Friday, November 06, 2009 11/6/09 - whaling

In today's excerpt - whaling. In the 1800s, the whaling
industry - as immortalized in Moby Dick - was one of
the most important industries in America, powering
both economic growth and America's growing global

"Consider the whale. Hunted since antiquity, by the
nineteenth century it had become an economic engine
that helped turn the United States into a powerhouse.
Every square inch of it could be turned into something,
so the whale afforded
one-stop shopping for a fast-growing nation: material
for the manufacture of paint and varnish; textiles and
leather; candles and soap; clothing and of course
food (the tongue was a particular delicacy). The whale
was especially beloved by the finer sex, surrendering
its body parts for corsets, collars, parasols, perfume,
hairbrushes, and red fabric dye. (This last product
was derived from, of all things, the whale's
excrement.) Most valuable was whale oil, a lubricant
for all sorts of machinery but most crucially used for
lamp fuel. As the author Eric Jay Dolin declares in
Leviathan, 'American whale oil lit the world.'

"Out of a worldwide fleet of 900 whaling ships, 735 of
them were American, hunting in all four oceans.
Between 1835 and 1872, these ships reaped nearly
300,000 whales, an average of more than 7,700 a
year. In a good year, the total take from oil and baleen
(the whale's bonelike 'teeth') exceeded $10 million,
today's equivalent of roughly $200 million. Whaling
was dangerous and difficult work, but it was the
fifth-largest industry in the United States, employing
70,000 people.

"And then what appeared to be an inexhaustible
resource was - quite suddenly and, in retrospect, quite
obviously - heading toward exhaustion. Too many
ships were hunting for too few whales. A ship that
once took a year at sea to fill its hold with whale oil
now needed four years. Oil prices spiked accordingly,
rocking the economy back home. Today, such an
industry might be considered 'too big to fail,' but the
whaling industry was failing indeed, with grim
repercussions for all America.

"That's when a retired railway man named Edwin L.
Drake, using a steam engine to power a drill through
seventy feet of shale and bedrock, struck oil in
Titusville, Pennsylvania. The future bubbled to the
surface. Why risk life and limb chasing underwater
leviathans around the world, having to catch and carve
them up, when so much energy was just waiting, in
the nation's basement, to be pumped upstairs?

"Oil was not only a cheap and simple fix but, like the
whale, extraordinarily versatile. It could be used as
lamp oil, a lubricant, and as a fuel for automobiles
and home heating; it could be made into plastic and
even nylon stockings. The new oil industry also
provided lots of jobs for unemployed whalers and, as
a bonus, functioned as the original Endangered
Species Act, saving the whale from near-certain

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner,
Superfreakonomics, William Morrow, Copyright
2009 by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, pp.


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