Roman Mars [00:00:01] Vrbo offers whole vacation homes with the space to spend quality time with the people you love. In a Vrbo vacation home, a host doesn’t stay with you. So, when you rent a Vrbo, you get the whole upstairs, the whole downstairs, and the whole nap room–which is any room really if you try hard enough–where you can just be together because the most important thing in the world is quality time with your loved ones. Book your next day on the Vrbo app. Whether you’re a driverless car engineer or an augmented reality designer, Squarespace is the online platform to help you stand out with a beautiful website, engage with your audience, and sell anything. With Squarespace, you can collect email subscribers and convert them into loyal customers, display posts from your social profiles on your website, and even use the Analytics feature to gain insights to grow your business. Head to squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial–and when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. But please: call me Ishmael. In the basement archives of the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, there’s a lot that catches the eye.
Michael Dyer [00:01:19] This is a nice collection of mounted harpoons and lances.
Roman Mars [00:01:21] So Michael Dyer is the museum’s curator of maritime history.
Michael Dyer [00:01:26] This particular harpoon is an early toggle type. But once you plant this thing into the blubber of a sperm whale, it’ll pop open like that and lock into place under that blubber.
Roman Mars [00:01:38] The shelves are lined with rusting harpoons and whale-exploding bombs.
Michael Dyer [00:01:44] These weapons were used for killing whales quickly and efficiently.
Daniel Ackerman [00:01:50] The victims of those weapons are lying around, too–parts of them, at least.
Roman Mars [00:01:54] That’s reporter Daniel Ackerman.
Michael Dyer [00:01:57] That’s a narwhal tusk. There’s all kinds of strange stuff back here. I don’t even know what it is.
Daniel Ackerman [00:02:03] In the 1800s, whaling was a vast and brutal industry–sometimes as deadly for the sailors involved as it was for the whales.
Roman Mars [00:02:11] And the global epicenter of whaling was just two blocks down from the museum, on the piers jutting out into New Bedford Harbor.
Michael Dyer [00:02:20] I mean, you’re talking 350 vessels in the mid 1850s were registered and sailed out of New Bedford. That’s a huge fleet. So, they’re sailing all around the world. More than half a million animals throughout the 19th century were extracted from the seas by the American whaling fleet.
Roman Mars [00:02:40] All this slaughter wasn’t because people had some insatiable appetite for whale meat. It was all about things people could make out of whale blubber.
Daniel Ackerman [00:02:50] In the archives, Dyer picks up a jar full of what looks like melted chocolate bars.
Michael Dyer [00:02:55] This is this whale-oil soap I was talking about.
Daniel Ackerman [00:02:58] Soap that 150 years ago, someone made by hacking the blubber off a whale and boiling it.
Michael Dyer [00:03:03] And it works great, too.
Daniel Ackerman (field tape) [00:03:05] Have you used it?
Michael Dyer [00:03:05] Yes, I have. I actually asked permission and we talked about it in the department. I said, “I’d like to wash my hands with some of this stuff.” And I did, and it lathered up and it was great.
Daniel Ackerman [00:03:18] Another major driver of the whaling industry, besides dirty hands, was darkness.
Michael Dyer [00:03:24] This is pretty awesome–what the whaling industry is all about.
Daniel Ackerman [00:03:26] Dyer picks up a clear glass lamp, cast like an ornate goblet, and it’s filled with amber-colored whale oil.
Michael Dyer [00:03:33] This is high-quality, 19th century lighting. When you think today, you know, or you throw on your light switch, whatever. You get all the light that you want. That wasn’t the way life was.
Daniel Ackerman [00:03:46] Before the electric light bulb or petroleum burning lamps, whale oil provided the best lighting money could buy.
Roman Mars [00:03:53] It burned bright and smoke free. Whale oil rendered in New Bedford was sold to light street lamps, homes, and businesses all over the world. The city even adopted the Latin motto “Lucem diffundo,” which means “I spread light.” The phrase can still be seen stamped on the sidewalks outside of City Hall.
Daniel Ackerman [00:04:11] But fancy lamps and throwback soaps aren’t what brought me to the Whaling Museum today. I came to see some much smaller artifacts. Tucked away, in the back corner of the archives is an unmarked gray cabinet holding perhaps the most consequential items in the entire collection. Inside sit row after row of tiny glass bottles plugged with tiny wooden corks.
Michael Dyer [00:04:32] There’s a lot of bottles of oil down here. Gun oil. Sewing machine oil. This is from the U.S. Navy. This is torpedo gyroscope oil.
Daniel Ackerman [00:04:46] Not every bottle is so specific. Dyer reads the list of intended uses off one of them.
Michael Dyer [00:04:52] “Use on the bathroom, bicycles, bolts, cameras, carriages, cash registers, tapped hands, chisels, clippers, cutlery, doors…”
Roman Mars [00:04:58] These unassuming bottles of oil hold the history of a hidden technology–lubrication–that keeps the rest of our technology humming smoothly, along.
Michael Dyer [00:05:08] “Locks, motors, musical instruments, and household articles.”
Daniel Ackerman (field tape) [00:05:12] So everything?
Michael Dyer [00:05:14] Sure.
Daniel Ackerman [00:05:15] And the story of how lubrication became a technology unto itself starts with dead whales and piles of cold hard cash.
Roman Mars [00:05:27] In the 1800s, whaling transformed New Bedford from a sleepy fishing town into one of the wealthiest cities in the world.
Daniel Ackerman [00:05:33] Fruitful whaling voyages built vast fortunes for the merchants and financiers who ran the industry. Society men and women strutted through town, sporting the latest trends in European fashion. And colorful Victorian mansions sprang up by the dozens, all built with that sweet, sweet whale money.
Roman Mars [00:05:50] As Herman Melville put it in Moby Dick, “These brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”
Daniel Ackerman [00:06:04] It was like a gold rush. The whaling industry pulled in anyone looking to make a quick buck. And one of those people was a local New Bedford businessman named William F. Nye.
Roman Mars [00:06:14] Nye was something of a serial entrepreneur. He had dabbled in everything from selling fruit to building church organs. And like just about everyone in town, he looked to whales for his next big score.
Daniel Ackerman [00:06:26] Nye realized there were already plenty of people hawking New Bedford whale oil for lamps and soap; those markets were saturated. But in 1865, he found a new way to sell whales to the world. Here to explain is one of William Nye’s living relatives.
Bill Nye [00:06:42] My brother has a bottle of Nye Whale Oil that’s well over a century old.
Daniel Ackerman (field tape) [00:06:48] By way of introduction, for those of us who grew up watching educational television in the ’90s, how might we know you?
Bill Nye [00:06:55] Well, I’m Bill Nye the Science Guy. I did a show. We did 100 episodes about science!
Daniel Ackerman [00:07:08] And before Bill Nye was The Science Guy, he was an aerospace engineer.
Daniel Ackerman (field tape) [00:07:13] All right. So, you have, like, first hand experience.
Bill Nye [00:07:16] Oh, man. As a mechanical engineer, I’m all about lubricants, man.
Roman Mars [00:07:21] And here’s how Bill Nye the Mechanical Engineer Guy thinks about motion.
Bill Nye [00:07:25] When you have any sliding mechanical parts, in general, you need a lubricant.
Daniel Ackerman (field tape) [00:07:31] And why is that?
Bill Nye [00:07:33] Wow. Because things are rough. Things are rough out there, man. And by that, I mean even surfaces that look smooth actually have roughness.
Daniel Ackerman [00:07:45] Two rough surfaces rubbing against each other causes friction.
Bill Nye (Friction Episode) [00:07:49] See, friction is the force we feel whenever things are rubbing on each other.
Daniel Ackerman [00:07:54] And these problems aren’t anything new.
Bill Nye [00:07:57] Julius Caesar and those guys were lubricating their axles with grease. And you would get grease by rendering animal fat.
Daniel Ackerman [00:08:07] When archeologists opened the more than 3,000-year-old tomb of Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen, they found half a dozen horse drawn chariots. And on the bottom of those chariots, they found animal fat slathered into the spot where the wheels rotate around the axle. This helped control the friction problem.
Roman Mars [00:08:25] Instead of the wooden wheels grinding against the wooden axle with thousands of pounds per square inch of pressure, the wheels would glide gently around a film of animal grease, providing a smooth, efficient ride fit for a pharaoh.
Bill Nye [00:08:39] So by introducing a layer of oil that can tolerate these very high pressures, things get slippery. And it’s a wonderful feature of our mechanical world. You just can’t get much done without lubricants. And you guys can make all the puns you want and all the innuendo you want.
Roman Mars [00:09:02] And for a long time that’s just how things got done. Machines were lubricated with whatever local material was lying around–animal, fat, vegetable oil, sometimes just water or mud. But then…
Industrial Revolution Documentary [00:09:14] The Industrial Revolution was the great discontinuity of modern history. By 1800, there were already a thousand steam engines in operation in England…
Daniel Ackerman [00:09:25] The Industrial Revolution brought an explosion of new kinds of machinery. Factories sprung up, brimming with steam engines. spinning machines, and looms. Everything newer, bigger, and faster–and all of it in need of lubrication.
Roman Mars [00:09:38] And suddenly whatever peanut oil was lying around was no longer good enough to keep the modern mechanical world moving at top speed.
Daniel Ackerman [00:09:46] The 1800s saw a wave of patents for new kinds of lubricant. These were not materials just plucked out of nature but refined and mixed together. There were blends of graphite and lard–of olive oil with rock dust.
Roman Mars [00:09:59] It was a world full of friction. Scientists and engineers were racing to design quality lubrication for it. And William F. Nye realized that there was something special about the oil from those giant marine mammals landing in the port of New Bedford.
Bill Nye [00:10:13] Whale oil is a very high-performance lubricant. And by that, I mean it maintains its lubricity at different temperatures.
Daniel Ackerman [00:10:23] Basically, it stays slippery and doesn’t congeal in the cold like other oils. Oil from sperm whales was a particularly good all-temperature lubricant. Sperm whales live everywhere from the equator all the way to the edge of the sea ice in both the Arctic and Antarctic.
Roman Mars [00:10:38] Whale oil is also non corrosive–it doesn’t wear down metals–a vital quality given the proliferation of metal machinery at the time.
Daniel Ackerman [00:10:48] By all accounts, the opulent city of New Bedford stunk of rotting whale. But to Nye, it was the putrid stench of opportunity. In 1865, he began refining whale oil in his kitchen and bottling it as a lubricant.
Roman Mars [00:11:02] Many of his first customers were whalers themselves. He sold the refined oil from sperm whales and some other species as a lubricant for timepieces, including Chronometers. Those machines helped ships navigate at sea, often for years on end. As Michael Dyer of the Whaling Museum puts it, if that chronometer went haywire…
Michael Dyer [00:11:21] You could lose your ship and everybody on it and the entire cargo and everything. So, it has to work.
Roman Mars [00:11:27] And it did thanks in part to William Nye’s all-weather lubricant. He successfully expanded the market for whale-based products beyond lamp lighting and the occasional bar of soap. He moved his refining operation from his kitchen into a storefront and eventually into an entire factory, where he could make lubrication for all the new-fangled machines coming to the American home.
Daniel Ackerman [00:11:50] Nye wasn’t the only one refining whale oil into lubricant. He even had a cross-town rival in New Bedford, Ezra Kelley, who was known for his watch oil. But it was Nye who had the idea to specialize–to engineer a unique refining process for each application of lubricant. He made a super-fine lubricant just for music boxes and a thicker one just for firearms. For every machine–a lubricant.
Roman Mars [00:12:15] Nye led the charge of oil refiners who applied the principles of chemistry, physics, and engineering to the problem of friction.
Michael Dyer [00:12:23] And the oil refiners were very deliberate craftspeople who are applying specialized and proprietary knowledge to the processing of these animals to make a product that was unique to their business so that they could actually put on the label that this is the greatest lubricant in the world.
Daniel Ackerman [00:12:44] And that’s exactly what Nye did. He wasn’t just an engineer but also something of a showboat on the marketing front. One of his company’s salesmen was known to end his pitches by drinking from a bottle of lubricant to prove how pure it was.
Roman Mars [00:12:56] Nye hawked his whale oil as a cure-all for anything with moving parts. He displayed it at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Four years later, he showed up in New York to pitch his specialty oil for a new form of two-wheeled transport at the first National Bike Show at Madison Square Garden.
Daniel Ackerman [00:13:14] By 1900, Nye had started experimenting with lubricant from different sources like olive oil and neatsfoot oil made from cattle bonds. His specialty, though, remained his high-end whale oil, which he shipped to eager customers all over the world. Nye had accomplished what he set out to do–open up a whole new market for whale-based products and make a ton of money doing it. But the early decades of the 20th century brought what we know today as supply chain issues.
Roman Mars [00:13:43] Through decades of overfishing, New Bedford’s whalers had harpooned themselves in the foot. Whales grew scarce, and ships had to chase their remaining prey farther and farther out to sea. The last whaling ship from New Bedford Harbor sailed in 1927, the city’s once colorful mansions fell into drab disrepair, and Nye’s supply of raw materials largely dried up. The market for lubricants was taken over by cheaper petroleum-based products.
The Story of Lubricating Oil Documentary [00:14:12] As with all petroleum products, lubricating oil comes from crude oil. Crude oil–a veritable black magic that is taken from the depths of the earth.
Daniel Ackerman [00:14:22] For its part, Nye Lubricants kept scrounging whale oil, however it could, often relying on pilot whales that sometimes beached themselves along the Massachusetts coast. But those occasional strandings just weren’t enough. By the mid 1900s, the company’s factory, once bustling with dozens of workers, dwindled to just four employees.
Roman Mars [00:14:41] It seemed the end was nigh for Nye Lubricant. Mass produced petroleum-based lubricants had won the day.
The Story of Lubricating Oil Documentary [00:14:48] Today, the whole world moves on a thin film of lubricating oil. Oil is our magic carpet. Without it, no wheel could turn–no moving part operate.
Roman Mars [00:15:00] Petroleum products were terrible for the climate and toxic for people living near refineries. But as lubricants, they had a lot going for them. They were cheap, and they could be mass produced by oil companies. And they didn’t require death defying years long voyages in pursuit of an elusive white whale.
Daniel Ackerman [00:15:17] But just because oil companies could make lubricants on this massive scale doesn’t mean those lubricants worked perfectly. In 1966, a British engineer named Peter Jost published a paper that would become the Constitution for the small but growing field of research he dubbed “tribology,” the study of friction, wear, and lubrication.
Bill Nye [00:15:39] Tribology rules!
Roman Mars [00:15:40] That’s right, Bill Nye. To this day, if you walk into a tribology conference, you can bet people are talking about the so-called “Jost Report.” The paper measured the literal cost of friction to the British economy. It found that unnecessary wear and tear to machinery caused by bad lubrication was dragging down the nation’s productivity by more than 1% of GDP–the equivalent of billions of dollars.
Daniel Ackerman [00:16:05] Seeing these results, countries like China, Germany, and the U.S. all raced to study wear and tear in their own economies. And they all came to similar conclusions–“we need better lubricants.”
Roman Mars [00:16:15] Whales didn’t quite do it. Neither did petroleum. Even The Science Guy himself admits that science had not, in fact, solved the problem of friction.
Bill Nye [00:16:23] Getting these molecules of oil, of lubricant, to not break down when they’re smushed–it’s a dark art, and it’s a tricky business.
Nicole D’Ambrosio [00:16:37] All right, so this is a DEWALT drill.
Daniel Ackerman [00:16:40] Nicole D’Ambrosio is a modern-day purveyor of the dark art of lubrication.
Nicole D’Ambrosio [00:16:45] So we make a lubricant that goes into the gearbox as it spins.
Daniel Ackerman [00:16:50] She’s standing in the sales room of the lubrication company she works for, pulling items from a display case.
Nicole D’Ambrosio [00:16:56] We have an inhaler in here. There’s a lubricant that goes in here for the mechanism as you push the top of the inhaler in order to get a dose of medicine. There’s also another drug delivery device in here for an insulin application. This one was important because there’s a needle involved.
Daniel Ackerman [00:17:13] D’Ambrosio is director of manufacturing at a company that to this day is still called Nye Lubricants.
Roman Mars [00:17:21] The end of whaling was not, in fact the end of Nye Lubricants. With their supply of raw material gone, the company decided, “We’ll just make our own.”
Daniel Ackerman [00:17:30] Around the time of the Jost Report, Nye’s few remaining employees began tinkering with a new type of lubricant. Not whale oil, not petroleum, but synthetic lubricant made with new kinds of chemicals cooked up in the lab.
Roman Mars [00:17:44] Synthetics meant that the company could turbocharge their designing of specialty lubricants for particular applications because now there were so many different chemicals to try out. You know, household names like…
Nicole D’Ambrosio [00:17:57] Polyalphaolefin. Peripheral-poly-ethers, also known as “PFPs.” Esters could be diesters. Then you have your silicone oils. Multiply-alkylated cyclopentane are known as “Macs.” Sometimes Pennzane products as well. Polyphenyl ethers. So, there’s a lot of different chemistries that you get to use versus just a mineral oil that’s coming out of the ground.
Roman Mars [00:18:20] And this massive new chemical library proved useful as the world entered yet another machine revolution.
IBM Promo [00:18:26] More and more businesses are using the IBM System/36.
Daniel Ackerman [00:18:31] As the computer era dawned, Nye Lubricants spent the late 20th century crafting custom greases that were just right for keeping keyboards clacking, printers printing, and hard drives spinning at thousands of rotations per minute. With a focus on synthetics, the company built itself back up. Today, they make more than a thousand different lubricants, each designed to enable the most important technologies of our time–including the Perseverance Rover currently exploring the surface of Mars. And equally important…
Nicole D’Ambrosio [00:19:01] This one is an Xbox controller. So, all of your buttons here for gaming–they require a lubricant in here in order to get the device to work. And it’s critical because if the buttons start sticking and people can’t get their games to play correctly, they’re not going to be very happy.
Daniel Ackerman [00:19:20] And keeping gamers happy is a process as rigorous as game design itself.
Nicole D’Ambrosio [00:19:24] There’s a lot of cycle testing where the buttons literally go through needing to survive 20 million, you know, pushes in certain temperature environments to mimic, you know, someone sitting there playing games for six solid hours.
Daniel Ackerman (field tape) [00:19:40] When you said 20 million, was that literal?
Nicole D’Ambrosio [00:19:43] Literal. Yes.
Daniel Ackerman (field tape) [00:19:47] Do you feel like when you kind of, like, move through the world, you have this X-ray vision where you’re looking at objects and you’re like, “There’s a grease in there, on the hinge of that little box. There’s a grease in, like, you know, my laptop”? Like, are you kind of seeing these things?
Nicole D’Ambrosio [00:19:59] Yeah, particularly when things don’t work properly, the first thing that comes to my mind is: “They didn’t put the right lubricant in it.”
Roman Mars [00:20:06] Today the world is growing more and more digital, and it may even feel like the mechanical age that William F. Nye helped grease is coming to an end, along with our need for more and better lubricants.
Daniel Ackerman [00:20:20] But even the internet, which feels so separate from the physical world, is actually just a giant machine with billions of moving parts.
Roman Mars [00:20:28] The data centers that house our cat photos and banking info rely on cooling systems, compressors, and fans that all use specially designed grease. And the fiber optic cables that beam those cat photos and banking info beneath the oceans and across continents–they use grease, too, to guard against the tiny vibrations constantly rippling across our world.
Daniel Ackerman [00:20:49] We could all decamp to the metaverse, completely abandoning the physical world and all its moving parts–please don’t do that–and we’d still need humble grease to keep it running. On the hottest, most humid days of summer, if you wander over to the back corner of the production floor at night lubricants, you can still catch a whiff of whale oil.
Nicole D’Ambrosio [00:21:14] When they were working with material, it just got into the cement and it’s difficult to get out. It’s not a good smell. It’s very pungent. I don’t know really how to describe it. It’s kind of–I don’t know–maybe, like, sweaty feet. It’s gross.
Roman Mars [00:21:32] But it’s a potent reminder that good grease doesn’t happen by accident. It’s taken centuries of careful design and development to keep our machines running. Even though William Nye was chasing a fad when he got into the whale business, he stumbled upon selling a solution to a problem that would need solving until the end of time. Coming up, the daughter of New Bedford’s last whaleman describes what it was like to work in whaling–the industry that lit the world and helped give rise to good grease. After this. Contrary to current headlines, several industries are heading into a hiring boom this spring, including e-commerce, health care and surprisingly, hospitality. The hospitality industry needs to hire for service positions, managerial positions, and back-office operations positions, too. If you need to hire qualified candidates A.S.A.P for any of these industries or any other industry, you need ZipRecruiter. And right now, you can try it for free at ziprecruiter.com/99. ZipRecruiter uses its powerful matching technology to find the most qualified candidates for a wide range of roles. ZipRecruiter makes it easy to send promising candidates a personal invite so they’re more likely to apply. Let ZipRecruiter keep your team growing strong, no matter what the industry. Four to five employers who post on ZipRecruiter get a quality candidate within the first day. Go see for yourself. Go to this exclusive web address to try ZipRecruiter for free. It’s ziprecruiter.com/99. Again, that’s ziprecruiter.com/99. ZipRecruiter–the smartest way to hire. This show is sponsored by BetterHelp. Getting to know yourself can be a lifelong process, especially because we’re always growing and changing. Therapy is all about deepening your self-awareness and understanding because sometimes we don’t know what we want or why we react the way we do until we talk through things. BetterHelp connects you with a licensed therapist, who can take you on that journey of self-discovery from wherever you are. If you’re thinking of starting therapy, give BetterHelp a try. It’s entirely online. It’s designed to be convenient, flexible, and suited to your schedule. Just fill out a brief questionnaire to get matched with a licensed therapist, and switch therapists at any time for no additional charge. Literally, every important person in my life has benefited from adding therapy to their health and wellness routine. Discover your potential with BetterHelp. Visit betterhelp.com/invisible today to get 10% off your first month. That’s betterhelp.com/invisible. If you like getting the best of everything, then check out T-Mobile. T-Mobile’s 5G coverage is bigger than AT&T and Verizon’s combined. So, it’s no wonder they have the most National 5G Network Awards ever. Not only does T-Mobile have a great network, but their plans are packed full of incredible extras. Customers can get a value of over $225 in benefits every single month on their MAX family plans. Benefits like travel perks and your favorite streaming services all included, which is very, very nice. Who says you can’t have it all? With T-Mobile, you don’t have to choose between a great network or great value. Find out more at t-mobile.com/seewhy. That’s seewhy. Qualifying service and capable device required. $225 is based on the retail value of available monthly benefits with MAX. Many of today’s occupations didn’t really exist a decade ago. Driverless car engineers, cryptocurrency analysts, podcasters–if I’m being honest. From Etsy seller to emoji translator, new opportunities to build a career are popping up every day. And Squarespace is the ultimate tool for professionals to build a site to market their brand and sell anything. Features like Squarespace Analytics allow you to use insights to grow your business. The appointment scheduling feature allows you to add online booking and scheduling to your Squarespace website. With the video studio app feature, you can create and share Pro-Level videos. Squarespace even offers a member area feature, where you can sell access to gated content, like videos, online courses, or newsletters. All the modern tools you need for the new jobs of today. Head to squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial, and when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. So, we’re back with reporter Daniel Ackerman. Hey, Daniel.
Daniel Ackerman [00:26:25] Hey, Roman.
Roman Mars [00:26:26] So I loved that 20 minutes on grease; that’s some classic 99PI stuff right there–20 minutes on grease. It was so fantastic. But I hear you want to talk a little bit more about whales.
Daniel Ackerman [00:26:36] Right. And I actually want to start with Moby Dick because I hear, Roman, that you’re a fan.
Roman Mars [00:26:41] I am. I am a huge fan of Moby Dick. Whenever it’s November in my soul, I read little passages of Moby Dick. I even like those boring chapters with really bad whale biology in them. I like it all.
Daniel Ackerman [00:26:52] Nice. Well, you should come to New Bedford one year for the Moby Dick Marathon, which is exactly what it sounds like. People just get together, sit around, and read aloud–cover to cover–the entirety of Moby Dick. It usually takes about 25 hours, so bring some coffee.
Roman Mars [00:27:08] I would be so into that. You have no idea. I wouldn’t need coffee.
Daniel Ackerman [00:27:11] Yeah. So, I mean, there’s just hundreds of people. There’s still this, like, really strong connection between New Bedford and the sea, even though the whaling days are long gone. New Bedford is still a big fishing port, though. It’s actually the highest grossing fishing port in the country. But today, they catch scallops, not whales.
Roman Mars [00:27:29] Right. So, no harpoons required for scallops.
Daniel Ackerman [00:27:31] No harpoons. You’ll have to go to the Whaling Museum to see those. But I do have a story for you about the people who used those harpoons. And these aren’t the whale business owners like William F. Nye. These are the folks that actually risked their lives out on the high seas to catch these animals that provided the world with light and lubricant. So here I want to introduce you to someone.
Dorothy Lopes [00:27:52] My name is Dorothy Lopes. I live in New Bedford. I was born and raised in Bedford. And I’m still here.
Daniel Ackerman [00:27:59] Still in New Bedford at 88 years of age. And I went to talk to Dorothy to hear about her father, Antonio Lorenso Lopes.
Roman Mars [00:28:07] So who is Antonio Lorenso Lopes?
Daniel Ackerman [00:28:09] Well, he was born in 1897 in a small town in the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa. And as a teenager, Antonio went to work with his father, who was a fisherman. The two of them bought some lumber, they built a small boat and set of oars, and Antonio learned how to row it.
Dorothy Lopes [00:28:25] They caught turtles and scup. Mainly, that was what they caught.
Daniel Ackerman (field tape) [00:28:31] What is scup?
Dorothy Lopes [00:28:32] Is a small fish–six to seven inches maybe. And I guess they were very tasty. I took their word for it. To me, it had too many bones. I didn’t like fish with bones.
Daniel Ackerman [00:28:40] So small, bony fish. This was just, like, kind of a father son fishing business in Cape Verde. And they kept at this for a few years until one day when Antonio was in his early twenties, and he was approached by a family friend–someone who was just a bit older than him.
Dorothy Lopes [00:28:56] And he had been to America on whaling ships. And going back to Cape Verde, he used to talk to my dad about, “You know, you should come to America. You should come to America. I’ll get you on a boat.”
Daniel Ackerman [00:29:08] And, like, this was common practice in the American whaling industry. They would go out and recruit workers in places like Cape Verde or the Azores Islands because those places had this highly skilled labor. People like Antonio were oarsmen who had spent years navigating the open ocean in these small rowboats.
Roman Mars [00:29:26] Okay, so what exactly is the job of an oarsman on a whaling ship then?
Daniel Ackerman [00:29:31] Right. So maybe, like, big picture–how the whaling expedition worked–most of the time, Antonio was just hanging around with the crew on this big sailing ship with masts and sails and everything. And there would be a couple of guys up on top of the mast in the crow’s nest, keeping a watch on the water. And when those spotters saw a whale out in the distance, they would yell… What would they yell, Roman?
Roman Mars [00:29:57] “Thar she blows!”
Daniel Ackerman [00:29:58] “Thar she blows.” That was the signal that it was go-time for Antonio as the oarsmen. So, what he would do is he would huddle up with a couple other oarsmen and the ship’s harpooner, and then they would all jump into this much smaller, more nimble rowboat. And then the group of them would get lowered down into the surf to go after the whale.
Dorothy Lopes [00:30:19] You know, when I think about it, I just get shivers because even though my father lived on an island, he did not know how to swim. So, I think of my father out on this huge ocean with other men in the boat with him. I don’t know if they know how to swim. They didn’t have life jackets and things of that nature. Oh my God. He was one of the lucky ones who survived all those times, you know, jumping off the whaling ship into these small boats to go chase the whales.
Roman Mars [00:30:51] That is amazing to me that he didn’t know how to swim. I would invest some time in learning how to swim if that was my job.
Daniel Ackerman [00:30:58] Yeah, but he just went for it. He rode this, like, tiny, nimble boat out to chase the whale and get it into position for the harpooner to take his shot. And Dorothy said, like, this was the moment that was the most dangerous for everyone involved.
Dorothy Lopes [00:31:11] The whale would start turning over and over in the water. He said there was lots of blood. I can imagine. And then they would have to tow the whale up alongside of the large ship. And then they would start the process of cutting up the whale.
Roman Mars [00:31:27] And so they cut up the whale when it’s still in the water, alongside the ship, correct?
Daniel Ackerman [00:31:33] Yeah. They would tow it along the ship. They would, over the side, lop off the blubber chunk by chunk. And then they would boil each of those chunks down into the whale oil. And this whole process could take days to complete for a single whale–with the men working 24/7.
Roman Mars [00:31:51] And after they took off the blubber, what happened to the rest of the whale?
Daniel Ackerman [00:31:56] Yeah. So, once they got the blubber, they would often just let most of the carcass go to sink back down into the ocean. Sometimes they did keep some of the bones. The sailors would carve them into these art pieces called scrimshaw. And some of those are actually, like, really impressively elaborate. The whalers would bring them home as gifts for their girlfriends or families or whatever. And Dorothy also told me sometimes they’d salvage some of the meat from the whale, and they would grind that into hamburgers. And this was particularly important and probably kind of a treat for the crew because otherwise there was not much on the ship for Dorothy’s father and the crew to eat.
Dorothy Lopes [00:32:33] They always talked about bread. The cook made bread. It was like a hard crust–almost like a biscuit. So, every day, you’d have bread and molasses.
Daniel Ackerman (field tape) [00:32:46] You’re making a face when you’re describing that biscuit.
Dorothy Lopes [00:32:48] I can’t imagine eating it. For days? I mean, you’re out there months, and you’ve got bread and this molasses and maybe sometimes you have this ground up whale meat.
Roman Mars [00:33:01] So it’s not a really balanced diet, eating only bread, molasses, and whale meat.
Daniel Ackerman [00:33:06] No. But get this, Roman. And here’s kind of the crux of the story of the whaling industry. Dorothy says that in the galley–in the kitchen of this whaling ship–there was this stash of plump, juicy, delicious oranges. But Antonio and the crew?
Dorothy Lopes [00:33:22] They didn’t get the oranges, they’d get the skin of the oranges, which was dried. And they could boil it with water to make a kind of tea.
Daniel Ackerman (field tape) [00:33:31] And then who got the oranges?
Dorothy Lopes [00:33:33] Probably the captain and, you know, the first mate and those officers on the ship.
Roman Mars [00:33:42] This reminds me of a passage in Moby Dick–it’s one of my favorite passages–about who on the boat got to eat butter for dinner. And, you know, the captain gets butter. And then as you go down the chain of command, eventually it gets down to Flask, who does not get butter. And it has one of my favorite sentences in all of Moby Dick, which was “Flask, alas! was a butter man!”
Daniel Ackerman [00:34:03] Yeah, butterless and orangeless potentially.
Roman Mars [00:34:06] I’m sure he didn’t get oranges either.
Daniel Ackerman [00:34:07] Yeah, maybe for the next episode, Roman, you should just read the whole book aloud for us to enjoy.
Roman Mars [00:34:14] Don’t tempt me.
Daniel Ackerman [00:34:15] But, like, that’s how it went. And this was actually a successful expedition. They caught several whales. But at the end of it all, Antonio was left with not much more than those orange peels.
Dorothy Lopes [00:34:25] When they left Cape Verde and came, they didn’t get to New Bedford until six months later. He had $10.
Daniel Ackerman [00:34:34] He made $10 over the course of six months?
Dorothy Lopes [00:34:39] Any supplies that you got–at first, they say they gave you… Two shirts, two pairs of overalls, a pair of shoes, a hat, like, a rain-type/slicker-type of coat. But they took it out of whatever you were making. It was taken out. So, at the end of six months, he had made $10.
Roman Mars [00:34:57] So $10. Can you remind me of what year this was again?
Daniel Ackerman [00:35:01] Yeah. So, this is around 1920. So, in today’s dollars, that would be like making 150 bucks.
Roman Mars [00:35:07] For a half of a year’s work.
Daniel Ackerman [00:35:09] Yeah, for half a year’s work. And Dorothy says her father wasn’t even, like, that badly off compared to some of the other whalers there.
Dorothy Lopes [00:35:18] There are stories of whalemen–among the Cape Verdean whalemen–who came back from several months of whaling, owing the captain money. I believe it’s because they were people of color and taken advantage of–another form of slavery.
Roman Mars [00:35:36] So what did Antonio do when he arrived in New Bedford? Did he stay in the whaling business?
Daniel Ackerman [00:35:42] Well, so this was getting into the 1920s and commercial whaling was really on its last legs. So instead, Antonio took a job at a factory that made nails. And in his first week at that factory, he made $17.
Roman Mars [00:35:56] Wow. So more than he made in the entire whaling expedition. Like, $7 more than he made whaling for an entire half of a year. That’s amazing.
Daniel Ackerman [00:36:03] Yeah. Yeah. So that was definitely the end of whaling for Antonio. He never went back out to sea. But, you know, I think his story captures a lot about how whaling worked. And by the way, this whole history of whaling and the workers who built the industry is still really present today and if you walk around New Bedford. You know, the industry drew people from all over the world. And to take Dorothy’s family history as an example, the city is still a huge part of the Cape Verdean diaspora. You’ll see Cape Verdean flags in front of houses. The Cape Verdean Prime Minister makes state visits to New Bedford from time to time. And that connection–so much of the culture in the city–goes back to the time when people came here to chase whales with the dream that did not always pan out.
Roman Mars [00:36:50] Well, I love hearing about this history. I really appreciate it. I’m so glad the whaling industry is dead and gone and we’re not killing these animals anymore. But I love hearing about the past of it. So, thank you so much, Dan. I appreciate it.
Daniel Ackerman [00:37:01] Any time, Ishmael. I mean Roman.
Roman Mars [00:37:21] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Daniel Ackerman and Jeyca Maldonado Medina. Daniel first reported a version of this story for CAI radio. Mixed by Martín Gonzalez. Music by Swan Real. Delaney Hall is our Senior Editor. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Vivian Le, Emmett FitzGerald, Christopher Johnson, Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Lasha Madan, Joe Rosenberg, Kelly Prime, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. Special thanks to Ann Marie Lopes and the New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park. 99% Invisible is part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram, Reddit, and TikTok too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org. Call me Ishmael. Some years ago–never mind how long precisely–having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to Stitcher as soon as I can. If you like getting the best of everything, then check out T-Mobile. T-Mobile’s 5G coverage is bigger than AT&T and Verizon’s combined. So, it’s no wonder they have the most National 5G Network Awards ever. Not only does T-Mobile have a great network, but their plans are packed full of incredible extras. Customers can get a value of over $225 in benefits every single month on their MAX family plans. Benefits like travel perks and your favorite streaming services all included, which is very, very nice. Who says you can’t have it all? With T-Mobile, you don’t have to choose between a great network or great value. Find out more at t-mobile.com/seewhy. That’s seewhy. Qualifying service and capable device required. $225 is based on the retail value of available monthly benefits with MAX.
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