Running Out of Whales
The flickering light of a fireplace or wood stove isn’t great for reading in a dark Pennsylvania winter, so people have burned many other things for light. In Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the US, wealthy early European settlers preferred burning whale oil, which didn’t stink like tallow candles (made from animal fat), and didn’t blow up like the alcohol-turpentine mixture known as camphine. At its peak, the Yankee whaling fleet had 10,000 sailors on ships, scouring the far reaches of the ocean for whales to supply oil. Populations of the main species pursued by the Yankee whalers dropped precipitously, and the Yankee production of whale oil followed, with prices rising greatly, from a low that would be about $7/gallon today, to a peak of almost $25/gallon. The total amount of whale oil collected by the Yankee whalers in the 1800s is roughly the same as the total amount of oil (petroleum) imported by the United States in a week—if we hit a shortage of our modern energy sources, we cannot easily go back to our former sources!
Video: Whales Celebrate Oil in Pennsylvania (0:48)
As the US got out of the whaling business, others—particularly Norwegians—got into it, using new technologies including faster boats and harpoon cannons to hunt species that had eluded the Yankee whalers. But even the vast resource of fast Antarctic whales proved small compared to the hunger of humans, and soon those whales were depleted as well.
Video: Peak Whale Oil (2:16)
Video: Polka Oil (0:47)
The first modern oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania along Oil Creek, up the road from where Dr. Alley lives, in 1859, shortly after peak whale oil in the US and the sharp rise in whale-oil prices. The impact was understood even then, with the magazine Vanity Fair in 1861 publishing an editorial cartoon showing the “Grand Ball of the Whales in Honor of the Oil Wells of Pennsylvania”, featuring the sign “Oils well that ends well”. The cover of the 1864 sheet music American Petroleum Polka features a Pennsylvania scene including a lady in a pink dress and an oil well that “…threw pure oil 100 feet high” (30 m).