson writes: “In 1846, we [USA] owned 640 whaling ships, more than the rest of the world put together and tripled. At its height, the whaling industry contributed $10 million (in 1880 dollars) to GDP, enough to make it the fifth largest sector of the economy. Whales contributed oil for illuminants, ambergris for perfumes, and baleen, a bone-like substance extracted from the jaw, for umbrellas.”

I recently read “Oil and Ice” by Peter Nichols. In the 1600s, a modern home transition was under way. For thousands of years, people had been making rudimentary lamps from tallow, an animal fat-based grease used for everything from lighting, to soap, to axel lubricant. It didn’t burn very clean and wasn’t useful in high-temperature applications.  

Whale oil burns less smoky and smelly than tallow. It is also a nicer looking flame. People were willing to pay the price for whale oil, and it exploded in popularity. President George Washington used it to illuminate his own home.  

As the demand for whale oil grew, the fleets had to search farther away from the colonies for whales. Even in a time when trains hadn’t made it from the East Coast to West Coast of the U.S., people were sailing to the Bering Straight hunting for whales. Before the Panama Canal was created, a trip from whaling towns like New Bedford, Massachusetts could involve going all the way down around the bottom of South America. After that, whalers might sail way back up the Pacific coast to the western shore of Alaska and into the Arctic Ocean. 

A whaling crew would consist of a large ship with a handful of smaller row boats capable of chasing a whale. Once the crew captured the whale, they would strip the blubber. Sharks commonly arrived and were one of many perils the crew expected to complicate the process. 

Nichols continues: “The major innovation affecting the design and service of whale ships was the development of shipboard tryworks. These were essentially furnaces, solids built of bricks, designed to burn tons of matter in giant iron pots for days at a time — not an item that suggested itself to shipboard use. Apart from the inherent difficulty of keeping such fires going aboard a ship at sea in all weather, the weight of such a construction on the deck of what was already a top-heavy vessel posed serious stability problems.” 

The tryworks allowed the blubber to be processed into an oil that wouldn’t spoil on the trip home, unlike slabs of blubber. The jump in processing technology allowed ships to go farther to follow the whales. The extended range was something that would haunt a doomed group of ships in 1871.
While whale oil popularity boomed, whale and walrus (also valuable in the absence of whales) populations plummeted. Whaling crews were now looking farther north into the Arctic Sea for more pods. 

In 1871, whaling crews were driving farther into the cold Arctic Ocean, and extending their season later into the year. In the span of a few weeks, 32 ships were stranded by ice. More than 1,200 sailors abandoned their ships and set out on their row boats. Miraculously, no lives were lost, and crew members made their way back to New Bedford.  

Abandoning a ship under any condition was looked down upon in the seafaring communities. The fact that more than 1,000 people made the same decision helped give the rest of the port towns an idea of how bad the weather was. The ship owners weren’t that excited to lose all these ships in a single year, however.  

The nail in the coffin of the whale oil industry came in the form of another liquid, which was discovered in Pennsylvania. “Rock oil,” as it was called in those days was bubbling out of the ground. We would eventually categorize this as petroleum. Thompson continues: “To be sure, energy preferences had been flowing to another source of oil: petroleum. In 1859, the U.S. produced no more than 2,000 barrels of the stuff a year. Forty years later, we were producing 2,000 barrels every 17 minutes.” Arctic whale oil was rendered much less desirable when compared to a short train ride to Pennsylvania.  

Rock oil provided a platform for John D. Rockefeller and other early oil magnates to see meteoric growth. The whaling barons from towns like New Bedford were some of the most successful early American colonists. They spent close to 100 years on top of the energy world. Some of these businesses adapted and moved beyond whaling; some saw their ships dry up on the docks that once moved the colonial economy. 

Relying too heavily on any resource that is limited by a fixed amount of something scattered across the globe is risky. As demand booms, supplies dwindle. Renewable energy is only limited by our creativity to harness it. As a plumbing engineer, you have the choice to work with systems that utilize renewable energies and avoid having your customers chase the whale to power their buildings. 

Max Rohr is a graduate of the University of Utah. He is the REHAU Construction Academy manager in Leesburg, Virginia. He has worked in the hydronics and solar industry for 16 years in the installation, sales and marketing sectors. Rohr is the Radiant Professional Alliance (RPA) Education Committee chairman. He can be reached by email at and on Twitter at @maxjrohr.

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