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I have often pondered why mankind decided to go after the humble whale. After all, the whale was out there, in the ocean, minding his or her own business and wasn't really causing any problem. Unless you were a seal, krill or plankton. In which case, you probably had a civil rights claim or two. 
Yet this gentle giant ( as far as humans are concerned ) was not bothering anyone. All the whales wanted to do was what they have done since God first had a great idea " I think I'll make a whale. "  and the whales just cruised around, having babies, blowing bubbles and migrating to warmer places and having a jolly old time.  

So what did the poor whale do to us? Well, let me tell you a whale of a tale and how the Industrial Revolution saved it.

In the pre-industrial era, various whale products were highly sought after commodities. Whale oil, obtained from boiling the blubber of whales, was a vital source of lighting and lubrication for lamps and machinery. It burned cleanly and brightly, making it a preferred alternative to other sources of fuel like animal fat or vegetable oils. The oil was also used in the production of soap, candles, and cosmetics. Whalebone, found in the baleen plates of certain whale species, was used to make corsets, hoop skirts, and other fashion items. 

In fact, at this time, the whale population must have been saying something like this. 

whale oil beef hooked

As seafaring nations explored distant lands and engaged in trade, they sought to exploit the abundant resources of the oceans. The whaling industry, therefore, became an extension of maritime expansion, particularly in regions like Europe and North America, where maritime prowess was key to colonial ambitions and economic growth.

As maritime technology improved, the ability to venture further into the open seas increased. The development of more advanced sailing ships allowed whalers to navigate treacherous waters and explore remote regions where whales were abundant. Harpoons and other specialised whaling equipment also underwent significant advancements, making it easier to catch and process whales more efficiently.


The Basque people from the region between Spain and France were among the earliest and most skilled whalers. They were pioneers in the industry and had been hunting whales in the Bay of Biscay and along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador as early as the 11th century. Their expertise and knowledge were crucial in laying the foundations for the whaling industry.

As global trade networks expanded, the whaling industry transformed from a localised activity to a commercial venture. Whaling companies, often backed by wealthy merchants and investors, emerged to capitalise on the increasing demand for whale products. These companies organised fleets of whaling vessels and employed skilled seamen and harpooners to undertake perilous voyages in search of whales.


music from Redhead and voice of her late husband aged 78. Now, that is a " Voice " I support. 

Whale oil was occasionally used in the production of explosives during the 18th and 19th centuries due to its unique properties. It was primarily employed in a specific type of explosive called "gun cotton" or "nitrocellulose."

Gun cotton is a highly flammable compound made by treating cellulose, typically derived from plant sources, with concentrated nitric acid. The resulting substance is highly explosive and can be used in firearms and other munitions. However, the manufacturing process of gun cotton often required a stabilising agent to reduce its sensitivity to shock or friction.

Whale oil, with its high viscosity and resistance to oxidation, served as a suitable stabilising agent for gun cotton. It was added to the mixture to make it more manageable and safer to handle. The whale oil acted as a coating or binder, preventing the gun cotton from becoming too volatile or sensitive to accidental ignition.


During the American Civil War (1861-1865), both the Union and Confederate forces utilised gun cotton for various military applications. The use of gun cotton marked a significant advancement in weaponry technology during the war.

Gun cotton was used in the form of compressed powder in paper cartridges for rifles and muskets. The cartridges allowed soldiers to load their firearms more quickly and efficiently compared to the traditional process of measuring loose gunpowder.

Additionally, gun cotton was used in the manufacturing of artillery shells, particularly for explosive and incendiary projectiles. These shells provided greater firepower and increased the destructive potential of artillery during the war.


The use of gun cotton and other explosive compounds during the American Civil War helped shape the evolution of modern military technology and tactics. It demonstrated the increasing reliance on chemically manufactured propellants and explosives, paving the way for further developments in ammunition and weaponry in the years that followed.

Whale oil played a significant role in the leather and textile industries during the 18th and 19th centuries. Its unique properties made it a valuable resource for various processes in these industries. Here's how whale oil was used:

  1.  Whale oil was utilised in the tanning process to soften leather hides and make them more pliable. It acted as a lubricant, making it easier to work with the leather during the tanning process. 

  2. Whale oil was used in the textile industry to impart water-repellent properties to fabrics. By applying whale oil to textiles such as canvas or sailcloth, the material became more resistant to water absorption. This was particularly useful for products like sails, tents, and outdoor clothing, providing protection from moisture and extending the lifespan of these items.

  3. The textile industry heavily relied on machinery for various processes, such as spinning, weaving, and finishing textiles. Whale oil's lubricating properties made it a valuable substance for ensuring the smooth operation of textile machinery. It was applied to spinning wheels, looms, and other mechanical components, reducing friction and improving the efficiency of textile production.

  4. In the wool industry, whale oil was used in processes such as scouring, where raw wool fibres are washed to remove impurities. Whale oil was added to the scouring bath to help break down dirt and grease from the wool, making it easier to clean and process further.

But something happened. A man named Abraham Gesner, a Canadian geologist and inventor found something. In the mid-19th century, Gesner developed a process to distill a liquid fuel from coal, shale, and bitumen. He called this liquid "kerosene," derived from the Greek word "keros," meaning wax, due to its waxy appearance. Gesner's work laid the foundation for the commercial production of kerosene as a fuel.


 Oil, pumped from the ground, had changed the course of history. 

The whale was suddenly less vital to man's power grab or grab for power. 

Oil became the new whale. 

While whale oil was still valuable for many things, its light was dimming - a new currency was on the horizon........

The next article in our series will explore how we saw the light: with lighthouses. 

Please watch the videos. They have been sourced quite deliberately and after much research. Thanks. Monty. 


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