I was looking at my Visualized Physics book, reading about the measurement of light. Since this book is about as old as my dad, I think it’s safe to say that some of the terminology is a bit off. When the writers mentioned something about a “sperm candle,” my mind did a photon flip. Against my will, I imagined a 19th century sperm production facility that harvested the spunk of a bunch of criminals or moral reprobates and then daintily fashioned the would-be humans into burning cylinders of light for Victorian households.
That never would have happened back in the day, would it? Although, the term “sperm candle” does has an interesting background, and I’d like to fill you in on it.
Back when the might of nations was measured in navies, hunters killed huge whales regularly. Herman Melville wrote about such a whale-hunting expedition in his classic, Moby Dick. Although sperm whales were hunted primarily for their blubber—which industrious folk eventually turned into soap, leather, and cosmetics—they were also hunted for a waxy substance located in their heads, called spermaceti.
Spermaceti, despite its name, is not what you think. Hunters and scientists originally mistook this substance for whale sperm, and anointed it with an unusually suggestive name. While the biological function of spermaceti in sperm whales is still unknown, scientists think it somehow aids in their echo location ability, and thus, their ability to hunt prey.
Hunters in America killed 292,714 whales between 1835 and 1872, according to Save the Whales. That translates into roughly 22 whales per day. Even more amazingly, hunters could harvest up to four tons of spermaceti from each whale. The mind boggles.
After killing the whale, sailors would bring the carcass aboard the ship, or secure it to the side of the ship. Sailors could then extract the spermaceti with buckets, or manually by entering the cavity in the whale’s head. In chapter 77 of his magnum opus, Melville describes how Tashtego the harpooneer lowers himself into the cavity to retrieve the precious “milk”:
Inserting this pole into the bucket, Tashtego downward guides the bucket into the [whale], till it entirely disappears; then giving the word to the seamen at the whip, up comes the bucket again, all bubbling like a dairy maid’s pail of new milk. Carefully lowered down from its height, the full-freighted vessel is caught by an appointed hand, and quickly emptied into a large tub. Then re-mounting aloft, it again goes through the same round until the deep cistern will yield no more. Towards the end, Tashtego has to ram his pole harder and harder, and deeper and deeper into the [whale], until some twenty feet of the pole have gone down.
After cooling, pressurizing, and treating it with an alkali, spermaceti turns into a kind of crystal that is hard but oily. These crystals were ultimately processed into candles. This is where we get the name “sperm candle.” Because the treated spermaceti is clear and odorless, the sperm candle was touted the best candle in the world. While still an ambassador to Great Britain, future U.S. president John Adams unsuccessfully urged British dignitaries to invest in sperm candles for street lamps:
[T]he fat of the spermaceti whale gives the clearest and most beautiful flame of any substance that is known in nature, and we are surprised you prefer darkness, and consequent robberies, burglaries, and murders in your streets to receiving as a remittance our spermaceti oil.
Before the uptick of the industrial revolution hit America, whaling was so essential because humans harvested from whales key commodities that were harder to get elsewhere. Blubber was used for oil and soap; spermaceti was used for oil and wax; baleen was used for fishing poles and corset stays. After the 19th century ended, technology began furnishing more whale-friendly energy alternatives, such as kerosene. This, along with social pressure to end predatory hunting, allowed whale populations to slowly recover. Although the sperm candle turned out to be a misnomer, the candle itself was instrumental in creating the scientific unit called “candlepower,” which is why the term appeared in my physics book in the first place.