When Whaling Was King

John Steele Gordon writes great historical non-fiction; his last book was Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power. Among many other things, he discusses how it was the Erie Canal that really turned New York City into the center of American capitalism, bringing crops and goods from the Midwest to be shipped to Europe and elsewhere.

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Gordon reviewed a book on another fascinating economic-history subject: the business of whaling. If you drive around coastal New England and see all the whaling captains’ mansions, you get a reminder that whaling was once very big business; otherwise, it’s easy to forget. At the time, Gordon writes, whales “were cornucopias of useful products,” producing oil for heating, lighting, and lubricants, while other parts were used to make dyes, clothing parts, and household and farm supplies. The whale was our oil patch, factory, and forest rolled into one. But … talk about a depletable resource!

The book, Leviathan by Eric Jay Dolin, sounds very good. It describes how the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 disrupted American whaling, which eventually came roaring back and ultimately dominated the global industry:

In 1846, of the 900 whaling ships in operation around the world, 735 of them had sailed from the U.S. That was one-fifth of the country’s merchant tonnage. Whaling employed 70,000 people and in 1853, its best year, hauled in 8,000 whales that produced 103,000 barrels of sperm oil, 260,000 barrels of whale oil and 5.7 million pounds of baleen.

Do you think that, 150 years from now, people will be reading this kind of history book about the oil industry?

And: will people still be writing histories at all?


Das Boot

Transition from really difficult to obtain whale oil to readily available petroleum made a lot of progress possible. We're approaching the same point with oil now and either we've got to learn how to effectively handle nuclear power or a paradigm shifting energy discovery will be necessary to serve the advancement of 7 billion people. Oil will be a quaint story in 150 years.

pheiticeira

I certainly hope that History (capital H!) will still be read in the future. As a recent college grad and current Grad student I find that as long as im a part of Academia that I will always have a lingering interest in History, but it is because of the Prof's that i have had. Perhaps it takes the right kind of writer to write the kind of History that will be read...

I never had an interest in Economics or its application until i read Freakonomics, nor did I have an interest in Fantasy until I read Harry Potter, so perhaps its up to the creative and imaginative minds of our time to write the books that will interest the future.

jonathank

I would hope we'd have moved to different energy sources long before then.

It's interesting to trace any history, but I find the history of economic clusters to be very illuminating, both for the intrinsic interest and because they echo across today. Baltimore, for example, was just a little closer for shipping inland so Sparrow's Point developed into a giant steel plant - producing for many years the rails that then crossed the country. That plant shaped Baltimore's harbor and development and the effects of that are felt today.

stevesliva

It is interesting that both whale oil and petroleum are, well, oil. I fully expect the next alternative to be... oil. Call it corn ethanol, sugar ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, we're going to be burning hydrocarbons. But at least the ethanols grab atmospheric carbon before we burn them.

lermit

Speak for yourself.

You can very well burn hydrogen or oxygen or break other substances without needing to mash any carbon into it. Well, at least in my view.

.lermit

frankenduf

the pessimistic history quote overlooks the fact that Moby Dick immortalizes the whaling era

G.V.Varma

Yes.Many people write histories and some of them are fascinating.It is interesting to read about historical pieces on "Tulipomania","Bubonic Plague" of the 17th century,"Slave Trade" and the like if such acounts are authentic and not fiction.

Das Boot

Transition from really difficult to obtain whale oil to readily available petroleum made a lot of progress possible. We're approaching the same point with oil now and either we've got to learn how to effectively handle nuclear power or a paradigm shifting energy discovery will be necessary to serve the advancement of 7 billion people. Oil will be a quaint story in 150 years.

pheiticeira

I certainly hope that History (capital H!) will still be read in the future. As a recent college grad and current Grad student I find that as long as im a part of Academia that I will always have a lingering interest in History, but it is because of the Prof's that i have had. Perhaps it takes the right kind of writer to write the kind of History that will be read...

I never had an interest in Economics or its application until i read Freakonomics, nor did I have an interest in Fantasy until I read Harry Potter, so perhaps its up to the creative and imaginative minds of our time to write the books that will interest the future.

jonathank

I would hope we'd have moved to different energy sources long before then.

It's interesting to trace any history, but I find the history of economic clusters to be very illuminating, both for the intrinsic interest and because they echo across today. Baltimore, for example, was just a little closer for shipping inland so Sparrow's Point developed into a giant steel plant - producing for many years the rails that then crossed the country. That plant shaped Baltimore's harbor and development and the effects of that are felt today.

stevesliva

It is interesting that both whale oil and petroleum are, well, oil. I fully expect the next alternative to be... oil. Call it corn ethanol, sugar ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, we're going to be burning hydrocarbons. But at least the ethanols grab atmospheric carbon before we burn them.

lermit

Speak for yourself.

You can very well burn hydrogen or oxygen or break other substances without needing to mash any carbon into it. Well, at least in my view.

.lermit

frankenduf

the pessimistic history quote overlooks the fact that Moby Dick immortalizes the whaling era

G.V.Varma

Yes.Many people write histories and some of them are fascinating.It is interesting to read about historical pieces on "Tulipomania","Bubonic Plague" of the 17th century,"Slave Trade" and the like if such acounts are authentic and not fiction.