[Before the first mineral oil was extracted, the Industrial Revolution depended on oil extracted from whales. Whale bone served in many applications that are now provided for by plastic – itself most frequently produced from mineral oil product. Whale oil also lit the lamps at home and at work for hundreds of years.
21st Century Editorial update]
At first whales were caught close to shore in small numbers, or whales that had become stranded were killed. The amount of oil produced was small and used mostly within the fishing community, the whale meat used as food.
As the Industrial Revolution begins in England, whale oil is recognized as an effective lubricant, superior to all known alternatives, beginning to replace alternative animal fat and vegetable oils that have been used for centuries to grease wheels and simple machines.
To obtain the whale oil sailors have to venture out into the oceans to hunt the whales. Sailing ships from Europe and North America venture to the polar regions where whales exist in great numbers, promising an endless supply of whale product. It is a highly profitable trade where the cost of building a ship and sending out on its first voyage could be recovered in that first voyage and still produce profit.
Squared rigged ships, as large as 350 tons, serve as mother ships to the small open boats that are used to hunt and kill the whales. Harpoons, attached to the whaleboat by rope, much like a fish hook, are thrown at a whale . When the whale has tired, the boat crew have to come alongside the whale, making the kill with a lance. Then the whaleboat crew have the long row back to the mother ship, now some distance away, towing the dead whale behind them. It is a hard and dangerous trade where the whaleboat crews are always at great risk during the hunt and during the long row back to the mother ship.