The Last American Whale Oil Compnay

Whale oil is a fuel from another age but was sold in America until 1978 by Nye Lubricants, the last American whale oil company.

Whale oil. The words conjure up romantic adventure on the high seas. Moby Dick, wooden sailing ships, living before the mast and bustling 19th century seaports like Nantucket and New Bedford.

But how many people realize whale oil was sold by a United States company as recently as 1978? And that that company, Nye Lubricants, is still selling the most highly refined synthetic oils in the world?

What exactly is whale oil and why was it so prized in times gone by? In the 1800s watches, clocks, and chronometers were the most precise instruments of the day. All needed lubrication to operate at peak efficiency. Watchmakers relied on concoctions of olive oils and nut oils. These potions were often found lacking in keeping these delicate instruments humming.

For centuries whalers were familiar with oil from the head and jaw of toothed whales, oil that never seemed to congeal, even in the sub-zero temperatures encountered in the Arctic. This unique oil was found in an organ called a "mellon," which is part of the sonar-like navigational system used by these gigantic mammals.

William F. Nye, a New Bedford, Massachusetts carpenter, first tried refining the "porpoise-jaw oil," as it was known, in 1844. By 1865, at the age of 41, he found enough takers for his wondrous oil to move into the whale oil business full-time. Nye was nothing if not a showman. In 1893 at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he introduced the "$1000 Challenge." Nye offered to pay $1000 to anyone "who could produce an oil equal to his oils, from animal, vegetable or mineral substance from land or sea." No one ever took the Challenge. Whale oil was indeed the finest lubricating oil in the world.

By 1900 nine out of ten barrels of dolphin-head oil sold were barrels of William Nye's oil. It was the most highly refined, most dependable lubricating oil available anywhere.

But the supply of porpoises and whales was hardly inexhaustible and laws proscribing whale hunting were being passed in the United States. For decades Nye was able to obtain the precious "melons" from beached animals - whales, and porpoises naturally stranded by low tides. By the mid-20th century even this was impractical. With the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 it became illegal for any American company to import raw material from marine mammals. Nye was permitted to deplete its current inventory of dolphin head oil until 1978, when it shipped the last bottle of whale oil ever sold in the United States.

But this was by no means the end of William F. Nye, Inc. The founder had begun selling petroleum-based lubricants shortly after the Civil War and Nye had instilled a long tradition of innovation and expansion in his company. With whale oil no longer available the company was poised to become an important player in the expanding world of synthetic lubricants.

Today Nye Lubricants, the greatest purveyor of whale oil in the 19th century, stocks more than 400 custom formulations and a collection of specialty products.

© High Speed Ventures 2011