The PBS Newshour Whale Oil Myth

By Andy May


While researching fossil fuel history recently, I discovered a PBS article entitled “The Whale Oil Myth.” You can see the full article here. It is based on another blog post on the environmental history web site here. The authors are not identified, but the original ideas are from Dr. Bill Kovarik from the School of Communication at Radford University and the late Dr. Lester Lave, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University.

Both articles claim that petroleum-based kerosene, distilled with the Gesner refining process did not help save the whales from being fished into extinction. They claim that distinguished economists James Robbins (see his “How Capitalism Saved the Whales“) and Dr. Lester Lave (Dr. Lave has comments after both blog posts that are worth reading) are just plain wrong and whales would have done fine, even if kerosene had not replaced whale oil as the lamp fuel of choice. For a more academic, peer-reviewed discussion of how petroleum-based products were a significant factor in reducing the demand for whale oil see (McCollough and Check 2010) here. The posts further claim that whale oil was not replaced by kerosene through honest competition in the marketplace, but through government intervention that provided a fossil fuel subsidy by way of taxes. They seem to think camphine (the alternative spelling, “camphene” is a chemical) lamp fuel would have won the competition with kerosene, except for the unfair taxation of ethanol.

Seeing this claim was strange, after all as long ago as September 3, 1860, this appeared in the California Fireside Journal:

“Had it not been for the discovery of Coal Oil [an early primitive kerosene], the race of whales would soon have become extinct. It is estimated that ten years would have used up the whole family.”

So, let’s examine these unusual “Whale Oil Myth” claims that now seem to be all over the internet. The Whale Oil Myth, according to the PBS and environmental history posts is summarized as follows, from here:

“According to an IRS report and testimony to a House committee, alcohol production for the burning fluid market alone stood around 90 million gallons per year at its height in 1860. Whale oil peaked at 18 million gallons in 1845, according to Starbuck’s whaling history of 1878.

So, in 1860, there was 5 times more alcohol [camphine] fuel on the market than whale oil, and there was no kerosene from petroleum. [Drake’s first well had just been dug.]

Use of kerosene rose quickly after 1862 when, a tax of $2.00 per gallon was imposed on alcohol to pay for the Civil War. The tax quickly forced burning fluid and camphine off the market. Attempts to exempt industrial alcohol from what was meant to be a beverage alcohol tax were not successful at the time. A far smaller tax (10 cents per gallon) was imposed on kerosene.”

Most of this is reasonable. The author provides no source for his 90 million gallons of U.S. alcohol production for burning fluid and I was not able to confirm the number on my own, but we will accept the value for the sake of argument. His value of 18 million gallons of U.S. whale oil might be a little high, if we include sperm oil and whale oil, it might have been as low as 13 million gallons. In any case whale oil and sperm oil production were declining by 1860. The human population was increasing, so the demand for lamp fuel was rising as well. Whale oil was the best fuel at the time, but getting more expensive, so alternatives were brought to market.

After this, they lose me. Alcohol is a very poor lamp fuel on its own, the light is blue, faint and very poor. Turpentine burns with a bright flame but has a strong unpleasant odor. Isaiah Jennings invented “burning fluid” in 1830, it was a mix of alcohol, camphor and turpentine. In 1835 a similar mixture was patented by Henry Porter, this was called “Porter’s Patent Composition Burning Fluid” and was very popular. Often, the mixture is incorrectly called “camphene.” Camphene is a chemical (C10H16), the lamp fuel is properly spelled “camphine.” To make camphine lamp fuel, one recipe calls for three parts ethanol to be mixed with one-part refined turpentine, this is mainly to reduce the turpentine odor. Other recipes left out the alcohol, which is very volatile and explosive, and only added camphor to improve the odor. Still others used pure turpentine, although these were meant for outdoor use. The part of camphine that produces the bright white light is the turpentine.

Turpentine was very valuable as a medicine in the 19th century, although it isn’t used for medicinal purposes much today. It is one of the few chemicals that can be used as a solvent to produce rubber, the others are from petroleum which was not available in large quantities until the 1860s. Turpentine is also used in paint and varnish (see here) and as a solvent. All these products were needed desperately for the Civil War. Turpentine prices exploded in the 1860s due to the war and many farmers stopped working their crops and put in turpentine boxes if they had a lot of pine trees. The resin, used in ship building was also very valuable. It is likely that the two-dollar tax on ethanol had some effect on the price of camphine, but the higher wartime prices for turpentine were probably more important.

Dr. Kovarik’s conclusion was that the alcohol tax killed camphine as a lamp fuel and that the story that kerosene saved the whales was “irresponsible and historically fake.” Then, because the ethanol tax during the Civil War was two dollars and the tax on kerosene was only 10 cents, he concluded that kerosene was unfairly subsidized. This is disingenuous in the extreme, alcohol is a poor lamp fuel, it does not compete with kerosene. Turpentine is the lamp fuel and it was not taxed, it was just in demand for other purposes. The decline in whale oil production was not because of camphine or alcohol, it was because whales were harder to find, a view shared by Dr. Lester Lave.

The price for whale oil had risen to such a level (two dollars a gallon) that most people simply couldn’t afford it. Yet, even at that price, in 1858, 64 percent of American whaling ships lost money according to Dr. James Robbins here. This was the peak year for whaling ships. Demand was through the roof, but not at any price. This is explained by (McCollough and Check 2010) in this way:

As Clark (p. 951[, (Clark 1973)]) points out, “It has been noted, that harvesting costs rise with decreasing population levels, a rent-maximizing policy will automatically lead to biological conservation, with an equilibrium population in excess of the population corresponding to maximum sustained yield”. With respect to whaling in the 1800s, Bardi (p. 302[, (Bardi 2007)) notes that “Evidently, the reduction in whale populations were sufficient to make whaling progressively more expensive and difficult, given the technology of whaling at that time.” From McCollough and Check, Sustainability, 2010.

The New York Times agrees that the scarcity of whales was the reason for the decline in the industry, this is from an article in August 3, 2008:

But, in fact, whaling was already just about done, said Eric Jay Dolin, who wrote some of the text for the exhibit and is the author of “Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America.” Whales near North America were becoming scarce, and the birth of the American petroleum industry in 1859 in Titusville, Pa., allowed kerosene to supplant whale oil before the electric light replaced both of them and oil found other uses. New York Times, 2008.

There were fewer whales killed and whale oil prices very were getting ever higher, so alternatives crowded the market. But, all of them had problems, except for high-quality kerosene which produced a higher quality light than whale oil, had no soot or odor, didn’t spoil and could be stored indefinitely. Whale oil had several problems. It was becoming very expensive as demand dramatically increased in the 1850s, it had a short shelf life, and whales were becoming harder and more expensive to find.

Fish oil was burned in betty lamps, it was cheaper but had a very bad odor and spoiled rapidly. Camphine (also called “burning fluid” or “Porter’s fluid”) was mentioned above, it is made with any one of a number of recipes that included refined turpentine, and either or both camphor and ethanol. It produced a good light, comparable to whale oil, but was very explosive, quite volatile at room temperature and had a low viscosity. Camphine was relatively cheap prior to the Civil War, but the war increased turpentine prices and camphine was driven from the market by cost and the dangers of using it (Ghosh 2001). Figure 1 shows an ad from an 1855 light shop.

Figure 1. Ad from an 1855 light shop, source Smithsonian.


Other fuels widely tried by the public were colza (Canola) vegetable oil, natural gas and ethanol by itself. Lard, especially from pigs, was also commonly used as lamp fuel after refining. All these fuels produced poor light and/or bad odors, except for natural gas. The light from an ethanol lamp is very faint and useless for reading. Natural gas needed pipelines, which were expensive and only available in cities. Camphine was unfortunately explosive and very dangerous, this was constantly reported by whaling merchants since this fuel was their only real competition. Horrifying stories of women and children dying due to camphine (with or without alcohol) lamp fires were reported all the time. Two examples are given below, the first is a New York Times article from August 21, 1854:


Figure 2. New York Times article, camphene is misspelled in both articles. Camphene is a chemical, camphine is Porter’s burning fluid.


Our second example is from Scientific American, volume 8, issue 25, March 5, 1853:

Figure 3. Scientific American article from March 5, 1853.



Kerosene is a name invented by Abraham Gesner who developed the modern method of refining a very high-quality kerosene product. While the Scottish chemist James Young also invented a process for making kerosene, his process produced an inferior product and did not survive. Gesner patented his process in 1854 and opened a refinery in New York in 1854 called the North American Kerosene Gas Light Company and sold kerosene produced from coal. Later, after oil well drilling became common, due to Drake’s discovery in Pennsylvania in 1859, Standard Oil purchased the refinery and patent rights from Gesner and produced very high-quality kerosene lamp fuel from liquid petroleum. This “standard” product was much easier and cheaper than making kerosene from coal and the price of kerosene plummeted from around 50 cents/gallon to 7 cents per gallon by 1895. Standard Oil’s kerosene was advertised as the safe alternative to camphine and cheap, poor quality “kerosene” and it produced a higher quality light than even the best whale oil. The Perkins and House “Non-Explosive Kerosene Lamp” was touted as a safe alternative to camphine lamps in Scientific American in 1867 here. An early ad for kerosene salesmen also makes this point:

Figure 4. An ad for salesmen to sell high-quality kerosene lamps.


Cheaper brands of kerosene contained gasoline and other volatile, explosive fractions of crude oil and could be as dangerous as camphine. Kerosene from the Gesner process produced a higher quality light than whale oil, soot-free. Further, a lit match thrown into a jar of Gesner’s kerosene would simply be extinguished, it was not volatile or explosive and was much safer than camphine or cheaper grades of kerosene. Kerosene has a flashpoint of 150-185 degrees F., versus 95 degrees F. for turpentine and 55 degrees F. for ethanol. What this means is kerosene will not ignite at normal temperatures, but alcohol, turpentine and camphine will. By the 1860s camphine had also become much more expensive due to the much higher price for turpentine.


A close examination of the data suggests that whaling began its decline in the 1850s because whales had become so hard and expensive to find that whalers could not charge a high enough price to make the business profitable. The peak year for U.S. whaling ships was 1858 when there were 199 working ships. Yet, in this year, a full 64% lost money according to Dr. James Robbins here. Whaling declined rapidly after this disastrous year for the industry.

Due to the higher prices for whale oil, the public was desperately trying to find a safe source of good light. There were many contenders, but the Gesner process for refining quality kerosene clearly won out. It was the highest quality light at the best cost. While early versions of kerosene were sooty, unsafe and volatile, just like camphine, the purer kerosene from the Gesner process, was very safe with a flashpoint of over 150 degrees F. which is unlikely to be reached in a home.

The Civil War alcohol tax may have played a role in the demise of camphine as a lamp fuel, but the historical records suggest the explosions caused by camphine and alcohol lamps played a much larger role. As for cost, records suggest the increasing cost of turpentine was more important than the higher cost for ethanol. In The Springfield Gas Machine: Illuminating Industry and Leisure, 1860s-1920s, by Donald Linebaugh (Linebaugh 2011):

[While camphine] “… produced a flame that was clear, dense, and brilliant … the burning fluid was extremely combustible and thus one of the most dangerous lighting fuels ever used. Accidents involving the fuel caused hundreds of injuries and fatalities. In 1834, the Franklin Institute Journal noted that the late fatal accidents resulting from the use of such ingredients in lamps will, however, probably put a final stop to [their] use. An 1853 report in Scientific American documented over thirty-three fatal explosions caused by burning fluid lamps…”

As for the difference in the Civil War tax for ethanol and kerosene being a fossil fuel subsidy or making any difference in the public’s choice between the two, I don’t see it at all. Camphine and ethanol are far too dangerous to ignite indoors, this is the principle reason they failed as lamp fuels. To call the difference in two arbitrary taxes a subsidy is disingenuous in the extreme as are most claimed U.S. fossil fuel “subsidies.” This is discussed in more detail, for modern so-called fossil fuel subsidies here. True fossil fuel subsidies do exist in Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and some other oil producing nations but as noted in the linked post, they don’t exist in the United States, that is a true environmentalist’s myth.

The discovery of liquid petroleum played a huge role in solidifying kerosene as the lamp fuel of choice. It made the production of the fuel much cheaper and the price quickly plummeted to seven cents per gallon. Thus, the fuel was not only the safest lamp fuel, with the best light, no odor, and a long shelf life, it was also the cheapest fuel. None of the alternatives stood a chance until natural gas and electric lighting became commonplace.

Did it save the whales? It certainly helped. The declining population of whales made them hard to find and this decreased the number of whaling ships, but whaling did continue after 1860 and well into the 20th century. The better whalers could still find whales and did kill them, and the low population made them vulnerable to extinction. When quality kerosene became available, it decreased the demand for whales, so it did help. Just as steel hoops replacing whale bone hoops in women’s clothing helped. Calling the idea that “kerosene saved the whales” “irresponsible and historically fake” is an extreme overstatement. Kerosene was not the only reason whales survived, but it did help save them.

Andy May is a writer and a retired petrophysicist. His first book: Climate Catastrophe! Science or Science Fiction? Will be available on and next week on May 1st.

Works Cited

Bardi, U. 2007. “Energy prices and resource depletion: Lessons from the case of whaling in the nineteenth century.” Energy Sources Part B.

Clark, Colin. 1973. “Profit Maximization and the extinction of animal species.” Journal of Political Economy 81 (4).

Ghosh, Deepannita. 2001. “ILLUMINATING THE PAST: ARTIFICIAL LIGHTING IN AMERICA (1610-1930) AND A GUIDE TO LIGHTING HISTORIC HOUSE MUSEUMS.” Master’s thesis, University of Georgia.

Linebaugh, Donald. 2011. The Springfield Gas Machine: Illuminating Industry and Leisure, 1860s-1920s. University of Tennessee Press.

McCollough, John, and Henry Check. 2010. “The Baleen Whales’ Saving Grace: The Introduction of Petroleum Based Products in the Market and Its Impact on the Whaling Industry.” Sustainability 2 (10): 3142-3157. doi:10.3390/su2103142.