Whale oil

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A bottle of whale oil Natural whale oil bottle.jpg
A bottle of whale oil

Whale oil is oil obtained from the blubber of whales. [1] Whale oil from the bowhead whale was sometimes known as train oil, which comes from the Dutch word traan ("tear" or "drop").


Sperm oil, a special kind of oil obtained from the head cavities of sperm whales, differs chemically from ordinary whale oil: it is composed mostly of liquid wax. Its properties and applications differ from those of regular whale oil, and it sold for a higher price.

Source and use

The beginning industrial societies used whale oil in oil lamps and to make soap. In the 20th century it was made into margarine. With the commercial development of the petroleum industry and vegetable oils, the use of whale oils declined considerably from its peak in the 19th century into the 20th century. This is said to have saved whales from extinction. [2] In the 21st century, with most countries having banned whaling, the sale and use of whale oil has practically ceased.

Whale oil was obtained by boiling strips of blubber harvested from whales. [3] The removal is known as "flensing" and the boiling process was called "trying out". The boiling was carried out on land in the case of whales caught close to shore or beached. On longer deep-sea whaling expeditions, the trying-out was done aboard the ship in a furnace known as a trywork and the carcass was then discarded into the water.

Baleen whales were a major source of whale oil. Their oil is exclusively composed of triglycerides, whereas that of toothed whales contains wax esters. [4] The bowhead whale and right whale were considered the ideal whaling targets. They are slow and docile, and they float when killed. They yield plenty of high-quality oil and whalebone, [5] and as a result, they were hunted nearly to extinction.


Whale oil has low viscosity (lower than olive oil), [6] is clear, and varies in color from a bright honey yellow to a dark brown, according to the condition of the blubber from which it has been extracted and the refinement through which it went. [7] It has a strong fishy odor. When hydrogenated, it turns solid and white and its taste and odor change. [8] [9]

The composition of whale oil varies with the species from which it was sourced and the method by which it was harvested and processed. Whale oil is mainly composed of triglycerides [10] (molecules of fatty acids attached to a glycerol molecule). Oil sourced from toothed whales contains a substantial amount of wax esters (especially the oil of sperm whales). [4] Most of the fatty acids are unsaturated. The most common fatty acids are oleic acid and its isomers (18:1 carbon chains). [11]

Whale oil is exceptionally stable. [12]

Physical properties of whale oils
Specific gravity 0.920 to 0.931 at 15.6 °C (60.1 °F) [13]
Flash point 230 °C (446 °F) [14]
Saponification value 185–202 [10]
Unsaponifiable matter0–2% [10]
Refractive index 1.4760 at 15 °C (59 °F) [15]
Iodine number (Wijs)110–135 [10]
Viscosity 35–39.6 cSt at 37.8 °C (100.0 °F) [6]


American whale oil and sperm oil imports in the 19th century US Whale Oil and Sperm Oil Imports (1805-1905).jpg
American whale oil and sperm oil imports in the 19th century

The main use of whale oil was for illumination and machine lubrication. [16] Cheaper alternatives to whale oil existed, but were inferior in performance and cleanliness of burn. As a result, whale oil dominated the world for both uses, fueling the further industrialization of both the US and Europe. As demand for whale oil increased at the end of the 17th century, the whaling industry expanded until its peak around the 1720s.  Due to dwindling whale populations causing higher voyage costs, as well as taxation, the market changed rapidly in the 1860s after the discovery of petroleum oil and expansion of chemical refineries to produce kerosene and lubricating oils. By 1870, kerosene became the dominant illumination fuel and the whaling industry was in decline. [17]

The use of whale oil had a steady decline starting in the late 19th century due to the development of superior alternatives, and later, the passing of environmental laws. [1] In 1986, the International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on commercial whaling, which has all but eliminated the use of whale oil today. The Inuit of North America are granted special whaling rights (justified as being integral to their culture), and they still use whale oil as a food and as lamp oil. [18] See Aboriginal whaling.

Whale oil was used as a cheap illuminant, though it gave off a strong odor when burnt and was not very popular. [19] It was replaced in the late 19th century by cheaper, more efficient, and longer-lasting kerosene. [20] Burning fluid known as camphine was the dominant replacement for whale oil until the arrival of kerosene. [21]

In the US, whale oil was used in cars as a constituent of automatic transmission fluid until it was banned by the 1973 Endangered Species Act. [22] It was also a major component of tractor hydraulic fluid (like the ubiquitous JDM Type 303 Special Hydraulic Fluid) until its withdrawal in 1974. [23]

In the UK, whale oil was used in toolmaking machinery as a high-quality lubricant. [24]

After the invention of hydrogenation in the early 20th century, whale oil was used to make margarine, [8] a practice that has since been discontinued. Whale oil in margarine has been replaced by vegetable oil. [25]

Whale oil was used to make soap. Until the invention of hydrogenation, it was used only in industrial-grade cleansers, because its foul smell and tendency to discolor made it unsuitable for cosmetic soap. [9]

Whale oil was widely used in the First World War as a preventive measure against trench foot. A British infantry battalion on the Western Front could be expected to use 10 gallons of whale oil a day. The oil was rubbed directly onto bare feet in order to protect them from the effects of immersion. [26]

In literature, fiction, and memoirs

The pursuit and use of whale oil, along with many other aspects of whaling, are discussed in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851). In the novel, the preciousness of the substance to contemporary American society is emphasized when the fictional narrator notes that whale oil is "as rare as the milk of queens." John R. Jewitt, an Englishman who wrote a memoir about his years as a captive of the Nootka people on the Pacific Northwest Coast in 1802–1805, describes how whale oil was used as a condiment with every dish, even strawberries.

Friedrich Ratzel in The History of Mankind (1896), when discussing food materials in Oceania, quoted Captain James Cook's comment in relation to "the Maoris" saying "No Greenlander was ever so sharp set upon train-oil as our friends here, they greedily swallowed the stinking droppings when we were boiling down the fat of dog-fish." [27]

In the 2012 video game Dishonored , whale oil is an important source of power for ships, lighting, weaponry, and the generation of electricity, which fits with the game's fictional but heavily 19th-Century inspired aesthetic.

See also

Related Research Articles

Kerosene, also known as paraffin, is a combustible hydrocarbon liquid which is derived from petroleum. It is widely used as a fuel in aviation as well as households. Its name derives from Greek: κηρός (keros) meaning "wax", and was registered as a trademark by Canadian geologist and inventor Abraham Gesner in 1854 before evolving into a genericized trademark. It is sometimes spelled kerosine in scientific and industrial usage. The term kerosene is common in much of Argentina, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, Nigeria, and the United States, while the term paraffin is used in Chile, eastern Africa, South Africa, Norway, and in the United Kingdom. The term lamp oil, or the equivalent in the local languages, is common in the majority of Asia. Liquid paraffin is a more viscous and highly refined product which is used as a laxative. Paraffin wax is a waxy solid extracted from petroleum.

A lubricant is a substance that helps to reduce friction between surfaces in mutual contact, which ultimately reduces the heat generated when the surfaces move. It may also have the function of transmitting forces, transporting foreign particles, or heating or cooling the surfaces. The property of reducing friction is known as lubricity.


Waxes are a diverse class of organic compounds that are lipophilic, malleable solids near ambient temperatures. They include higher alkanes and lipids, typically with melting points above about 40 °C (104 °F), melting to give low viscosity liquids. Waxes are insoluble in water but soluble in organic, nonpolar solvents. Natural waxes of different types are produced by plants and animals and occur in petroleum.

Vegetable oil Oil extracted from seeds or from other parts of fruits

Vegetable oils, or vegetable fats, are oils extracted from seeds or from other parts of fruits. Like animal fats, vegetable fats are mixtures of triglycerides. Soybean oil, grape seed oil, and cocoa butter are examples of fats from seeds. Olive oil, palm oil, and rice bran oil are examples of fats from other parts of fruits. In common usage, vegetable oil may refer exclusively to vegetable fats which are liquid at room temperature. Vegetable oils are usually edible; non-edible oils derived mainly from petroleum are termed mineral oils. Often times vegetable oil sold in the U.S. is synonymous with soybean oil.

Margarine Semi-solid oily spread often used as a butter substitute

Margarine is a spread used for flavoring, baking and cooking. It is most often used as an inexpensive butter substitute. It was named oleomargarine from Latin for oleum and Greek margarite but was later named margarine.

Cutting fluid

Cutting fluid is a type of coolant and lubricant designed specifically for metalworking processes, such as machining and stamping. There are various kinds of cutting fluids, which include oils, oil-water emulsions, pastes, gels, aerosols (mists), and air or other gases. Cutting fluids are made from petroleum distillates, animal fats, plant oils, water and air, or other raw ingredients. Depending on context and on which type of cutting fluid is being considered, it may be referred to as cutting fluid, cutting oil, cutting compound, coolant, or lubricant.


Spermaceti is a waxy substance found in the head cavities of the sperm whale. Spermaceti is created in the spermaceti organ inside the whale's head. This organ may contain as much as 1,900 litres (500 US gal) of spermaceti.

Pygmy sperm whale Species of mammal

The pygmy sperm whale is one of two extant species in the family Kogiidae in the sperm whale superfamily. They are not often sighted at sea, and most of what is known about them comes from the examination of stranded specimens.

Melon (cetacean)

The melon is a mass of adipose tissue found in the forehead of all toothed whales. It focuses and modulates the animal's vocalizations and acts as a sound lens. It is thus a key organ involved in communication and echolocation.


A trywork, located aft of the fore-mast, is the most distinguishing feature of a whaling ship.

Saponification value

Saponification value or saponification number represents the number of milligrams of potassium hydroxide (KOH) required to saponify one gram of fat under the conditions specified. It is a measure of the average molecular weight of all the fatty acids present in the sample as triglycerides. The higher the saponification value, the lower the fatty acids average length, the lighter the mean molecular weight of triglycerides and vice-versa. Practically, fats or oils with high saponification value are more suitable for soap making.

Coal oil

Coal oil is a shale oil obtained from the destructive distillation of cannel coal, mineral wax, or bituminous shale, once used widely for illumination.

Jojoba oil Oil extracted from jojoba seeds

Jojoba oil is the liquid produced in the seed of the Simmondsia chinensis (jojoba) plant, a shrub, which is native to southern Arizona, southern California, and northwestern Mexico. The oil makes up approximately 50% of the jojoba seed by weight. The terms "jojoba oil" and "jojoba wax" are often used interchangeably because the wax visually appears to be a mobile oil, but as a wax it is composed almost entirely (~97%) of mono-esters of long-chain fatty acids and alcohols (wax ester), accompanied by only a tiny fraction of triglyceride esters. This composition accounts for its extreme shelf-life stability and extraordinary resistance to high temperatures, compared with true vegetable oils.

History of candle making

Candle making was developed independently in many places throughout history.

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Sperm oil

Sperm oil is a waxy liquid obtained from sperm whales. It is a clear, yellowish liquid with a very faint odor. Sperm oil has a different composition from common whale oil, obtained from rendered blubber. Although it is traditionally called an "oil", it is technically a liquid wax. It is composed of wax esters with a small proportion of triglycerides, an ester of an unsaturated fatty acid and a branched-chain fatty alcohol. It is a natural antioxidant and heat-transfer agent. In the late-18th and early-19th centuries, sperm oil was prized as an illuminant for its bright, odorless flame and as a lubricant for its low viscosity and stability. It was supplanted in the late 19th century by less expensive alternatives such as kerosene and petroleum-based lubricants. With the 1987 international ban on whaling, sperm oil is no longer legally sold.

Whaling in the United States Industry

Commercial whaling in the United States dates to the 17th century in New England. The industry peaked in 1846–1852, and New Bedford, Massachusetts, sent out its last whaler, the John R. Mantra, in 1927. The Whaling industry was engaged with the production of three different raw materials: whale oil, spermaceti oil, and whalebone. Whale oil was the result of "trying-out" whale blubber by heating in water. It was a primary lubricant for machinery, whose expansion through the Industrial Revolution depended upon before the development of petroleum-based lubricants in the second half of the 19th century. Once the prized blubber and spermacetti had been extracted from the whale, the remaining majority of the carcass was discarded.

Sperm whaling

Sperm whaling is the hunting of these marine mammals for the oil, meat and bone that can be extracted from their bodies. Sperm whales, a large and deep-diving species, produce a waxy substance that was especially useful during the Industrial Revolution, and so they were targeted in 19th-century whaling, as exemplified in Moby Dick. Sperm oil is no longer needed, but another unusual product, ambergris, is still valued as a perfume fixative. Although the animal is classified as a vulnerable species, aboriginal whaling in limited numbers is still permitted, notably from two villages in Indonesia, for subsistence.

Nantucket Whaling Museum Museum in Nantucket, Massachusetts, United States

The Nantucket Whaling Museum is a museum located in Nantucket, Massachusetts. It is run by the Nantucket Historical Association. The Whaling Museum is the flagship site of the Nantucket Historical Association’s fleet of properties.

Petroleum refining processes

Petroleum refining processes are the chemical engineering processes and other facilities used in petroleum refineries to transform crude oil into useful products such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), gasoline or petrol, kerosene, jet fuel, diesel oil and fuel oils.


  1. 1 2 Ed Butts (2019-10-04). "The cautionary tale of whale oil". The Globe and Mail . Archived from the original on 2019-10-06. Retrieved 2019-10-07. Then in 1846, a Nova Scotian physician and geologist named Abraham Gesner invented kerosene. This pioneering form of fossil fuel, which some called coal oil, burned cleaner and brighter than whale oil, and didn’t have a pungent odour.
  2. https://www.dispatch.com/story/opinion/columns/2020/11/04/column-markets-and-consumers-not-president-control-oils-future/6136112002/
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  14. Frank Sims (1999). Engineering Formulas Interactive: Conversions, Definitions, and Tables. pg 132
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  18. Video on YouTube
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Further reading