Popular Science Monthly/Volume 85/July 1914/Graphics of the American Whaling Industry

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1580993Popular Science Monthly Volume 85 July 1914 — Graphics of the American Whaling Industry1914J. Arthur Harris




RECENTLY in connection with another piece of work, I found it desirable to express graphically various phases and factors of the rise and decline of American whaling.

In these graphs nothing is added to the facts recorded by Scammon, Starbuck, Goode, Tower and others who have investigated and written on the economic phases of the problem, and from whose tables the various diagrams have been compiled. But the graphical treatment seems to bring out so forcefully some of the points of greatest biological and economic interest concerning the remarkable development and decline of the once great and now insignificant industry that I have ventured to offer them for publication, with a few explanatory remarks.

In Fig. 1 the abscissæ are years from 1805 to 1905, while the ordinates are marked off by the total tonnage[1] of the whaling fleet.

Here are clearly shown (a) the vascillations in size of fleet during the first few years of trial and establishment of the industry, (b) the depression associated with the war of 1812, (c) the phenomenal growth of a quarter of a century made possible by the unrestrained exploitation of ocean-wide resources up to the maximum point where there were over seven hundred vessels aggregating over two hundred and thirty thousand tons and valued at over twenty-one millions, (d) the temporary fluctuations when the industry had reached its crest, (e) the precipitous fall due to the depletion of the resources of the seas, to the risks and losses of the great war, and to other causes, and finally the decline which followed more slowly with the restoration of safety, but inevitably as almost every product of the whale except the bone was replaced by those derived from petroleum.

The curve is remarkable for its regularity and for its similarity to a biological variation polygon—to the normal or "Quetelet's" curve. Indeed, the factors to which the form of the curve is due are in large part biological, although economic and social forces are also patent.

Some of the minor irregularities are doubtless due to the unavoidable inaccuracies in the data. Apparently, the depression in 1850 and '51 is a real one; the revival of the industry resulting in the second mode on 1854 is probably due to the opening up of the bowhead whaling of the Okhotsk Sea, possibly by Captain Freeman Smith, of the ship Huntsville of the Cold Spring Harbor fleet, and of true arctic whaling by Roy's voyage through Behring strait in the bark Superior (275 tons), of Sag Harbor, L. I., in 1848.

In diagrams 2-4 the products of this fleet are represented for the various years. Here barrels of whale oil and of sperm oil and pounds of

Diagram 1. Total Tonnage of American Whaling Fleet, 1805-1905. One unit on the vertical scale denotes 10,000 tons.

bone are marked off on the vertical scale for each year. In general form the curves for all three products resemble that for tonnage. There are, however, certain distinct and conspicuous differences.

First among these, one notes the great variations from year to year in the quantity of products brought in—fluctuations which show the great uncertainty which surrounded the industry. This is most conspicuous for whale oil: it is almost equally marked in the case of whale bone after the latter came to be of considerable commercial importance; for sperm oil too it is unmistakable.

The most remarkable drop is that for whale oil and whale bone in 1852. Doubtless, this is in part due to unfavorable years, but it is probably also an after-effect of the reduction of the fleet seen in 1850 and 1851—a reduction the effects of which would not be seen until at least a year or two later, when the vessels would be returning with their cargoes.

Diagram 2. Whale Oil, Brought in by American Fleet. Unit for ordinates = 20,000 barrels.

That the depression does not affect the sperm-oil curve is perhaps due to the fact that the sperm whales might be taken at any part of the voyage—not merely on closely circumscribed "grounds" during a limited "season."

The curves for whale oil and sperm oil differ in certain important points. Except on the "tails" of the curves the imports of the more valuable sperm oil are far in defect of those for whale oil. Probably in consequence of the greater demand the source was earlier exhausted. The mode of the sperm-oil curve lies, in consequence, nearer the inception of the industry, and the curve is therefore far more skew. It is interesting to note that in more recent years, the imports of sperm oil have been maintained at a relatively higher point than has that of whale oil. It is quite outside my present purpose to discuss the reasons for this.

For many years, bone was of very little commercial importance. The entries for bone lie close to the base line up until about 1830, after which the imports are on a rising curve until the decade 1845-1855, after which it steadily declined notwithstanding a phenomenal increase in prices—an increase amounting to somewhere between five thousand and ten thousand per cent, during the course of the century!

Curves for the prices of oils need not be added. They of course show the sperm oil constantly higher than whale oil, with both showing considerable vacillations for about the first half century of the period here

Diagram 3. Sperm Oil Brought Back by American Fleet. Scale for ordinates the same as in the case of whale oil.
Diagram 4. Production of Whale Bone. Unit of scale = 500,000 pounds.

under consideration. At the time of the Civil War, with the whaling fleet rapidly decreasing and many of the vessels still in the service lying idle, the prices mounted high; but this was also the time of the establishment of the petroleum industry, by the development of which the fate of whaling was sealed. The prices gradually fell until in spite of the scarcity of the products they reached almost the level of those that prevailed when the industry was at its height.

Cold Spring Harbor, L. I.,
January 20, 1914

  1. Number of sail which in 1846 reached 736 would be interesting for comparison, but the data are not available for so wide a range of years.