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1846: The Year We Hit Peak Sperm Whale Oil

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Energy experts predict that the global production of oil will soon start to decline, what's referred to as peak oil. Now while we may not be there yet, there was a time in our history when we did reach a similar plateau, but it was a very different kind of energy source — one that could only be extracted from the heads of sperm whales.

It was the intense demand for this sperm whale oil, what's called spermaceti, during the 18th and 19th centuries that nearly drove the whales into extinction. And it was only through the development of a rather modest technological innovation that the whales were saved at the last minute.


The above image of a scene from Moby Dick was drawn by Paul Lasaine.

Commercial viability

Back at the start of the industrial age, whale oil was used for heating, lubrication, soap, candle wax, and the processing of textiles and rope. But its true value came as a fuel source for lamps. Far superior to animal tallow or bees wax, its ability to produce a smokeless flame made it a fuel source that was second to none — qualities that soon led to intense demand.


In turn, the sperm whales were hunted mercilessly in the mid 1700s and early 1800s. A single, large sperm whale could hold as much of three tons of sperm oil, making them an incredibly valuable commodity — and in fact, they became the first of any animal or mineral oil to achieve commercial viability.

And like any new innovation, consumption habits quickly followed suit. Americans and Europeans started using sperm whale oil to fuel lighthouses, street lamps, and public buildings. Wealthier folks stopped using home-made tallow candles, preferring the more hi-tech alternative. The spermaceti candle became so prevalent that it created a new light standard: the lumen.

American sperm whaling spread quickly during the 1760s and 1770s, moving from the east coast of the American colonies to the Gulf Stream, the Grand Banks, West Africa, the Azores, and the South Atlantic. The period between 1770 to 1775 was particularly intense, as Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island produced 45,000 barrels of sperm oil in each of those years. Other countries were eager to join in, including France.


Not exactly a renewable resource

Needless to say, the oceans became a showcase of terrors. Writing in The Tyee, Andrew Nikiforuk describes the scene:

Most candle lighters did not know that a whaling vessel resembled a 19th century Satanic mill complete with oil cooking furnaces any more than natural gas furnace users understand the industrial consequences of hydraulic fracturing on rural groundwater.

Nor did they realize or dream about whales that increasingly attacked their hunters as they become more traumatized by the deadly trade. Some bull whales even stove and rammed the boats of the oil miners with a ferocity that was distinctly calculated.

Nor did the candles shed any light on whale widows who, as Hoare writes, would sit alone in their houses "smoking opium and employing plaster dildos known as ‘he's at homes.'" Candle burners, too, did not know that most of the whale carcass was wasted or left to sharks. Or that a young calf would attempt to suck on a vessel that contained nothing but the rendered scents of his parents. 
"The whaler was a kind of pirate-miner - an excavator of oceanic oil, stoking the furnace of the Industrial Revolution as much as many man digging coal out of the earth," writes Philip Hoare in The Whale.


The intense whale hunting drove the number of sperm whales down appreciably. It's estimated that nearly 236,000 whales were killed in the 19th century alone.

And then, in 1846, the industry reached peak sperm whale oil.

Whalers, after plundering the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, were having to chase smaller whales in colder and more extreme waters, while having to utilize bigger ships over longer periods of time. This led to fewer capital returns, causing the price of whale oil to double.


But the industry peaked at this time for another reason — and it had nothing to do with what was happening on the oceans. Rather, it was the invention of a new fuel source, one that, quite literally, saved the whales.


In 1849, Dr. Abraham Gesner, a Canadian geologist, figured out a way to distill kerosene from petroleum. His method allowed for the cheap and easy production of the much desired lamp fuel. Moreover, unlike sperm whale oil, it could be stored for longer periods of time and it didn't produce an offensive odor.


Gesner's innovation sparked the rise of the American petroleum industry in the 1850s, and by the end of the decade there were 40 kerosene plants in the United States. During the 1860s, John D. Rockefeller and Samuel Andrews worked to improve the efficiency of petroleum processing. Together, and backed by an army of investors, they set up a network of kerosene distilleries that would later develop into Standard Oil.


Combine this with a sperm whale oil industry that had just peaked, and the market for spermaceti quickly evaporated.

By 1876, the 735-ship fleet had sunk to just 39. The price of whale oil reached a maximum in 1856 when it sold for $1.77 per gallon, but by 1896 it was selling for 40 cents. At the same time, Gesner's kerosene, plus the industry's ability to quickly commoditize and refine the production process, resulted in the price of petroleum to drop from 59 cents per gallon in 1865 to an astoundingly low seven cents in 1895.


History repeats

The lessons of this episode are twofold.

One, it reminds us that, when it comes to non-renewable resources or animals that are over-hunted, there comes a peak. The day is most certainly coming, if not already, when the production levels of oil are going to start to decrease steadily and perpetually.


The second lesson is about the need for innovation. It's not an exaggeration to suggest that, had kerosene not been invented, the sperm whale would have been driven into extinction. The development of refined petroleum irrevocably altered both the environmental and energy landscape. It unintentionally saved the whales, while producing a cheaper and superior alternative.

So rather than despair or deny that we're running out of oil, our efforts should focus on the development of a viable alternative. It's been done before.


Hat tip to Ramez Naam. Sources: The Free Man Online, The Tyee. Inset images via Cosign Projects, Virtualogy, Colnect.