Blubber & Oil: Whaling and Its Role in the Industrial Revolution

Hunting whales has been part of human culture for thousands of years, and was integral to the Industrial Revolution. This is the story of whaling from ancient to modern times.

Feb 19, 2023By Greg Beyer, BA History and Linguistics, Diploma in Journalism
hunting whales in the industrial revolution
The hunting of a sperm whale, via New Bedford Whaling Museum


Before the exploitation of crude oil and the advent of the petroleum industry, the primary source of usable oil was obtained from whales. Whaling was (and still is) a brutal industry that exploded during the Industrial Revolution. The need for illumination and lubricants spearheaded the industry into a competitive task. For many thousands of years, whale hunting was an art that required great strength, determination, patience, and skill. By the latter days of the Industrial Revolution, the expanding human population, its needs, and its improved technology meant that the art of hunting whales became more akin to an industrial process, driving the animals dangerously close to extinction. This is the story of how it all began and where it ended up today.


Why Did Whaling Start?


A number of commercial products were and still are derived from whales. From the earliest days, the most obvious reason for whaling was as a source of food. Whale meat has been eaten for thousands of years, and many communities around the world still hunt whales for food. The bones would have also been used and fashioned into useful tools such as weapons.


whaling sperm oil
Oil rendered from sperm whales, via


Before the advent of electricity, whale oil was a valuable product used to provide illumination. During the Industrial Revolution, whale oil was also used as a lubricant for machine parts and soap-making. Most whale oils were derived from the blubber, while a higher grade of oil called spermaceti was found exclusively in sperm whales and was located in a cavity in the whale’s head. This higher grade of oil burns clear and odorless.


Whale oil was the primary reason for the explosion of the whaling industry. Although used at least a thousand years before the Industrial Revolution, the sharp growth of industry and the human population required the properties that whale oil provided.

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Many whales are filter feeders; instead of teeth, they have baleen, a valuable product during the industrial era. Its tensile strength made it a popular product in many industries. Apart from its use in manufacturing riding crops, umbrella and parasol ribs, baskets, and backscratchers, it was used extensively in the fashion industry, especially in corsets, collars, hat brims, and dresses.


Another product was ambergris, a waxy, fatty substance occasionally found in the intestines of sperm whales. It was expensive due to its rarity, but it had limited use. It was added to perfumes as a fixative – a way to stop the scent from changing, and it was also used as an aphrodisiac, sometimes added to wine, coffee, and other beverages. In ancient Egypt, it was burned as incense, and in modern Egypt, it is used to flavor cigarettes. It has also been used as a medicinal product throughout various cultures through the ages.


The Early History of Whaling

dolphin drive faroe islands
The result of dolphin drive hunting in the Faroe Islands, from Sea shepherd, via Species Unite


People have been hunting whales for thousands of years. The earliest evidence comes from Korea, where people have been whaling for at least 8000 years. The Basque people of Iberia, the Inuit of the Arctic Circle, the Norwegians, the Japanese, and many other groups hunted whales for subsistence, as well as for cultural reasons.


The methods they used were also varied. A popular method for hunting smaller species of whales is called dolphin drive hunting, where a number of boats herd a pod of whales into shallow waters where the prey becomes an easy victim to spears and harpoons. This method is still used today while hunting pilot whales, belugas, narwhals, and other smaller whale species.


Another form of primitive hunting is drogue hunting, where a drogue, a semi-floating object such as a drum or an inflated seal skin, is tied to a harpoon. Once the whale has been harpooned, the drogue tires the prey out, preventing it from diving. Other methods of whaling included nets used by the Japanese and poisoned spears used by the Aleuts.


Commercial Whaling

dutch whaling spitsbergen
Dutch whaling off the coast of Spitsbergen by Abraham Storck, via Queensferry at War


The earliest example of commercial whaling comes from the Basque territory in northern Spain where the Basques hunted and processed northern right whales as early as the middle ages, and by the 15th century (perhaps as early as the 14th century) were making trips across the Atlantic to hunt whales off the Labrador Coast in North America.


In the early 17th century, the island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic was the hub of whaling. The English exploited the area first but were pushed out by the Dutch, who took over the successful enterprise.


In the mid-16th century, the whaling industry on Spitsbergen went into decline for climatic reasons; however, the industry continued in the Arctic and was dominated by the Dutch and the Germans up until the 1780s. In the late 18th century, the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain was the driving force behind the expansion of the British whaling enterprise.


The fishing centers off the coast of British territories in North America became the new centers of whaling, and in 1712, the first sperm whale was caught. Sperm whales inhabit the open ocean, and hunting them drew vessels away from the coasts. It was not unusual for hunting expeditions to last up to four years tracking and catching their quarry in what was a highly profitable business, as sperm whale oil is of a much higher quality than right whale oil. These expeditions also hunted right whales while in coastal waters and engaged in sealing, initiating many industries that required exploration and colonization.


From the late 18th century to the mid-19th century, boat design changed significantly. Early whaling vessels were usually converted merchant vessels, but by 1850, clipper ships had gained much popularity in the industry.


history whaling ship
A print showing how whales were hunted, Currier and Ives Print, National Archives via Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary


The process of whale hunting required skill, determination, and endurance. Smaller boats were sent out to harpoon the creature and tire it out. When the whale was dead or tired out, it would be towed back to the whaling vessel, where the different parts of the animal were processed and stored. While the British whaling industry was devastated in the 1840s and 1850s by overfishing, in 1859, petroleum was discovered in Pennsylvania, and the resultant oil industry would spell the doom of the whaling industry for both the British and the United States.


Whaling Moves into the Modern Era

whaling whale bones
Piles of Beluga whale bones on Spitsbergen Island, Norway, from Jenny E. Ross, via


Steam power and other innovations allowed the whaling industry to expand in the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th century. This technology included the harpoon cannon, which fired grenade-tipped harpoons. Species of whales that were previously considered difficult to hunt became new targets.


Shore stations were built all over the industrialized world that could process whale carcasses, utilizing every part of the animal. In the first decade of the 20th century, whale catches increased tenfold from 2,000 per year to 20,000 per year. Soon after, in the years preceding the First World War, floating stations were built, which increased the output even further. These factories were well-equipped and could fully process a 100-ton blue whale in under an hour. By the 1930s, electric harpoons were being used, and gunner’s bridges were built on ships to greatly increase the accuracy of the enterprise. During this time, the Norwegians overtook Britain as the dominant whaling nation.


After the Second World War, production increased further, but smaller whales were being taken due to the fact that whale populations were plummeting. By this time, 1.4 million whales had been killed in the Antarctic alone. Japan and the Soviet Union also became significant whaling nations, as the whaling industry now focused on the Pacific Ocean. By the 1980s, stocks were so depleted that the entire industry collapsed.


japan whaling history
Japanese whaling, from Jiji Press/EPA, via The Guardian


Efforts to preserve stocks went largely ignored, despite the fact that as early as the 1930s, it was predicted that the whaling industry would collapse within a few decades as whales were hunted to near extinction. Regulations were put in place to try and limit the number of catches. In 1946, the establishment of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) made it increasingly difficult for the industry to survive as it had before. Moratoriums and quotas were put in place. In 1979, floating factories were banned, and in 1986, a complete moratorium was put on the industry. Norway and Japan, however, skirt the regulations under the guise of “scientific research.” These practices, however, are extremely limited, and the only legal whaling done today is by people who the IWC recognizes as having cultural ties to whaling, such as Greenlanders, small groups of Russians, and Native Americans.


In 2019, Japan exited the IWC and resumed limited commercial whaling.


international whaling commission
Logo of the International Whaling Commission, via


Whaling was an important factor in the progress of the Industrial Revolution. The impact the industry had on human civilization is immeasurable. Although these truths are certain, the commercial whaling industry is largely regarded by modern society as a barbaric practice that should be consigned in its entirety to the annals of history.

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By Greg BeyerBA History and Linguistics, Diploma in JournalismGreg is an academic writer with a History focus and has written over 100 articles for TheCollector. He comes from South Africa and holds a BA from the University of Cape Town. He has spent many years as an English teacher, and he currently specializes in writing for academic purposes. In his spare time, he enjoys drawing and painting.