The PBS Newshour Whale Oil Myth

By Andy May

While researching fossil fuel history recently, I discovered a PBS article entitled “The Whale Oil Myth.” You can see the full article here. It is based on another blog post on the environmental history web site here. The authors are not identified, but the original ideas are from Dr. Bill Kovarik from the School of Communication at Radford University and the late Dr. Lester Lave, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University.

Both articles claim that petroleum-based kerosene, distilled with the Gesner refining process did not help save the whales from being fished into extinction. They claim that distinguished economists James Robbins (see his “How Capitalism Saved the Whales“) and Dr. Lester Lave (Dr. Lave has comments after both blog posts that are worth reading) are just plain wrong and whales would have done fine, even if kerosene had not replaced whale oil as the lamp fuel of choice. For a more academic, peer-reviewed discussion of how petroleum-based products were a significant factor in reducing the demand for whale oil see (McCollough and Check 2010) here. The posts further claim that whale oil was not replaced by kerosene through honest competition in the marketplace, but through government intervention that provided a fossil fuel subsidy by way of taxes. They seem to think camphine (the alternative spelling, “camphene” is a chemical) lamp fuel would have won the competition with kerosene, except for the unfair taxation of ethanol.

Seeing this claim was strange, after all as long ago as September 3, 1860, this appeared in the California Fireside Journal:

“Had it not been for the discovery of Coal Oil [an early primitive kerosene], the race of whales would soon have become extinct. It is estimated that ten years would have used up the whole family.”

So, let’s examine these unusual “Whale Oil Myth” claims that now seem to be all over the internet. The Whale Oil Myth, according to the PBS and environmental history posts is summarized as follows, from here:

“According to an IRS report and testimony to a House committee, alcohol production for the burning fluid market alone stood around 90 million gallons per year at its height in 1860. Whale oil peaked at 18 million gallons in 1845, according to Starbuck’s whaling history of 1878.

So, in 1860, there was 5 times more alcohol [camphine] fuel on the market than whale oil, and there was no kerosene from petroleum. [Drake’s first well had just been dug.]

Use of kerosene rose quickly after 1862 when, a tax of $2.00 per gallon was imposed on alcohol to pay for the Civil War. The tax quickly forced burning fluid and camphine off the market. Attempts to exempt industrial alcohol from what was meant to be a beverage alcohol tax were not successful at the time. A far smaller tax (10 cents per gallon) was imposed on kerosene.”

Most of this is reasonable. The author provides no source for his 90 million gallons of U.S. alcohol production for burning fluid and I was not able to confirm the number on my own, but we will accept the value for the sake of argument. His value of 18 million gallons of U.S. whale oil might be a little high, if we include sperm oil and whale oil, it might have been as low as 13 million gallons. In any case whale oil and sperm oil production were declining by 1860. The human population was increasing, so the demand for lamp fuel was rising as well. Whale oil was the best fuel at the time, but getting more expensive, so alternatives were brought to market.

After this, they lose me. Alcohol is a very poor lamp fuel on its own, the light is blue, faint and very poor. Turpentine burns with a bright flame but has a strong unpleasant odor. Isaiah Jennings invented “burning fluid” in 1830, it was a mix of alcohol, camphor and turpentine. In 1835 a similar mixture was patented by Henry Porter, this was called “Porter’s Patent Composition Burning Fluid” and was very popular. Often, the mixture is incorrectly called “camphene.” Camphene is a chemical (C10H16), the lamp fuel is properly spelled “camphine.” To make camphine lamp fuel, one recipe calls for three parts ethanol to be mixed with one-part refined turpentine, this is mainly to reduce the turpentine odor. Other recipes left out the alcohol, which is very volatile and explosive, and only added camphor to improve the odor. Still others used pure turpentine, although these were meant for outdoor use. The part of camphine that produces the bright white light is the turpentine.

Turpentine was very valuable as a medicine in the 19th century, although it isn’t used for medicinal purposes much today. It is one of the few chemicals that can be used as a solvent to produce rubber, the others are from petroleum which was not available in large quantities until the 1860s. Turpentine is also used in paint and varnish (see here) and as a solvent. All these products were needed desperately for the Civil War. Turpentine prices exploded in the 1860s due to the war and many farmers stopped working their crops and put in turpentine boxes if they had a lot of pine trees. The resin, used in ship building was also very valuable. It is likely that the two-dollar tax on ethanol had some effect on the price of camphine, but the higher wartime prices for turpentine were probably more important.

Dr. Kovarik’s conclusion was that the alcohol tax killed camphine as a lamp fuel and that the story that kerosene saved the whales was “irresponsible and historically fake.” Then, because the ethanol tax during the Civil War was two dollars and the tax on kerosene was only 10 cents, he concluded that kerosene was unfairly subsidized. This is disingenuous in the extreme, alcohol is a poor lamp fuel, it does not compete with kerosene. Turpentine is the lamp fuel and it was not taxed, it was just in demand for other purposes. The decline in whale oil production was not because of camphine or alcohol, it was because whales were harder to find, a view shared by Dr. Lester Lave.

The price for whale oil had risen to such a level (two dollars a gallon) that most people simply couldn’t afford it. Yet, even at that price, in 1858, 64 percent of American whaling ships lost money according to Dr. James Robbins here. This was the peak year for whaling ships. Demand was through the roof, but not at any price. This is explained by (McCollough and Check 2010) in this way:

As Clark (p. 951[, (Clark 1973)]) points out, “It has been noted, that harvesting costs rise with decreasing population levels, a rent-maximizing policy will automatically lead to biological conservation, with an equilibrium population in excess of the population corresponding to maximum sustained yield”. With respect to whaling in the 1800s, Bardi (p. 302[, (Bardi 2007)) notes that “Evidently, the reduction in whale populations were sufficient to make whaling progressively more expensive and difficult, given the technology of whaling at that time.” From McCollough and Check, Sustainability, 2010.

The New York Times agrees that the scarcity of whales was the reason for the decline in the industry, this is from an article in August 3, 2008:

But, in fact, whaling was already just about done, said Eric Jay Dolin, who wrote some of the text for the exhibit and is the author of “Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America.” Whales near North America were becoming scarce, and the birth of the American petroleum industry in 1859 in Titusville, Pa., allowed kerosene to supplant whale oil before the electric light replaced both of them and oil found other uses. New York Times, 2008.

There were fewer whales killed and whale oil prices very were getting ever higher, so alternatives crowded the market. But, all of them had problems, except for high-quality kerosene which produced a higher quality light than whale oil, had no soot or odor, didn’t spoil and could be stored indefinitely. Whale oil had several problems. It was becoming very expensive as demand dramatically increased in the 1850s, it had a short shelf life, and whales were becoming harder and more expensive to find.

Fish oil was burned in betty lamps, it was cheaper but had a very bad odor and spoiled rapidly. Camphine (also called “burning fluid” or “Porter’s fluid”) was mentioned above, it is made with any one of a number of recipes that included refined turpentine, and either or both camphor and ethanol. It produced a good light, comparable to whale oil, but was very explosive, quite volatile at room temperature and had a low viscosity. Camphine was relatively cheap prior to the Civil War, but the war increased turpentine prices and camphine was driven from the market by cost and the dangers of using it (Ghosh 2001). Figure 1 shows an ad from an 1855 light shop.

Figure 1. Ad from an 1855 light shop, source Smithsonian.

Other fuels widely tried by the public were colza (Canola) vegetable oil, natural gas and ethanol by itself. Lard, especially from pigs, was also commonly used as lamp fuel after refining. All these fuels produced poor light and/or bad odors, except for natural gas. The light from an ethanol lamp is very faint and useless for reading. Natural gas needed pipelines, which were expensive and only available in cities. Camphine was unfortunately explosive and very dangerous, this was constantly reported by whaling merchants since this fuel was their only real competition. Horrifying stories of women and children dying due to camphine (with or without alcohol) lamp fires were reported all the time. Two examples are given below, the first is a New York Times article from August 21, 1854:

Figure 2. New York Times article, camphene is misspelled in both articles. Camphene is a chemical, camphine is Porter’s burning fluid.

Our second example is from Scientific American, volume 8, issue 25, March 5, 1853:

Figure 3. Scientific American article from March 5, 1853.

Kerosene

Kerosene is a name invented by Abraham Gesner who developed the modern method of refining a very high-quality kerosene product. While the Scottish chemist James Young also invented a process for making kerosene, his process produced an inferior product and did not survive. Gesner patented his process in 1854 and opened a refinery in New York in 1854 called the North American Kerosene Gas Light Company and sold kerosene produced from coal. Later, after oil well drilling became common, due to Drake’s discovery in Pennsylvania in 1859, Standard Oil purchased the refinery and patent rights from Gesner and produced very high-quality kerosene lamp fuel from liquid petroleum. This “standard” product was much easier and cheaper than making kerosene from coal and the price of kerosene plummeted from around 50 cents/gallon to 7 cents per gallon by 1895. Standard Oil’s kerosene was advertised as the safe alternative to camphine and cheap, poor quality “kerosene” and it produced a higher quality light than even the best whale oil. The Perkins and House “Non-Explosive Kerosene Lamp” was touted as a safe alternative to camphine lamps in Scientific American in 1867 here. An early ad for kerosene salesmen also makes this point:

Figure 4. An ad for salesmen to sell high-quality kerosene lamps.

Cheaper brands of kerosene contained gasoline and other volatile, explosive fractions of crude oil and could be as dangerous as camphine. Kerosene from the Gesner process produced a higher quality light than whale oil, soot-free. Further, a lit match thrown into a jar of Gesner’s kerosene would simply be extinguished, it was not volatile or explosive and was much safer than camphine or cheaper grades of kerosene. Kerosene has a flashpoint of 150-185 degrees F., versus 95 degrees F. for turpentine and 55 degrees F. for ethanol. What this means is kerosene will not ignite at normal temperatures, but alcohol, turpentine and camphine will. By the 1860s camphine had also become much more expensive due to the much higher price for turpentine.

Conclusions

A close examination of the data suggests that whaling began its decline in the 1850s because whales had become so hard and expensive to find that whalers could not charge a high enough price to make the business profitable. The peak year for U.S. whaling ships was 1858 when there were 199 working ships. Yet, in this year, a full 64% lost money according to Dr. James Robbins here. Whaling declined rapidly after this disastrous year for the industry.

Due to the higher prices for whale oil, the public was desperately trying to find a safe source of good light. There were many contenders, but the Gesner process for refining quality kerosene clearly won out. It was the highest quality light at the best cost. While early versions of kerosene were sooty, unsafe and volatile, just like camphine, the purer kerosene from the Gesner process, was very safe with a flashpoint of over 150 degrees F. which is unlikely to be reached in a home.

The Civil War alcohol tax may have played a role in the demise of camphine as a lamp fuel, but the historical records suggest the explosions caused by camphine and alcohol lamps played a much larger role. As for cost, records suggest the increasing cost of turpentine was more important than the higher cost for ethanol. In The Springfield Gas Machine: Illuminating Industry and Leisure, 1860s-1920s, by Donald Linebaugh (Linebaugh 2011):

[While camphine] “… produced a flame that was clear, dense, and brilliant … the burning fluid was extremely combustible and thus one of the most dangerous lighting fuels ever used. Accidents involving the fuel caused hundreds of injuries and fatalities. In 1834, the Franklin Institute Journal noted that the late fatal accidents resulting from the use of such ingredients in lamps will, however, probably put a final stop to [their] use. An 1853 report in Scientific American documented over thirty-three fatal explosions caused by burning fluid lamps…”

As for the difference in the Civil War tax for ethanol and kerosene being a fossil fuel subsidy or making any difference in the public’s choice between the two, I don’t see it at all. Camphine and ethanol are far too dangerous to ignite indoors, this is the principle reason they failed as lamp fuels. To call the difference in two arbitrary taxes a subsidy is disingenuous in the extreme as are most claimed U.S. fossil fuel “subsidies.” This is discussed in more detail, for modern so-called fossil fuel subsidies here. True fossil fuel subsidies do exist in Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and some other oil producing nations but as noted in the linked post, they don’t exist in the United States, that is a true environmentalist’s myth.

The discovery of liquid petroleum played a huge role in solidifying kerosene as the lamp fuel of choice. It made the production of the fuel much cheaper and the price quickly plummeted to seven cents per gallon. Thus, the fuel was not only the safest lamp fuel, with the best light, no odor, and a long shelf life, it was also the cheapest fuel. None of the alternatives stood a chance until natural gas and electric lighting became commonplace.

Did it save the whales? It certainly helped. The declining population of whales made them hard to find and this decreased the number of whaling ships, but whaling did continue after 1860 and well into the 20th century. The better whalers could still find whales and did kill them, and the low population made them vulnerable to extinction. When quality kerosene became available, it decreased the demand for whales, so it did help. Just as steel hoops replacing whale bone hoops in women’s clothing helped. Calling the idea that “kerosene saved the whales” “irresponsible and historically fake” is an extreme overstatement. Kerosene was not the only reason whales survived, but it did help save them.

Andy May is a writer and a retired petrophysicist. His first book: Climate Catastrophe! Science or Science Fiction? Will be available on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com next week on May 1st.

Works Cited

Bardi, U. 2007. “Energy prices and resource depletion: Lessons from the case of whaling in the nineteenth century.” Energy Sources Part B. https://flore.unifi.it/retrieve/handle/2158/776587/23682/Energy%20Prices%20and%20Resource%20Depletion.pdf.

Clark, Colin. 1973. “Profit Maximization and the extinction of animal species.” Journal of Political Economy 81 (4). https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/260090.

Ghosh, Deepannita. 2001. “ILLUMINATING THE PAST: ARTIFICIAL LIGHTING IN AMERICA (1610-1930) AND A GUIDE TO LIGHTING HISTORIC HOUSE MUSEUMS.” Master’s thesis, University of Georgia. https://getd.libs.uga.edu/pdfs/ghosh_deepannita_200405_mhp.pdf.

Linebaugh, Donald. 2011. The Springfield Gas Machine: Illuminating Industry and Leisure, 1860s-1920s. University of Tennessee Press. https://books.google.com/books?id=uHVQVJknYnMC&pg=PA5&lpg=PA5&dq=How+many+deaths+due+to+camphene+lamp+explosions+in+Scientific+American&source=bl&ots=n8MSzHLjoJ&sig=RLCkwP6vDgdD6g3k5eThQul8TIo&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjo_7-jodHaAhUMY6wKHSt0D0wQ6AEINTAD#v=one.

McCollough, John, and Henry Check. 2010. “The Baleen Whales’ Saving Grace: The Introduction of Petroleum Based Products in the Market and Its Impact on the Whaling Industry.” Sustainability 2 (10): 3142-3157. doi:10.3390/su2103142.

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98 thoughts on “The PBS Newshour Whale Oil Myth

    • The gray whale was “fished out” in the Atlantic in the 19th century. They have since then been found only in the general area of the Pacific. Much harder for a whaling ship to find in those waters.

      • The whaling ships of Nantucket ranged all over the world to find whales. When the Atlantic was “fished out” they would embark on long Pacific voyages. I spent some time in Nantucket at the estate of the president of one of the major oil companies. The whale barons built some impressive real estate, and it is fitting that the properties stayed in the oil biz.

  1. The “alternative” energy industry is DESPERATE to retain/regain government subsidies. Therefore EVERY story about the “unfair” subsidies for fossil fuel use is necessary. Fossil fuel disinformation is … necessarily increasing

  2. Another event impacting whale oil in the Civil War was the CSS Alabama attacking the US whaling fleet:
    http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-973
    “The Alabama embarked on its voyage on August 24, taking a whaling ship out of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, as its first prize on September 5. During the next two weeks, Semmes preyed on the American whaling fleet, making prisoners of the crews and burning most of the vessels after relieving them of supplies. Occasionally, he released a ship on bond and required it to give passage to his prisoners. Southern and foreign sailors among his captives frequently augmented the Alabama’s skeleton crew, and Semmes soon had close to the full complement of 150 men.”
    Also alluded to in the WUWT post was steel replacing whalebone hoops for hoop skirts. The contemporary substitute for whalebone is the extra large zip tie (made from oil):
    https://www.jennylafleur.com/study/boning.htm

  3. I do know anything about kerosene made by the Gesner process, but today, commercially produced kerosene, petroleum distillate, has a flash specification between 100 and 150 F.

    • It depends upon the purity of the kerosene, very pure kerosene is over 150. From a lamp standpoint it is well above room temperature, whereas alcohol is about 55 degrees, thus extremely dangerous.

      • Andy, there is no such thing as purity when it comes to kerosene. It is a petroleum distillate which boils in the range of 300 to 500 F. It’s flash is predominantly determined by the front end of the distillation curve. The flash can be controlled in manufacturing over wide range, and are usually in accordance with ASTM specifications. It is a mixture of many different hydrocarbons, so purity really has no meaning for kerosene in the usual sense of the word. Those of us in the petroleum refining business do not use that term.

      • Thomas Graney, thanks. I knew that, but could not think of a better way to explain the difference between the crude forms of kerosene pre-Gesner process and the Gesner kerosene. His method separated the volatiles from the product better than any other process at the time and in a scalable way. That was the key to a safe fuel. It is true that kerosene is a mixture, but it is pure in the sense the volatiles are removed from it.

      • So current lamp oil is basically the same kerosene product? I keep that on hand as well as two old oil lamps my grandmother left behind, for emergencies. The oil burned gives off a very bright, clear light, bright enough to read and study by, with no smell at all.

    • Kerosene is an oil distillate commonly used as a fuel or solvent. It is a thin, clear liquid consisting of a mixture of hydrocarbons that boil between 302°F and 527°F (150°C and 275°C).
      Read more: http://www.madehow.com/Volume-7/Kerosene.html#ixzz5DcbFBhAp

      That 150 they’re refering to is celsius I think. Which makes me feel better about that can of turpentine on the shelf out back I must say.

      • The flashpoint is different from the boiling point. The flash point of turpentine, when it is in danger of igniting is 30C. The flashpoint of ethanol is about 17C, so you can see the problem. Kerosene is 40C + or-

      • The minimum flashpoint is 100 deg F, that is why that is listed on the SDS. Normally it is higher than that. Gasoline, by contrast is -45 deg. F.

    • Time for the old joke about the Soviet Union, where only the future was certain, but where the past kept changing.

  4. There were fewer whales killed and whale oil prices very were getting ever higher, so alternatives crowded the market. But, all of them had problems, except for high-quality kerosene which produced a higher quality light than whale oil, had no soot or odor, didn’t spoil and could be stored indefinitely. Whale oil had several problems. It was becoming very expensive as demand dramatically increased in the 1850s, it had a short shelf life, and whales were becoming harder and more expensive to find. for its products.

    Whale oil production (the killing rate) declined as they were hunted to extinction: First off of the east coast, then north Atlantic and the Atlantic Arctic side, the central Atlantic, around the Horn to the Chilean, central eastern Pacific , Hawaiian waters, then north Pacific, Pacific Arctic and then past the Bering Strait. (All even BEFORE the Civil War!) The Civil war Confederate raiders sunk dozens of the Yankee whalers, and many more (most) were in very bad economic and physical shape by the middle and end of the war. (Leviathon is the best general history book of whaling.) To blockade southern ports, even more dozens of whalers were confiscated and driven to be sunk.
    It wasn’t only “lamps” but CANDLES that used whale oil and whale products were needed: The author is focusing on what would prove their theory, not on the whole topic. Even those whaling ships that over-wintered in the Alaskan arctic trying to kill more whales were coming home empty by the 1870-80’s. Taxes had little to do with it: If the petroleum industry had not begun, every whale would have been “boiled out”

  5. One of many environmental rewrites of history..
    1. There was no global cooling scare in the 60’s according to people that weren’t there.
    2. The temperature in the 30’s were colder than now despite a mountain of evidence that for rural areas temperatures remain unchanged and temperature change is largely a result of urbanization.
    3. The little ice age did not exist despite a mountain of evidence that it did, because the hockey stick says so.
    4. The Medieval warm period did not exist despite a mountain of evidence that it did, because the hockey stick says so.
    5. A temperature rise today will be catastrophic even though temperatures were higher 8000 years ago when humans first developed agriculture.

    • I have often wondered about HUMAN BODY TEMPERATURE being 37 degrees Celsius ( 98.6 F ) and
      whether that WAS THE AMBIENT TEMPERATURE of the Earth AT THE TIME that one of our
      ancestors evolved ? Most active animals tend to have a similar body temperature to ours .
      IF this is the case , then severe Global Warming would be like ” coming home ! ” .
      Anybody got any information on this please ?I

  6. What I like about this article is that it high-lights the ingenuity of the free market (aka Capitalism). When one product become too expensive then entrepreneurs will try a variety of cheaper alternatives until one or more prove out. Prices are reduced, performance is enhanced, everyone benefits.
    Do you think this “Whale Oil Myth” is perpetuated not only by a prejudice against fossil fuels, but by an anti-capitalist bent that suspects Standard Oil was up to some jiggery-pokery with Government collusion to screw the whale oil industry?
    Also the following typo needs fixin’

    [Drake’s fist well had just been dug.]

    Unless, of course, Drake was fisting his well without petroleum jelly.
    [Done. Thank you. (Peer review works quickly.) .mod]

    • When one product become too expensive then entrepreneurs will try a variety of cheaper alternatives until one or more prove out. Prices are reduced, performance is enhanced, everyone benefits.

      Yep. I was lucky to read Buckminster Fuller when I was quite young. He pointed out that we do more and more with less and less. We don’t run out of materials because, if a material becomes too expensive, we can substitute with something that is probably better. Because we discovered kerosene and eventually electric light, we didn’t run out of whales. Someone once quipped that the stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. Here’s a link to a cute video that demonstrates the principle.
      I love the following quote because it involves Al Gore:

      Between 1977 and 2001, the amount of material required to meet all needs of Americans fell from 1.18 trillion pounds to 1.08 trillion pounds, even though the country’s population increased by 55 million people. Al Gore similarly noted in 1999 that since 1949, while the economy tripled, the weight of goods produced did not change. link

      Anyway, Buckminster Fuller innoculated me against the bloviations of folks like David Suzuki.

  7. Further, a lit match thrown into a jar of Gesner’s kerosene would simply be extinguished

    I doubt that very much. Do NOT try that at home. Maybe you mean “a lit cigarette” instead?

    • Throwing a lit match into a container of highly flammable liquid is a pretty common party trick– the dangerous version is when someone throws it into a puddle, which increases the chances of enough gas evaporating up that it can catch fire before the match/cigarette is entirely out.
      The secondary risk is people using a dark container for the flammable liquid, and having it in the sun……

      • One of Mythbusters demonstrations was trying to light trails of various liquid fuels, only gasoline is volatile enough to have flammable vapor above the liquid trail. That scene in Die Hard 2 is Hollywood special effects.

    • A lit match can be thrust into a liquid gasoline will be extinguished. I have demonstrated this many times. What burns are the vapors, just above the surface of the liquid. If you don’t dwell long enough in this explosive vapor zone it won’t ignite.
      If you attempt this at home several precautions should be taken. DO NOT HAVE ANY SPILLED GASOLINE NEAR YOUR CUP OF FLUID. The vapors may ignite before you even get close to cup. You do not need much gasoline and the less of it around (in case you mess up) the better. Light the match well away from the liquid. Bring the match above the liquid and quickly thrust it into the liquid making sure to go completely below the surface. The lack of oxygen will extinguish the flame.

      • In many autos and light trucks, the electric fuel pump is open frame and sits totally immersed on the bottom of the gasoline tank. These are safe from spark ignition because combustion cannot occur.

      • Anyone who barbecues (and lives with their eyebrows intact) knows about flash point. You also have to be aware of the ambient temperature – above 90F, I am very careful, as the lighter fluid will vaporize very quickly. (There is also the surface area from which it can evaporate, of course – much larger than a couple of square inches in a cup.)

    • As part of our fire training in the Coast Guard, the instructor poured kerosene (JP-5) into a 3-foot wide pan then lit a roadside flare and dunked it into the pan. The flare was extinguished. He then lit another flare and held the flame to the surface for a couple of seconds until it caught.
      “Don’t try this with gasoline,” he said.

  8. Coal oil was preferred (to kerosene) by my rural relatives before power arrived in the 50s. Brighter, less soot, less odor. Perhaps higher combustion temp as they considered it to be less dangerous than kero.
    Haven’t seen any for decades, though odorless lamp oil isn’t too bad as a solvent.

    • Maybe you’re looking for the old metal containers?
      I went to double-check my memory– Walmart has it in huge plastic jugs that look like bulk cleaning supplies. It might be in the camping and RV supplies. Can order the quart size for pickup, too.
      Or there’s the lamp oil over by the scented oils, incense sticks and melting wax, that’s almost always the very pure kerosene.

    • “Coal oil” is a colloquial term for what is now more commonly referred to as kerosene. They are both a 10 to 16 carbon alkanes and cycloalkanes (naphthene). Perhaps what you are remembering or the discrepancy in labels refers to the grades of kerosene (1-K or 2-K) which removes primarily sulfur?

  9. Drilling a hole and pumping out oil versus sailing and killing whales. Anyone who has read Moby Dick would know how hard and dangerous whaling was.

  10. I guess the obvious point of this exercise by PBS is to start some momentum to claim that petroleum based energy has never been beneficial to mankind. Next they will produce a study to claim that if we had not hunted unicorns to extinction, we would have been able to heat our homes off of their flatulence.
    And 53% of liberals would believe it, while a further 28% of liberals would promote the theory despite disbelief, Michael Mann would claim to be a unicorn hybrid.

  11. Revisionist history is almost as common for zealots as distorted use of language, as was noted in “1984”.

  12. Interesting post. The whole commercial fishing industry has been dealing with this, most of the criticism coming from sports fishing and later environmental groups. With commercial fishing greatly restricted in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, regulations are now falling on the sports fishing industry, some of which is now in a sense commercial. Sports fishing is usually argued to be much more valuable, but economists studying it don’t completely buy that, possibly because it is a (necessary?) luxury like tourism.
    Currently the issue is red snapper with arguments between states and the feds. Air-breathers are much more susceptible, and the concept that fisheries are limited by supply/demand factors doesn’t seem to get much discussion. Separating fishing effects from natural variation is still difficult in animals that produce millions of eggs with populations ruled by a number of factors.
    There were sperm whales fished in the Gulf of Mexico where sightings have now been increasing. It was mostly around the mouth of the Mississippi River. (Townsend, C. H., 1935. The distribution of certain whales as shown by logbook records of American Whaleships. Zoologica. Vol. XIX, no. 1). Fascinating study–“Sperm whaling in the Gulf of Mexico and West Indies regions was practised (sic) to a very limited extent during the season from February to May only.”

  13. Of interest is that it does not appear that whale oil is being sold today, apart from the legality of selling it. I have seen crude oil available on eBay, but if someone were to buy a gallon, what would it be used for beyond as a curiosity. It would certainly be a problem to properly (environmentally and legally) dispose of.
    The issue of whale oil is important because we do not buy whale oil or crude oil, we buy refined fuel products.
    These are made by taking a source of raw hydrocarbons, decomposing them into their constituent elements and then reassembling them into the molecules of the defined fuel product. What counts is the price of the product to the end user.
    This is the price that is the basis for the “bid” and determines how substitution is computed. If OPEC demands $100 per barrel of crude oil but some other source of hydrocarbons such as coal can be secured for $80/bbl, then industries would move to the lower cost supply of those hydrocarbons. It is clear that reduced supplies and tax levies certainly doomed whale oil to being replaced by hydrocarbon-based fuels.

  14. As you sit here and read this, consider yourself trying to read something 150 years ago. Most likely reading fast so as not to use up all of your candle. If only the enviro wacko’s could experience that for a few days, what great appreciation they would have cheap available energy. And like me, would need more than the politicized fuzzy studies of socialist doomsayers, before they cut off a much needed source of energy..

    • I could see that as an advantage – would we spend so much time on “social media” if we had to read our screens by candlelight?
      (Do I need a /sarc here? Probably…)

  15. Refined pig lard as a source of lamp fuel? Cruel irony, getting only light and no bacon out of it.

  16. I was at a conference 8 to 10 years ago. The keynote speaker started off reading a letter to the President of the USA. It was all about dependence on foreign energy suppliers and scarcity of resources. It had been written to President Polk, I think, about whale oil. The speaker went on to discuss potential enzyme factories that would convert forestry leavings (stuff that gets piled up and burnt after agriculture) into alcohol.

  17. That the climate extremists feel the need to rewrite history, doctor data, and hide from debate somehow seems interconnected.

  18. What’s amazing is the NYTimes (back in 1854) reporting something without any apparent cultural-marxist bias to it.

    • What’s amazing is the NYTimes (back in 1854) reporting something without any apparent cultural-marxist bias to it.

      Why? “Das Kapital” was not written till 1864….

      • “Why? Das Kapital was not written until 1864…”
        The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels was first published in 1848. From the The Introduction by Vladimir Pozner of the Bantam Classic edition 1992: “..the Specter of Communism is not a spectre at all, it is an idea, an outlook, and it is as alive today as in 1848, when Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto.”

  19. The discussion mentions “Natural Gas” and pipelines, in cities…
    Should that not be “Coal gas”? At the time, it was called simply, “Gas” — a product, mostly hydrogen, produced by directing a jet of high temperature dry steam onto hot iron.
    Some city gas works also mixed carbon MON-oxide into the product, along with the hydrogen, to get more burnable calories per cubic foot.
    Gas was replaced by “NATURAL Gas” after Rockefeller and Standard Oil, not before. Or so I recall.

    • pouncer,
      No, I meant natural gas lighting. The earliest use of natural gas lighting was in France and England in the early 1800s. But it was installed in Baltimore in 1817 and Philadelphia in 1836. It was around but not common due to the need for pipelines and sufficient natural gas.

    • pouncer, yes some of the natural gas was from coal, but it was still methane. In Pennsylvania there are some very shallow sources of natural gas and gas could be produced from some water wells.

      • In Pennsylvania there are some very shallow sources of natural gas
        Friends and relatives did this. In town, my family switched from coal heating to gas heating in the late 1940s.
        About 1958, a friend and I would, while hunting Whitetails, sit on a log beside an abandoned well. [Clarion County, PA]
        Remember book matches?
        We would light matches and toss them out toward the center of the small pool. There would be a small poof as the match entered that space where gas was escaping the water.
        On a day when I was not along, the friend, while sitting on that log, got his buck.
        [If a buck is shot off of a log in PA while nobody else was looking, did it really get shot off of the log that nobody was sitting on? .mod]

  20. Very nice article Andy. It’s persuasive, and, I think largely correct. One minor point though. I don’t think “natural gas” per se was widely used for lighting as it wouldn’t have been available in most markets. Instead, I think they used coal gas/town gas (same stuff) produced by aneorobic combustion of coal.

    • Don K., some gas was from coal for sure. But, the first natural gas well was drilled in Fredonia, New York in 1821. Fredonia Gas Light Company was founded in 1858. From Wikipedia:
      William Hart, considered the “father of natural gas” in the U.S., drilled in 1821 the first natural gas well in America along a creek in Fredonia, New York.[1] The well was approximately 27 feet (8.2 m) deep; by contrast, modern wells are over 7,500 feet (2,300 m) deep. The well was actually a big hole dug with shovels. The pipeline to transport the gas was made from hollowed out logs connected together with tar and rags.

      • Yes and no. They could conceivably have used natural gas in Pittsburgh and a few other places where there are natural gas pockets near the surface, but the luck of the geological draw is that cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore almost certainly wouldn’t have had natural gas until the twentieth century — by which time electric lights would largely have supplanted gas light.
        It took me a while to find it, but the gas used by Baltimore Gas Light Company was town gas ‘distilled” from ‘wood and tar’ see https://aoghs.org/technology/manufactured-gas/
        No, I have no idea exactly what “tar” was. Pine pitch? Heavy petroleum?

  21. Another use for whale oil, Specifically Spermicetti , was as as a temperature resistant fine lubricant. It had no equal till Ester based synthetics were developed for the Aerospace industry.

  22. Now that whale populations have increased, perhaps the whale oil and wax industry can be rebirthed as a renewable industry.

  23. Off-topic but related to your link: “Reading about this makes one see the wisdom of a flat income tax with no deductions at all.” I would toss out our monolithic tax code and replace it with something like that – a one rate income percentage tax.

    • exploitation of biological populations do not behave (mathematically) as do mineral reserves under exploitation.

      • So we can ‘save’ cornucopianism!
        No you are right, limited resources that are not renewable are MORE of a problem than whales..
        Peak oil is a fact, that has happened for eveyr well ever drilled.
        That it hasn’t happened yet for global production is a tribute to petrochemical engineers.
        We have seen peak stone, peak windmill, peak whale and probably peak coal come and go.
        Fortunately peak uranium will be long after peak renewable…

      • It’s called humor. This is how most people think of Peak Oil…

        A close examination of the data suggests that whaling began its decline in the 1850s because whales had become so hard and expensive to find that whalers could not charge a high enough price to make the business profitable.

        The fact that most people are wrong, is what makes it humorous.

  24. I’m guessing this article was an attempt to shoot down any positive idea about fossil fuels. You have to ignore a lot of history to make it a demon. One must never admit that fossil fuels can be beneficial.

  25. Once again the lessons of inexpensive quality fossil energy will be dismissed by the Left.
    The similar story is still playing out today in energy poor sub-Sahara Africa.
    In Africa, the forests are still cut down by villagers venturing into it to harvest wood and bush meat. The wood is turned to charcoal and that charcoal sold, along with the bush meat (monkeys, chimpanzees, etc) in the larger towns and cities where buyers have hard currency. That hard currency buys Western and Chinese-made clothes and shoes and building materials like concrete and roofing materials, along with petrol (gasoline) for their rickety cars and trucks.
    The Leftists want them to of course stop cutting down the trees for charcoal and killing monkeys for meat and gives them solar cooking units and Chinese rice which do nothing about providing them the energy industry they use to acquire hard currency.
    The vast bulk of Nigeria’s oil is exported. There are other substantial off-shore oil reserves along Africa’s immensely western coasts., but corrupt governance and stricter western laws punishing oil executives who engage in the demanded bribes will continue to thwart the development of their local oil reserves.
    Does the Left care? Not really. Take for example Barack Obama’s well-established indifference he showed to his extended family in Kenya. He clearly saw them as backward and not worth his time or energy to help lift them out of poverty. Modern Elitism knows no skin color.

  26. By the way, the Japanese still conduct whaling.
    Note the Japanese don’t eat much whale, but they eat lots of fish and whale meat is part of their culture. They don’t have much oil, and the War in the Pacific was largely a result of the lack of mineral and especially oil resources in Japan. Of course they don’t use whale oil for lighting, but one wonders if they would stop whaling in the 21st century if they had more oil? Their cultural need to still hunt whales is peculiar.

  27. Whale oil is the ultimate enviromentally friendly resource, it’s renewable, sustainable, carbon neutral, free range, free trade, bio-degradable, recycleable, compostable, organic, non-gmo and of course, all natural.

  28. By the mid-1800’s, lard lamps were clean, efficient and very bright. Prairie (or pork) whales were a burgeoning business running up to the Civil War. They were eventually priced out of the market by cheaper kerosene.

  29. Rush lights were made by poor people from hard rush leaf stalks stripped of most of their outer coating and then dipped into tallow or other fat. The pith in the centre of the leaf absorbed the fat. They only burnt for a short while and didn’t give much light, but could be produced cheaply and in large quantities. The rich used beeswax candles.
    As regards whale products, as recently as the 1970s I remember seeing whale skin leather buffing wheels being advertised in an industrial hardware catalogue.

  30. There are always alternative hypotheses around trying to explain about anything, but they are not paid much attention in most cases. The US Civil War tax explanation for an unfair advantage to kerosene that displaced whale oil is a US-centric explanation about a single whale product. There was an international market for whale products that was not affected by the US Civil War. Hypotheses that can explain the international decline in the demand of multiple whale products are far superior.
    The increase in price of every whale product due to increasing whale scarcity, product substitution due to progress finding better alternatives, and social changes, all combine to produce the best explanation for why the international demand for whale products dried up. Given how scarce many whales had become, it is reasonable to assume that the whaling industry demise due to becoming uneconomical saved several whale species. Kerosene played a part simply by being one of the products that substituted the main whale product, but it can be argued that even in the absence of kerosene the whaling industry had become uneconomical, and thus unsustainable in most markets.
    Markets where whale meat conveyed a high enough price continued whaling with or without kerosene or US-civil war taxes.

  31. Good read. Thanks, Andy!
    My home got electricity in 1947, and kerosene was still called coal
    oil into the ’50s where i lived. I still keep lamps and kerosene for
    emergencies.

  32. Whale oil was used into the 1970s [and perhaps later] for a lubricant in nuclear submarines. Nuke subs need a lubricant that is stable across a wide range of temperatures. Synthetics couldn’t match sperm whale oil.
    It was also used as a lubricant in nuclear bombs.
    Two pistons of uranium need to be slammed together at high speed. Doesn’t work if the pistons jam in the cylinders. A lubricant was required that would be stable and didn’t dry out. Sperm whale oil did the job.
    After WW2 the Japanese were persuaded to “like” whale meat with whale oil a convenient by-product.
    Now the Japanese keep whaling, even though they dislike whale meat, because they don’t like being told what to do.

    • GregK
      Are you suggesting that Japanese Whaling it’s the fault of the West again? I know it’s Wikipedia but:…
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whaling_in_Japan
      “Japanese whaling, in terms of active hunting of these large mammals, is estimated by the Japan Whaling Association to have begun around the 12th century.[1] However, Japanese whaling on an industrial scale began around the 1890s when Japan began to participate in the modern whaling industry, at that time an industry in which many countries participated.[2] Japanese whaling activities have historically extended far outside Japanese territorial waters, even into whale sanctuaries protected by other countries….”
      But also here:
      http://www.facts-about-japan.com/whaling-history.html
      Whaling has been an important part of Japanese society for over 1,000 years. Recently, however, it has come under fire from countries and organizations who strongly oppose this practice. It is important to be familiar with the history of whaling in Japan if one wants to fully understand the issue.
      Whaling in Japan dates back to the seventh century during the Yamato-Asuka period in ancient Japan. The oldest Japanese book in existence, called the Kojiki, chronicled that the Emperor Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan, ate whale meat. In addition to the Kojiki whaling is also mentioned in numerous other historical writings in Japan.
      The 17th century saw a dramatic development in whaling techniques in Taji, Wakayama. In 1606, Wada Chubei founded a system that involved hunting in groups. He also introduced a hand-held harpoon. Later on, Wada Kakuemon introduced the Amitori hou, a safe and efficient whaling net technique that has greatly improved the industry since…..

  33. Peak oil is a misnomer because since Drake, we had been targeting the most rare of petroleum, that which had escaped source rock after said formation had been faulted and the oil had been trapped.
    Most source rock of conventional Petro isn’t sufficiently faulted in the first place. Which is why the Permian Basin (Western Texas) is seeing a resurgence with unconventional techniques.
    For the past 100 years, we have been using the easiest to drill oil which happens to be the rarest. Now we can get it straight from the source. Takes a bit more effort but there is a lot more..several lifetimes.

  34. Sperm whale oil was the standard highest-quality lubricant in space technology in the 1970s, and was the favorite for lubing the 2 rotating wheels inside the earliest computer “mice” used at Xerox PARC. Tiny amounts lasted a long time in fine machinery, so the temptation to keep using what worked was strong.
    When concerns arose about the threat to whales, a switch to something more like 3-in-1 oil led to the mice gumming up — the big ball still turned against the desktop, but the right-angle wheels to generate the X and Y signals just skidded on the ball. A short-term treatment was rolling the ball over a a swab of alcohol which softened the gummed axel bearings. It was a very short-term solution though, as the solvent helped add grit to the gum which made it worse than before as soon as the alcohol evaporated away.
    This led to mice that needed a dose every morning to get them through the day! When the techs at PARC got a replacement batch of mice to use, they posted a notice telling people they could trade in their “alcoholic mice” for new “sober” ones.
    JoJoba bean oil is now said to be as good as sperm whale oil for high-tech lube — I don’t know if it really tests out that way but I’m sure the whales approve of the change.

  35. Whaling lasted a lot longer than is implied in this article. The following is taken from:
    “http://www.environment.gov.au/marine/marine-species/cetaceans/whaling ”
    “Whale protection for certain whale species commenced in the 1930s after the effects of whaling on whale populations became more apparent. The southern right whale was protected in Australian waters in 1935, after more than 26 000 individuals had been taken in Australian and New Zealand waters between 1822 and 1930.
    Whaling stations in Australia and New Zealand killed over 40 000 humpback whales on their migrations from the Antarctic Ocean to the warm tropical waters north of Australia. Whaling ceased on humpback whales in 1963, and they were protected worldwide in 1965 after recognition of a dramatic global decline in numbers.
    Commercial whaling continued in Australian waters on sperm whales with 16 000 taken from 1952 until the end of commercial whaling in 1978.
    Commercial whaling in Australia ceased in 1978 with the closure of Australia’s last whaling station, the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company, in Western Australia.”
    I was a first trip cadet on “Chindwara” in 1952 when we carried a cargo of about 1000 tons of whale oil in the deep tanks, from Fremantle to NE Europe – probably Antwerp, though I am not certain about the port of discharge. Before loading, the deep tanks had to be wire brushed to remove all loose rust and were then painted with whale oil. I believe this then oxidized to form a protective coating which prevented the whale oil from being too badly contaminated by the rust. I believe a second cargo was carried in 1953, though I am not certain about this.
    Wire brushing the steel work was a horrible job – outweighed by the stench of the whale oil we had to paint onto the exposed steelwork!

  36. No mention of the Scottish shale oil industry, which appears to have preceded US petroleum production.
    Scotland’s shale oil industry operated for more than a century. Its history is a stirring and involved tale of enterprise and invention, triumph and dispair, hard labour and strong communities. It remains a source of pride with a continuing legacy. For those with little prior knowledge seeking a quick introduction to the industry we present:
    A quick history of the Scottish shale oil industry
    A quick history of James Paraffin Young
    For others intent in delving deeper
    Many consider that the world’s first commercial scale oil refinery was at Inchcross near Bathgate in central Scotland. Here from 1851, James “paraffin” Young and his partners produced a range of mineral oils from the local coals, several years before the first oilwell was drilled in the USA. James Young adapted gas-making technology and patented a process in which cannel coal was heated to a specified temperature within an enclosed vessel or “retort” in order to release an oil vapour.

    http://www.scottishshale.co.uk/HistoryPages/index.html
    https://www.scottishshale.co.uk/
    https://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/our-region/west-lothian/broxburn/remembering-the-world-s-first-shale-oil-boom-1-4130293

  37. More easily;
    How come the US tax on alcohol changed the lamp oil choice for the rest of the world?

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