Save The Whales? Burn Turpentine

“OK, Sy, I’ve told you the oil, wax and spermaceti story from my chemistry viewpoint. What got you reading up on whales?”

“A client asked a question that had me going down a rabbit hole that turned into a wormhole leading to a whole bunch of Biology and some Economics. Good thing I enjoy learning random facts.”

“OK, I’ll bite. What was the question?”

“Alright, Susan, see how you do with this. We need our eyes to be round so they can rotate in their sockets and still focus images on their retinas. They can hold that spherical shape against atmospheric pressure because they’re filled with watery stuff and they have a pump‑and‑drain mechanism inside that maintains a slight positive internal pressure. Whales dive down to where water pressures are a hundred atmospheres or more, enough to squeeze their lungs shut. They must use their vision sense down there because their retinal rod cells, the low‑light receptors, are sensitive to blue light. That’s what you’d need for hunting where the water above you filters out all the longer wavelengths. So why doesn’t the pressure down there crumple their eyeballs?”

“Oh, Sy, that’s easy. Water’s among the least compressible molecular liquids we know of. It takes an immense amount of pressure to reduce its volume even by 1%. Hunting-ground pressure isn’t nearly high enough to sabotage water‑filled eyeballs.”

“D’oh! So simple. And here I am, reading a dissection report on a sperm whale’s eyeball. Which, by the way, is about 22 times heavier than a human’s.”

“That’s where your wormhole led you?”

“No, actually, it led me to a econo-political argument about why kerosene got big in the 1860s.”

“Say what? I thought kerosene came in because sperm whales were getting hard to find.”

“That’s the story Big Oil likes. Apparently free-market enthusiasts have been lauding the petroleum industry as heroes dashing in with kerosene to save the whales and by the way, prospering completely independent of any government actions. Turns out History doesn’t support either claim. Ever hear of Camphine?”


“Camphine saved the whales but then sank with nary a trace. I got most of the story from a PBS blog but pieced that together with a Wikipedia article and a bunch of old government statistics.. I charted the numbers and came up with some interesting correlations. Are you at your computer so I can email it to you?”


“On its way.”

“Ooo, complicated. Care to read it to me?”

“Of course. Fun fact — fats from toothed whales are generally waxier than fat from baleen whales. Sperm whales just happen to be at the far end of that trend. Anyway, I concentrated on the sperm whale data. The red line is the total amount of spermaceti obtained from whales taken by US craft in each year,”

“Five million gallons in 1842? That’s ten thousand whales!”

“Mm-hm. The red line drops sharply after those peak years despite the whalers floating a bigger fleet — that’s the black line. The hunters found diminishing returns because the harvest just wasn’t sustainable. But people still wanted their spermaceti candles — the green line shows the price continued to rise until the mid‑1850s. Not only inside the US — the blue line shows exports rising because foreign whalers couldn’t supply demand from their own markets.”

“Bad prospects. What happened in the yellow part of the chart?”

“Competition from a new product called Camphine, a.k.a. ‘burning oil.’ In the mid‑1830s a guy in Maine and a couple of New Yorkers started making liquid substitutes for spermaceti. The products were mixtures of turpentine, grain alcohol and a little camphor for aroma. You needed a special lamp to burn it but you got a flame that rivaled sperm candles for brightness and color purity. Sold like gang‑busters, up to 200 million gallons per year, but the Civil War killed it off.”


“Federal embargoes on Southern pine forest turpentine, Federal taxes on alcohol. Kerosene and the Pennsylvania oil wells in 1859 rode in decades late to save the whales. Camphine was helping but government trade and tax policies cut it off at the pass.”

~~ Rich Olcott