Whale oil

A solar energy source: whale oil
... huge market

... The Charles W. Morgan

... a successful voyage

Until the invention of the electric lamp, lighting was always a problem.  Fuel was never abundant, and the light sources were extremely inefficient, even compared to the 8-or-so percent for incandescent lamps.  A huge market developed for whale oil, brought to the shores by whalers who plied the seas in search of leviathans to kill.

The Charles W. Morgan,  built in 1841, is the only remaining specimen of a type of whaling vessel that once numbered in the thousands.  It was preserved, though imperfectly, at New Bedford, Massachusetts, but finally moved to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, where it was beautifully reconstructed.  She made seven voyages under various captains, mostly to the Pacific Ocean.  She was first rigged as a ship registered at 351 tons, then in 1867 as a bark registered at 314 tons.  “The Morgan was usually away from home three years and five months.  Her outfitting usually required five months’ time.” [1]

On the Morgan’s most successful voyage, the log book shows them “bringing 1935 barrels, having also sent home 2280 barrels.” [1] These are not the standard 42-gallon barrels of today’s petroleum business.  They are, by my estimate, closer to 100 gallons.  Roughly, we may estimate that the overall catch amounted to 10-20 million (42-gallon) barrels per year from all whalers at sea, a trivial fraction of today’s US petroleum consumption of 5.5 billion barrels per year.

[1] George Francis Dow, Whale Ships and Whaling, A Pictorial History,  Dover Publications (1985).

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