An illustration by A. Burnham Shute from an early edition of Moby Dick, a literary reminder that whaling wasn't easy.
Given the summer we’ve had here in Chicagoland, many of us are now well versed in power-outage protocol. Flashlight? Check. Extra batteries? Check. Whale oil?
Wait—whale oil? What does that have to do with anything?
As it turns out, quite a bit. Like I mentioned in my previous post, last week I had the opportunity to attend part of UIC’s Summer Institute on Sustainability and Energy, which was supported in part by the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern. One of the speakers, Northwestern economics professor Lynne Kiesling, gave us a crash course on the history of electricity innovation and commercialization in the US.
Instead of starting with the electricity celebrities you might expect—our old friends Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, to name two—she went back a bit further and began with a chapter in the story that most of us don’t think about: the one that starts with whales.
Before we started stringing up electrical lines all over the place, we were using oil lamps to light up our lives, and one of the most popular and high-quality options was whale oil. Burning whale oil produced brighter and more consistent light than other popular sources of the time, especially the candle. Its use caught on broadly and demand shot up. By the early to mid-1800’s, whaling was the fifth-largest industry in the US.
But then we ran into a problem. Already a problem was the danger involved in whaling—for those of you familiar with Melville, you know that hunting whales is neither easy nor safe. And, the more whales that were hunted, the more scarce the population became, especially near the US.
So what is the result of high demand and short supply? That’s right—high prices. (And, in this case, an endangered species—not a minor issue, and one that I’ll get to in a moment.) With high prices came creativity, innovation, and eventually commercial alternatives, like kerosene and electric power. Obviously that’s an oversimplification of the brilliant scientific process and multiple drivers—the price of whale oil being only one—that let to the widespread change. But the end result holds true: away go the oil lamps and up go the power lines.
What I find most interesting about this story is that buried inside is a lesson in sustainability. There was a time not too long ago when a significant portion of the American public looked to whale oil as its source of power, and the companies who procured and sold the oil were very powerful. But it was a limited resource, and fortunately we looked to alternatives (unfortunately, not entirely sustainable alternatives) before depleting the entire whale population. So the moral of the story? What you think you “need” today—say, lots of fossil fuels—might not seem so necessary in the future, if we continue to apply our creativity and innovation to finding and developing sustainable energy sources. Our Earth—including the whales—will thank us.