If you’re like the majority of the world, you think of the birth of the Industrial Revolution occurring alongside the discovery of oil in the middle decades of the 19th Century, and like those others, you’ll be wrong.

You see, the Industrial Revolution began in the early decades of the 18th Century, not a century later with the discovery of oil. Oil proved indispensable as a lubricator, source of light, part of consumer products, and industrialization on a massive scale.

But , since crude oil was not discovered until about 1850, where did the oil that fed the Industrial Revolution come from?

Whales. And, in particular, sperm whales. Each a living, breathing oil well.

Though we think about whales being hunted for their meat back then, it’s just not accurate.

The explanation? There was simply no commercial or economic value in whale meat.

Whaling expeditions often lasted nearly three years. Without refrigerators or freezers, the beef quickly rotted and was discarded where it fed the sharks and other sea creatures.

Blubber, on the other hand, was easily be rendered into oil, stored in barrels, and sold on return to port. It was extremely valuable and essential to the beginning of the Industrial Age.

Back then, there were likely more than a million sperm whales coursing the oceans. The biggest bulls could produce a ton and a half of the finest oil on the planet and even average sized sperm whales produced 30-40 barrels.

It’s not coincidental that the whale in Moby Dick was a giant sperm whale hunted by the whaling ship captained by the fictional Captain Ahab. These were by far and away the most valuable creatures on the planet.

It was quickly discovered that whale oil burned much brighter than pork or cattle fat so much so that New England light houses to be seen by ships miles out to sea.

It also burned much cleaner, with a lot less smoke, permitting it to be utilized in homes of the burgeoning American and British middle class.

More than a century before Thomas Edison formed the Edison Electric Light Company, the large City of London had several thousand street lamps—the most of any place on earth—lighted with whale oil.

Sperm oil was so fine it was employed for the most delicate instruments of the Industrial Revolution, from chronometers to wrist watches.

It not only lubricated the earliest machines of the Industrial Revolution, it was responsible for the development of whole industries like England’s textile industry. The oil was used to light newly developing textile plants, lubricate newly invented machines, and even mixed with other raw materials like jute to create the clothing folks wore.

50,000 folks were employed in textile plants alone—thanks to the sperm whales.

However naturally, sperm whales were not limitless and by the middle of the 19th century their numbers had fallen by just about a third.

Luckily, for about a century thereafter, they received a respite because, once crude oil was discovered, it reduced the use of whale oil.

But, the relief from commercial exploitation did not last.

Unfortunately, the resumption of commercial whaling operations in the early 1950s nearly eliminated whales when whaling was taken over by huge fleets of factory ships.

But, in 1980, commercial whaling was banned worldwide (excepting subsistence hunting in some places) and so called “research” whaling by Japan and some Scandinavian states.

Sperm whales are now recovering, even though slowly.

Today, whale watching has become a significant, and increasing, source of income for states around the globe as tourists flock to see them swim majestically.

While all wonder at these superb creatures, almost no one knows or appreciates the part they played in the development of the Industrial Revolution which has led straight to our ability to use modern machines, light our houses, even travel the planet.

For 250 years, our industrialized society relied upon these magnificent living oil wells to power and lubricate new machines, develop new industries, and even make products from fabrics to lipstick to ointments and clean lights.

But now you know. Therefore, the next time you see a whale, tell your loved ones that these whales are not just another pretty face.

Without them, the Industrial Revolution would look totally different.

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