Money  /  Book Excerpt

Underground Whales: An Energy Archaeology

On the history of whaling and how we understand energy consumption.

The Pennsylvania oil fields were full of whales. Reporters at the site of the United States’ first oil boom in the 1860s wrote that oil wells “spouted” like whales coming up for air, and oil shot through pipes from the well to the holding tank “with a sound like the ‘blowing’ of a whale.” According to a Kansas newspaper reporter in 1861, some oil field workers even imagined that underground oil reserves were fossilized whales: “Some of the Philosophers think this country was once an inland sea inhabited by the monsters of the deep, and that oil as found was the death bed of an antediluvian whale. Oil is imperishable, every vestige of the animal is gone but the grease.”

Perhaps oil field workers saw whales because so many of them had once worked in the whaling industry. And why wouldn’t the whalemen go into petroleum? Oil was oil, and whalemen were oilmen. Before the development of those Pennsylvania oil fields, whaling had been the primary oil industry of the late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century United States; whale oil was used to light lamps and lubricate machinery. Until the early 1860s, newspaper reports about the “oil industry” or the “price of oil” referred to whaling and whale oil. But as the new oil fields opened up, rock oil (petro + oleum) supplanted whale oil, and petroleum became the oil that mattered most. It is no surprise that the oilmen saw whales in Pennsylvania: such is the power of resource extraction to make one thing into another. The commercial whaling industry had made whales into oil, so it took only a short intellectual leap to believe that oil might be made of whales.

As the petroleum fields grew, oilmen from the whaling industry sought better opportunities in the new petroleum business. One observer, writing for the New York Tribune, observed the migration of workers from the whale fishery to the oil fields: “I find that New Bedford and Nantucket, heretofore oildom, has been unsuccessful for several years past, and is coming here, with its millions of money and its hordes of vessel officers, to harpoon the old mother of all whales (earth) and draw her blubber by the force of steam, which must eventually injure whaling oildom very much.” New England whalemen founded refineries, built tank infrastructure, and opened hotels for oil field laborers. In 1861, a whale oil refiner named Charles Ellis and H. H. Rogers, son of a Fairhaven, Massachusetts, whaleman, built a refinery near Oil City, Pennsylvania. Within the first year of the refinery’s operation, “[Rogers’s] cruise to Pennsylvania had netted him as much as half a dozen whales.” Rogers later became a director at John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. Back in New Bedford, Massachusetts, whaling magnate Abraham Howland converted a whale oil refinery over to kerosene and coal oil. New Bedford whaling captain and shipowner John Arnold Macomber built and operated oil storage tanks in Pennsylvania. And the Crape House hotel for workers in Oil City was founded by a New Bedford man “who, like others from the same quondam oily city, now follow oil wherever they can smell it.”