Nearly everyone has read Moby Dick, Herman Melville's morality novel depicting the battle between evil (Captain Ahab) and good, represented by the white sperm whale. The book chronicled very realistically the life of the men who went to sea during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to hunt whales. The reason so many ships and lives were risked during the long whaling voyages was money, of course, money that resulted from the sale of whale oil, baleen (used for many things, from corset stays to buggy whips) and ambergris (used in perfume manufacture).
Whale oil was the chief commodity brought back by the ships and was the first of any animal or mineral oil to achieve commercial viability. Before the age of petroleum products it was the most effective fuel for lamps and for making candles. It burned very clearly and brightly and without smoke or odor. Great quantities of sperm oil went into public and private lighting as well as lighthouses.
Another byproduct of the sperm oil refining process was high quality soap that was much easier to manufacture than that obtained from animal fat. Sperm oil was an important part of varnishes, cosmetics ("imparts a rich glossy sheen"), paint, glaze (on photographs), to process textiles and rope and burnt to provide heat. By the 1940s the world whale populations were in serious decline, resulting in the formation of the International Whaling Commission in 1946. Its chief purpose was to study the population numbers and to recommend ways to preserve enough whales to maintain the industry.
At this point in time the chief uses of whale products were in food. Japanese and Norwegians considered (and still do) whale meat a delicacy. Europeans particularly favored whale oil in the making of margarine as late as the 1950's. However, dwindling whale numbers, as well as health concerns over the use of monosaturated fats would see a shift in the late 1950's to polyunsaturated fats and oils, such as corn, safflower, and sunflower oils. Things began to look up for the whales.
During the Industrial Revolution it was found that whale oil retained its lubricating qualities in relatively extreme temperatures, making it ideal for light, rapid machinery. This fact wasn't lost on the automobile industry and by World War II development of automatic transmissions was well underway, utilizing the qualities of whale oil. The torque converter's introduction right after the war gave the automatic transmission the technology required for acceptance by the driving public and by the 1950s automatics were the preferred transmission.
By the 1960s up to 30 million pounds of whale oil were used each year, chiefly as the main additive to automatic transmission and locking differential fluids. It was whale oil that made these devices so reliable and efficient and it was primarily the auto industry's requirements that maintained the demand for whaling during the mid-20th Century.
Automatic transmissions ran smoothly and reliably using whale oil in lubricating fluids, as long as engine coolant temperatures ran below 173 degrees F. Fortunately for the whales, by the 1970s engines became subject to tighter emissions regulations and engineers had to design them to run hotter. Other demands such as front-wheel-drive and ever-increased emissions limits boosted the operating temperatures of engines to well over 200 degrees F, forcing research efforts into synthetic lubricants and rendering the use of whale oil (really an esther, not an oil) obsolete.
The Endangered Species Act of 1972, followed by an "indefinite moratorium" set in 1986 protects those whales remaining. Only the Japanese and Norwegians still kill whales for meat. While our society now looks at this senseless killing as; well, senseless and selfish, think of how you might have felt about driving a 50s or 60s-era car with an automatic transmission or locking differential if you had known that large numbers of whales had to die for your convenience. It isn't a pretty story, is it?