When I visited Alaska in June one of the highlights of my trip was seeing a number of large whales while visiting Seward on the Kenai peninsula. It was a total Tourist Moment and I was OK with that. The fact that humans can see whales at all today is something of a miracle; only luck and good timing allowed most of the major species to make it out of the 19th Century without being hunted to extinction.

Why was killing whales so profitable? It turns out that people don't like sitting around in the pitch dark and prefer to have their homes and community spaces lit. Despite what we might imagine, candles played a minor role in lighting homes and certainly weren't used for things like street lighting. Turn off every electrical device in your home and light a couple candles; try reading something at night this way. It doesn't work terribly well, does it? Whale oil was a substantial step up, offering the advantage not only of a brighter, steadier light but one that could be burned indoors without marking everything in the home with soot or slowly poisoning the inhabitants. With natural gas uncommon until the era of the automobile, whale oil was the gold standard. So in the 19th Century we killed a lot of whales. Like. Almost all of them. So that we could light lamps at night.

People who like animals should mark their calendars with the birthdate of a Canadian geologist named Abraham Gesner (May 2) who in 1846 developed a process to distill a liquid fuel from low-grade coal. It was cheap as hell to produce and burned even steadier and brighter than whale oil. For reasons unknown he named it "Kerosene", and every whale on the planet breached the surface simultaneously to say "THANKS ABE!" Whaling continued but declined.

The problem remained, however, of providing a truly bright light. Until electricity and suitable light bulbs were developed it was hard to produce anything more than, well…if you've ever used a gas lantern you know what you're dealing with. It's nice. It's better than a candle. But it's not really bright bright. Actually, brighter artificial lights could be produced but only via processes that were dangerous, difficult, expensive, or all three. The most popular was invented in 1820 by a Briton named, I shit you not, Goldsworthy Gurney and involved a small flame fed by oxygen and hydrogen directed at a lump of Calcium Oxide, aka quicklime or simply lime. Commonly called Drummond Lights (after an early developer of the process) or calcium lights, they were staggeringly bright (even by modern, electrified standards) but had to be attended at all times. They burned extremely hot and, you know, started a ton of fires. However, in applications in which they could be monitored they were quite popular. Lighthouses, for example, used them to great effect.

Another popular application was in theaters, where an extremely bright light was useful, when directed properly, in drawing attention to the featured performer on stage. And that is why to this day celebrities and other people on the receiving end of intense media attention are said to be "in the limelight."

And now you know that. It's a whale of an anecdote.



  • Ed, I continue to be amazed by the fascinating stuff and analysis that you come up with.

    When I was in high school I didn't know what I wanted to pick as a major in college. My senior year history teacher was full of anecdotes and background stories about the events that we were studying.

    He had been a purser on a ship and a conductor on the Great Northern Railway and would go off on tangents during the lesson. He sure kept my interest.

    It's a real pity that students today whose teachers are forced to teach from a script and teach to the test are missing out on this kind of learning. Concentrating on courses that will help you work the cash register at McDonald's isn't the answer either.

    And the courses on computer can't come up with a serendipity moment where a human teacher can move the discussion in direction that will help this student specifically, but not necessarily every student. Great teachers can do this.

    I ended up taking the SAT achievement test in history and scoring 700 out of 800 and got my BA in history. I never put it to use, but it sure helps me understand what's going on in the news.

    I was speaking to an old lawyer in town who had been a friend of my father's just the other day and it turns out that he became a lawyer because of the same teacher (who had taught him earlier in his teaching career). He was the debate team advisor and drove his debate team all over the state.

    Thank you.

  • Goldsworthy Gurney was also the first recipient of the coveted Most British Name award, paving the way for current champion Benedict Cumberbatch.

  • There's a great PBS series, available on Netflix, similar to "Connections", called "How we got to Now". There's an episode on light that goes into some of the details of the early days of whaling, like how the smallest crewmember, generally a child, had to crawl inside a hole in the whale corpse's head to scoop out the whale fat by hand. The host also goes through the history of the development of the lightbulb. Good stuff.

  • Nick, it's Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch CBE. He, being a modern man, likely considered adding his wife's name, though perhaps Hunter is far too common.

  • During a recent trip to the Oregon coast I not only got to see whales, but I also had the good fortune to see one take an enormous dump while it was preparing to dive and had its ass (?) up out of the water. Thus it was that I crossed something off my bucket list that I never even knew was on it.

  • Pennelope Pennebaker says:

    Apologies to earlier posters chopper and Ben, in my thrill of remembrance I didn't even take the time to read your postings.

    It was a wonderful show, wasn't it?

  • paintedjaguar says:

    A lot of younger folk have probably never seen a gasoline-fueled Coleman lantern in operation. When I was young this was the gold standard for a camping/emergency light source. They use gasoline in a hand pumped pressurized tank to feed one or two carbonized filament "mantles" (early electric bulbs used carbonized filaments). They're also clean burning — no smoke or smell — and produce a steady white light. An average two-mantle model is roughly equivalent to a 60W-75W electric bulb and can burn all night on about a pint of fuel. One could use the same white-gas fuel in stoves and catalytic heaters. All in all, a very cool bit of tech.

  • wait, my coleman lantern is out of date? So, nowadays they put a stand in the middle of the campsite picnic table and everybody turns on the flashlight app and clips their smartphone to it?

  • mm, the other thing that we don't really have anymore are teachers that have had some of those super random jobs that make for interesting anecdotes. These days, if you're not on your career path by 16, and focus only on that, it's unemployment for you.

    Ok, I'm exagerating a lot, and might even be dead wrong for teaching, but yeah.

    My other reply to mm is that I, too, have not yet really used my History BA for much but understanding the news. I went into history because I couldn't settle on any other field and history allows for the study of anything.

  • That's a great piece of history. Whaling continued well after the introduction of town gas and kerosene. They still eat whale, ostensibly harvested for research purposes, in Japan. Interestingly they called venison yama kujira, mountain whale. I gather that eating red meat from a land animal was morally suspect, but eating red meat from a sea animal safe for one's soul.

    Whale oil was also used in magnetic tape for recording sound and computer data. Sperm whale oil, in particular, was relatively waxy and gave tapes their flexibility. If you are a music or data archivist, you probably know a lot more about the properties of sperm whale oil as they are relevant if you are doing data recovery. I think it was replaced in the 1970s with jojoba oil which has its own preservation problems. I imagine that modern tapes use some kind of carbowax or some other long chain as a binder.

  • Coleman lamps are still around. I'm currently a campground host at a state park in Missouri and have seen quite a few Coleman lanterns in use in the basic (no electricity) loop. They produce a remarkably bright light, much brighter than any of the battery powered camp lanterns I've seen sitting on the picnic tables.

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