Friday, May 15, 2009

Big Whale

Historical touchstones can humble us by marking how far we have come in such a short period of time. What now seems obvious was quite recently not so.

The following table from the New York Times of January 8, 1862 shows the number of North Pacific whaling ships and barrels of whale oil taken. You can see the pattern of more scarce whales.

(source: The New York Times, Jan 8, 1862. Click excerpt for full article)

In the same article there is a table describing the relatively steady climb of whale oil prices until the birth of the modern petroleum industry in 1859. Increasing whale oil prices were the primary drivers in the search for a new alternative lower cost lamp oil.

As you will know from Oil 101, petroleum had been used almost exclusively as a lamp oil from 1859 until the early 1900s. The following letter to the New York Times of February 8, 1891 shows that although widely used for lighting, the use of petroleum for transportation had been considered early in the history of the modern oil industry. The US government "pronounced it a failure". In the 16 years following the letter below there were mass produced automobiles and the first powered aircraft.

(source: The New York Times, Feb 8, 1891. Click excerpt for full article)

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