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The Petroleum Industry Saved the Whales

At the beginning of the Industrial Age, whales were an important natural resource which humans had been exploiting for centuries. Indeed, the oil that was extracted from whales, notably that from the Physeter macrocephalus, the sperm whale, whose oil was extracted through the nose, had multiple uses ranging from heating to petroleum lamps to paint.

Whaling ships were of considerable size, as they withstood the rough sea for the precious good that until then, only whales could provide. These hunters used so-called cutting and head spades, used to cut through the whales’ skull or decapitate the animal. The weight assured that it was easy to chop through the heavy vertebrae in a whale’s neck.

19th-century advertisement showing soap made out of whale oil.

As the global demand for whale-oil lamps increased, the whaling business was booming, and soon supply couldn’t keep up with demand. Consumers were reluctant to pay the exorbitant price of $2.50 a gallon for whale oil.1 And yet, alternative lighting fluids, such as camphene, turned out to be of lesser quality, and even potentially dangerous. Camphene was highly flammable: a deadly risk in residential areas characterized by wooden construction.

By 1850, the consumer had the choice between:

  • camphene or “burning fluid” — 50 cents/gallon (combinations of alcohol, turpentine, and camphor oil — bright, sweet smelling)
  • whale oil — $1.30 to $2.50/gallon
  • lard oil — 90 cents (low quality, smelly)
  • coal oil — 50 cents (sooty, smelly, and low quality; the original “kerosene”)

By 1851, whaling had had such a detrimental effect on whales that fishers had to move from the overfished Atlantic and Indian Oceans, which made the product even more rare and unaffordable. Today, this strikes us an an unlikely problem given that we live in a society marked by the luxury of choosing numerous production methods for electricity, and we enjoy mass production of light bulbs in every shape and form. But, energy production was a real crisis in the mid-1800s, and people were literally running out of light.

Abraham Gesner Saved Us and the Whales

Abraham Pineo Gesner was a Canadian physician and geologist. In 1846, his mineral research resulted in a liquid combined out of coal, bitumen and oil shale, which he called kerosene. In comparison to the competing products, kerosene was neither smelly nor dirty, and most of all: once its production was commercialized through Gesner in 1850 (the Kerosene Gaslight Company), the mass production of it (especially after Gesner’s company was bought by Standard Oil) brought prices of lighting down.2

Not only had Gesner invented a new way to literally illuminate the world, he had deprived the whaling industry of its most important revenue source. The mass fishing of sperm whales had become obsolete:

Gesner’s entrepreneurial activities and the establishment of his pioneer kerosene works in New York was fundamental for the development of the young coal-oil industry. The latter grew rapidly in the following years. The rise of the new coal oils inevitably triggered the fall of the whaling industry whose "golden years" finally had come to an abrupt end.3

So next time you wish to think of an organization or industry that has prevented animal cruelty and the horrible death of millions of animals, don’t think about Greenpeace. Think of the petroleum industry.

Bill Wirtz is a law student at Université de Lorraine in Nancy, France and local coordinator for European Students for Liberty. See his blog.

  • 1Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (1962; New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991), chapter I: "Oil on the Brain: The Beginning," sec. Price and Innovation, p. 22. (Online)
  • 2Gerald Kutney, Sulfur: History, Technology, Applications & Industry (ChemTec Publishing, 2007), chapter 4: "His Oil Ventures," sec. 2.2, p. 84. (Online)
  • 3Alexander Smith, "Setting History Right: The Early European Petroleum Industries and the Rise of American Oil," in From the Industrial Revolution to World War II in East Central Europe, eds.Marjia Wakounig, and Karlo Ruzicic-Kessler (Vienna: LIT Verlag GmbH, 2011), p. 68. (Online)
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