Underground Whales: An Excerpt of “Rendered Obsolete”

The following is an excerpt from Rendered Obsolete: Energy Culture and the Afterlife of US Whaling by Jamie L. Jones which is available now wherever books are sold.

Rendered Obsolete provides a compelling perspective on the history of whaling and how we understand energy consumption.”

Hester Blum, Penn State University

Underground Whales: An Energy Archaeology

The Pennsylvania oil fields were full of whales. Reporters at the site of the United States’ first oil boom in the 1860s wrote that oil wells “spouted” like whales coming up for air, and oil shot through pipes from the well to the holding tank “with a sound like the ‘blowing’ of a whale.” According to a Kansas newspaper reporter in 1861, some oil field workers even imagined that underground oil reserves were fossilized whales: “Some of the Philosophers think this country was once an inland sea inhabited by the monsters of the deep, and that oil as found was the death bed of an antediluvian whale. Oil is imperishable, every vestige of the animal is gone but the grease.”

Perhaps oil field workers saw whales because so many of them had once worked in the whaling industry. And why wouldn’t the whalemen go into petroleum? Oil was oil, and whalemen were oilmen. Before the development of those Pennsylvania oil fields, whaling had been the primary oil industry of the late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century United States; whale oil was used to light lamps and lubricate machinery. Until the early 1860s, newspaper reports about the “oil industry” or the “price of oil” referred to whaling and whale oil. But as the new oil fields opened up, rock oil (petro + oleum) supplanted whale oil, and petroleum became the oil that mattered most. It is no surprise that the oilmen saw whales in Pennsylvania: such is the power of resource extraction to make one thing into another. The commercial whaling industry had made whales into oil, so it took only a short intellectual leap to believe that oil might be made of whales.

oil wells “spouted” like whales coming up for air, and oil shot through pipes from the well to the holding tank “with a sound like the ‘blowing’ of a whale.”

As the petroleum fields grew, oilmen from the whaling industry sought better opportunities in the new petroleum business. One observer, writing for the New York Tribune, observed the migration of workers from the whale fishery to the oil fields: “I find that New Bedford and Nantucket, heretofore oildom, has been unsuccessful for several years past, and is coming here, with its millions of money and its hordes of vessel officers, to harpoon the old mother of all whales (earth) and draw her blubber by the force of steam, which must eventually injure whaling oildom very much.” New England whalemen founded refineries, built tank infrastructure, and opened hotels for oil field laborers. In 1861, a whale oil refiner named Charles Ellis and H. H. Rogers, son of a Fairhaven, Massachusetts, whaleman, built a refinery near Oil City, Pennsylvania. Within the first year of the refinery’s operation, “[Rogers’s] cruise to Pennsylvania had netted him as much as half a dozen whales.” Rogers later became a director at John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. Back in New Bedford, Massachusetts, whaling magnate Abraham Howland converted a whale oil refinery over to kerosene and coal oil. New Bedford whaling captain and shipowner John Arnold Macomber built and operated oil storage tanks in Pennsylvania. And the Crape House hotel for workers in Oil City was founded by a New Bedford man “who, like others from the same quondam oily city, now follow oil wherever they can smell it.”

In 1861, Vanity Fair published a cartoon that dramatized this moment in the oil market from the point of view of the whales: “Grand Ball Given by the Whales in Honor of the Discovery of the Oil Wells in Pennsylvania.” In the cartoon, sperm whales dressed in evening attire dance, sip cocktails, and pop bottles of champagne. They are attended by tiny frog-waiters in coattails in a ballroom strung with banners promoting Pennsylvania oil: “Oils Well That Ends Well,” for example, and “We Wail No More for Our Blubber.”

As the petroleum fields grew, oilmen from the whaling industry sought better opportunities in the new petroleum business.

That cartoon of dancing whales may as well mark the invention of “energy” as a unified field of labor, production, and circulation based, not on the conditions of the resource’s extraction, but on the consumption of its end product. Commercial whaling and commercial oil drilling demand wildly different forms of labor and infrastructure: murdering whales at close range and boiling their bodies in the middle of the ocean, in the case of the whaling industry, and drilling an oil well underground in the middle of the continent, in the case of petroleum. But the marketplace for lighting oil brought these disparate natural resources and extraction practices together within an idea called an oil market and a unified environmental imaginary that would be called energy.

Whales and whaling were everywhere in accounts of the mid-nineteenth-century Pennsylvania oil boom, and they were symptoms of an emerging myth about energy: that energy was energy, wherever it came from. The idea of energy elided the difference between different fuel sources and gave rise to one of the enduring environmental myths of past few centuries: that energy sources are infinitely interchangeable because their productive power can be measured in standardized units such as calories, lumens, joules, or megawatts. The idea of energy erects a barrier between energy production and consumption, and it collapses the difference between, say, whale oil and petroleum, wood and coal, fossil fuels and renewable energy sources. Even the tuxedoed whales of the Vanity Fair cartoon internalized the emerging logic of energy. They did not desperately advocate the end of whaling on behalf of their mortally endangered selves; instead, they saw themselves as interchangeable with petroleum and gave urbane champagne toasts to the smooth transition of energy from one source to another. In the story of this nineteenth-century transition from whale oil to rock oil, the concept of “energy” was born and, along with the concept, all of the opportunities and problems that characterize life with fossil fuels.

Jamie L. Jones is assistant professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.