The first principal use of whale oil was as an illuminant in lamps and as candle wax. Other uses came in time. In the 1700s it was noted that the burning oil from sperm whales glowed brightly and clearly and did not have a disagreeable odor like the oil from right whales did (Bonner, 1989). The sperm whale was the main whale being sought for its oil when the petroleum industry opened in 1859. The whale fishery, however, was in a declining state and had been so a decade or more before Drake struck petroleum in his drilled well and before general refining of crude oil commenced in Oil Creek Valley and elsewhere.
Kerosene from petroleum steadily replaced sperm oil as an affordable illuminant in North America and found a great demand in Europe and elsewhere on the globe. Gas manufactured from bituminous coal, water gas and gas made from petroleum distillate came on the scene for illumination and other uses in about that order. Manufactured gas lit cities and factories as well as homes.
Following the sequence of illuminating, natural gas for lighting was eclipsed by electricity.
The next illuminant was natural gas piped to cities and homes from the gas fields. Its use began in 1872 in Titusville, Pennsylvania, via a five mile pipeline from the Newton gas well to the town. Titusville was then an oil capital.
One would think that there would have been a great competitive clash between whale oil and kerosene from coal (coal oil) and petroleum in the opening years of the 1860s. However, these illuminants did not earnestly join in battle for the U.S. market at that time because the Civil War, beginning in April, 1861, brought the New England whaling fleet to a virtual halt. A large number of the whaling ships were captured and sunk by the Confederacy. This hazard made an expedition perilous before the whaling waters were even reached. Nevertheless, the reversal was weathered and sperm whale oil production carried on with its normally expected highs and lows.
Through all this, whale fisheries continued to hunt the sperm whales, and a great number of uses for the oil and the other whale products continued to develop. However, refined products from petroleum began to replace some of these other products as well and even whale ambergris, the valuable base for perfumes, was finally replaced by synthetics.