Whaling


"Consider the whale. Hunted since antiquity, by the nineteenth century it had become an economic engine that helped turn the United States into a powerhouse. Every square inch of it could be turned into something, so the whale afforded one-stop shopping for a fast-growing nation: material for the manufacture of paint and varnish; textiles and leather; candles and soap; clothing and of course food (the tongue was a particular delicacy). The whale was especially beloved by the finer sex, surrendering its body parts for corsets, collars, parasols, perfume, hairbrushes, and red fabric dye. (This last product was derived from, of all things, the whale's excrement.) Most valuable was whale oil, a lubricant for all sorts of machinery but most crucially used for lamp fuel. As the author Eric Jay Dolin declares in Leviathan, 'American whale oil lit the world.'
"Out of a worldwide fleet of 900 whaling ships, 735 of them were American, hunting in all four oceans. Between 1835 and 1872, these ships reaped nearly 300,000 whales, an average of more than 7,700 a year. In a good year, the total take from oil and baleen (the whale's bonelike 'teeth') exceeded $10 million, today's equivalent of roughly $200 million. Whaling was dangerous and difficult work, but it was the fifth-largest industry in the United States, employing 70,000 people.

"And then what appeared to be an inexhaustible resource was - quite suddenly and, in retrospect, quite obviously - heading toward exhaustion. Too many ships were hunting for too few whales. A ship that once took a year at sea to fill its hold with whale oil now needed four years. Oil prices spiked accordingly, rocking the economy back home. Today, such an industry might be considered 'too big to fail,' but the whaling industry was failing indeed, with grim repercussions for all America.

"That's when a retired railway man named Edwin L. Drake, using a steam engine to power a drill through seventy feet of shale and bedrock, struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania. The future bubbled to the surface. Why risk life and limb chasing underwater leviathans around the world, having to catch and carve them up, when so much energy was just waiting, in the nation's basement, to be pumped upstairs?

"Oil was not only a cheap and simple fix but, like the whale, extraordinarily versatile. It could be used as lamp oil, a lubricant, and as a fuel for automobiles and home heating; it could be made into plastic and even nylon stockings. The new oil industry also provided lots of jobs for unemployed whalers and, as a bonus, functioned as the original Endangered Species Act, saving the whale from near-certain extinction."

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Superfreakonomics, William Morrow, Copyright 2009 by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, pp. 142-143.