"The history of Sperm Whale Oil is the history of the Industrial Revolution, and it was a phenomenal lubricant. And besides, what good 19th Century girl didn't want a whalebone corset?"
Gun Lubricant History: Sperm Whale Oil
Different grades and brands of oil harvested from Sperm Whales. Its qualities as a lubricant are legend.
Sperm Whale oil holds a revered, legendary status in the minds of many shooters, especially older gunsmiths. And this is not without reason. It was incredibly durable, worked in a very wide range of temperatures, could go on thin, had a tendency to stay clean, didn't absorb water, and had a strong tendency to stay adhered to metallic surfaces it was placed on. It has reached a near mythical status in some circles today, which has only been reinforced by the 1972 whaling ban. Almost nobody under 50 years old has used it or even seen it, and what is heard about it from knowledgeable people is almost hard to believe, spoken of in often reverential tones. For these and other reasons, those few who have their irreplaceable, dwindling stocks of Sperm Whale oil tend to horde it with extreme prejudice.
It's arguable that, had we not had access to this lubricant, not only may the advent of self-loading semi and fully-automatic weapons have been pushed back decades, but possibly the entire industrial revolution would have been as well. It's hard to overstate the profound importance of whaling to the US economy throughout the entire 19th century - it was foundational. It literally lubricated the entire industrial revolution, and whale products were in a stunning array of industrial and consumer items. In today's dollars, the value of the whaling fleet in 1846 alone was equivalent to a third of a trillion dollars, in a much smaller overall economy.
The vast majority of whale products were used for industrial purposes, and initially for lighting as well - candles made of whale products burned 4-6 times brighter than traditional beeswax candles, and were very clean. Early on, whole towns were lit by whale-oil street lamps. But especially as other sources of light came online, including camphene, kerosene, and locally produced 'town gas', this became a minority luxury use of whale oil. It was industry that needed it as a lubricant that kept the need for whale oil alive, including the massive textile and cordage industries - there was literally nothing else that had the endurance or phenomenal physical properties of whale oil. Separately, the baleen from non-toothed whales, known then as whalebone, was used where you needed flexible, springy rod or ribbon shapes, similar to how you might use fiberglass rods or plastic strips today. Most commonly it was used in eyeglass frames, corsets, buggy whips, hair and chimney brushes, umbrellas, and in shirt collar components, but it was also a key component of early springs, including carriage, mattress, and piano springs. So valuable was it for industry and consumer goods, that in 1891 a pound of whalebone was worth up to $7 - nearly $200 per pound in today's dollars.* In 1882 a single whale was taken that yielded 6000 gallons of oil and 2550 pounds of baleen, for a combined worth $11,200 - or roughly a quarter million dollars in today's money, from one animal.
The history of Sperm Whale harvesting goes back to 1712, with whaling being a powerful economic driver for the US colonies in the run-up to the Revolutionary War. The whaling fleet was hit hard by both that war and the war of 1812, but by 1846 there were roughly 735 whaling ships in the US fleet, with New Bedford, Mass., being the epicenter of East Coast whaling. Interestingly, roughly 20% of the whaling fleet's mariners were part of New England's relatively large population of free Black citizens, with the whaling ship Industry having an all-Black crew in 1822.
If you have any "Sperm Whale Oil" around, be sure not to try to sell it, as at least one person has been fined fairly heavily for trying to do so. However, there is some terminology worth knowing if you do have any, and understanding how it was harvested and refined will help you understand what you have, and illustrate how our ancestors were able to produce a lubricant that would reliably lubricate in arctic temperatures down to -50°F, over a century and a half ago.
Whale oil predominantly came from two sources - rendered blubber, and refined oils found in the jaws and heads of certain species. Anything marked "Whale Oil" comes from the rendered fats, and is almost always a blend of oils from many different kinds of whales, both Baleen and toothed whales. "Sperm Oil", however, is of a much higher quality intrinsically, and is exclusively from Sperm Whales alone.
New Bedford, MA, was epicenter of East Coast whaling. You can see hundreds of barrels of whale oil.
While baleen whales use their baleen to act as a strainer in harvesting millions of tiny krill and other small animals, toothed whales are serious predators - Sperm Whales are phenomenal deep-sea hunters of giant squid and other animals, travelling more than 6000' down for prey. They and similar whales have bulbous, prominent heads, which contain chambers of large amounts of oils that are part of their echo-location and communication systems, serving essentially as an active and passive sonar system. They also may be able to change the density and temperature of these head oils, allowing for rapid descent and buoyancy regulation.
Disclaimer: Yes, animals were definitely hurt in the making of this film
When taken by whalers, roughly 1/3 of oils harvested from a Sperm Whale came from these head oils (which could commonly be over 200 gallons), and 2/3s came from rendered fats. The blubber and oils were prepared as 'crude oil' in large cooking vats aboard the whaling ships, called try-pots, and were stored in 31.5 gallon barrels.
At the refineries on land these oils would be placed in giant iron vats up to 1000 gallons in volume, and heated to 212°F for 6-10 hours, until all water had been purged from the whale oil. And once that water was out, these oils did their first bit of magic - they wouldn't allow any water to mix back in. This process helped purify these oils, which ranged from straw yellow to clear, while the remaining particulate or solids descending to the bottom of the vats were largely used in soap making.
The final phase of the refining process was done in cold temperatures. Refiners would chill the oil for 10-14 days at 32°F, where it would coalesce into small pellets and grains. These grains were shoveled inside 2-4 gallon canvas bags, placed in a press, and subjected to 1000-2000 lbs of pressure per square inch. The oil that readily flowed out in 32°F temperatures was crystal clear, and amounted to 65% of
every bag. It would be labeled and sold as "Winter Sperm Oil", with usable temperatures getting down towards the 0°F mark, but varying by batch.
The remainder of each bag would be squeezed around 50°F, and would come out a yellow-brownish color. Labeled "Spring Sperm Oil", it was sold for a bit less. This material, however, only accounted for another 9% of the oil. The relatively solid material left in the canvas bags would be trimmed, re-bagged, and pressed at 100,000 lb per square inch. The resultant oil coming out, which congealed around 90°F, was labeled "Taut-Pressed Oil", and only accounted for another 5% of the oil. The final 11% of the original
contents of the bag was a white, fatty wax known as spermaceti. It was prized as an incredibly clean and bright burning candle wax, cosmetic stock, and soap component.
All combined, the many uses of whale oil allowed one standard 31.5 gallon barrel of crude whale oil to be worth about $25 in 1902 - or about $700 in today's dollars. Immediately after the Civil War, in 1866, the price was $80/barrel, or more than $1200 per barrel today. By comparison, a barrel of modern crude oil, which holds 42 gallons, sells for $90-$110. Whale oil cost this much obviously because of supply and demand, but also for one other fundamental reason: what it did was worth it.
The premium lubricant of the day, however, was not Sperm Whale oil. It was something far surpassing the best that could be produced from Sperm Whales, and was used in the finest watches and chronometers on the coldest sub-zero days - it came from the Blackfish.
The Blackfish is known today as the Pilot Whale. Like the Sperm Whale, it is a toothed, predatory whale with a bulbous head containing an oil chamber for its echolocation system. A gallon of the highest grade Blackfish oil in 1904 was worth around $10 - about $240/gallon today.
As whale oil was presed out, the remaining product continued to increase in solidity. In the photo are waxy cakes of semi-processed whale oil being readied for the extraction of Taut-Pressed whale oil.
Along with "porpoise-jaw oil", this head oil from Pilot Whales was the elite lubricant stock of the day, bar none. Both also had a strange property of actually improving in quality with age. After receiving the crude Pilot Whale oil at the refinery, the oils would be gently heated to remove any water content, and the refiners would then let them sit for two full years. After this seasoning period, they'd remove a small amount of congealed particulate, and then begin the extreme cold-weather refining by spreading it out in thin layers, and very slowly freezing it far below zero. Flecks of solids would begin to precipitate within it, almost in a 3D frost-like pattern, which would be strained out through a finely grained cloth. The more competently and effectively this process was done, and the fresher the original stock was when it arrived, the better the grade of lubricant they could produce - the premium Blackfish grades could operate reliably below -50°F.
The qualities of grades was a very serious, consequential issue at both the financial and functional levels. Elite graders would determine the quality of each batch of oil. Much like elite wine critics, they would judge the oils based on color, odor, texture, flavor and other factors, all oriented around determining useability and overall quality. There were only about 6 men in the world at any given time during the industry's operating years that were competent enough to judge the top oils.
And many of the demands for those top grades came from fielded instruments, chronometers, and militaries. But it wasn't until the advent of modern self-loading firearms that Sperm Oil became a fundamentally critical, war-winning lubricant.