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Eric Jay Dolin

From whale oil and beyond

FOR THOSE concerned about improving international security, fighting global warming, and reducing pollution, the petroleum era cannot end too soon. But that end will not come until other energy sources beat oil at its own game. While this may seem to be an impossible dream, a look back at the whale oil industry provides a measure of perspective and encouragement.

From the early-1600s through the mid-1800s, whale oil lit America and much of the Western world, and few thought it would lose its lofty position in the marketplace. The whale oil industry was, indeed, much like the petroleum industry of today. Eventually, however, the whale oil industry foundered in the face of competition, and petroleum will face the same fate.

By the 1840s, whale oil's dominance in lighting was under sustained attack. Lard oil, boiled from the fat of hogs, or "prairie whales" as they were called, had become an increasingly attractive lighting source, and camphene, a distillate of turpentine mixed with alcohol, also began taking market share.

This led many to proclaim that the whale oil industry's days were numbered. But the whale oil merchants most emphatically disagreed. In 1843, The Nantucket Inquirer - published on an island once referred to as "a barren sandbank, fertilized with whale oil only" - warned its readers against believing the rumors of the industry's imminent demise.

"Great noise is made by many of the newspapers and thousands of the traders in the country about Lard oil, Chemical Oil, Camphene Oil, and a half dozen other luminous humbugs; and it has been confidently predicted by more than one astute prophet that the Sperm Oil trade would soon come to an end, and the whales be left in undisturbed possession of their abode . . . it has even been said, horribile dictu, that Nantucket must soon be reduced from its present elevated position among the isles of the sea and the habitations of the earth, to a poor, miserable spot capable only of nourishing sand-lice and horse-shoes, and compelled to live on its accumulated stock of Sperm Oil and candles! But let not our envious, and - in view of the Lard Oil mania - we had well nigh said, hog-gish opponents, indulge themselves in any such dreams."

Whaling merchants were quick to highlight the disadvantages of their competitors. Many pointed out that lard oil congealed when cold, smelled when burned, and didn't produce a strong, clean light. As for camphene, while it was cheaper than whale oil and burned quite brightly, the merchants didn't let anyone forget that it was also extremely volatile. Reports of exploding camphene lamps were received in whaling communities with unrestrained glee. The Inquirer, after noting one such explosion, observed rather harshly, "How hard people are to learn! If they will use such articles, they deserve to be 'blown up.' "

But lard oil and camphene were just the beginning of the end for the whale oil industry. By mid-century, the use of gas derived from coal expanded dramatically, and even took hold in New Bedford, the largest whaling port in the nation, leading one local newspaper editor to mourn that he had lived to see this new form of lighting introduced into the "ancient city of the whale!"

More of a threat to whale oil than gas was kerosene, derived from coal and bituminous tar. First refined in the late-1840s, kerosene burned cleanly and much more brightly than any other lighting source, and within a decade it was well on its way to illuminating millions of American homes.

Still, many whale oil merchants argued that they would not be eclipsed by the competition. Then, in 1859, "Colonel" Edwin L. Drake struck oil in the small town of Titusville, Pa. This black gold gushing from the ground provided a new and much more plentiful raw material for the production of kerosene, which surged throughout the country and doomed the whale oil industry.

It is likely to be many years before economically and environmentally acceptable energy sources allow us to beat our addiction to oil. But, there is no doubt that such a day will come, and the sooner the better. If you need proof, just look to the whales.

Eric Jay Dolin is author of "Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America." He lives in Marblehead.

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