Lit by whale light?
October 14, 2010 11:27 AM   Subscribe

Just how much brighter/cleaner/longer did spermaceti candles burn than beeswax or tallow candles?

Lately I've been interested in the history of whaling, and it's given in the literature that spermaceti candles & whale oil lamps were brighter, cleaner, and longer-lasting than other methods of lighting. Okay, but how much more? I haven't seen much by way of good explanations here -- only that it was significant enough for this dangerous venture to be profitable for quite some time. I'd like a better understanding of this. Qualitative or quantitative observations -- or just recommendations for source material -- would be much appreciated.
posted by .kobayashi. to Technology (5 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I am listening to Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life on audiobook and just finished the chapter on light. He did go into spermaceti candles and oil (whale and otherwise) lamps briefly, but I can't remember if he gave a comparative measurement. Might be worth eyeballing a copy (the book is great fun and fascinating if you're also interested in things like how dining rooms came to be or the long strange story of scurvy) to see if he gave specifics.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:23 PM on October 14, 2010

You might enjoy this.
posted by Clambone at 1:45 PM on October 14, 2010

Best answer: Brilliant: the Evolution of Artificial Light by Jane Brox goes into this in some depth. Great book!
posted by fshgrl at 2:20 PM on October 14, 2010

According to this, better candles, stinkier oil lamps.
posted by damo at 2:58 PM on October 14, 2010

Best answer: A follow up for those interested in the thread. I'm still looking for more detail, or more confirming information, but the Brox book that fshgrl recommended was a good start. Without citation, Brox tells us that spermaceti candles "gave off twice the light of candles molded from tallow."

Moreover, she finds a quote from Benjamin Franklin which speaks to the qualitative characteristics of the candle: "a new kind of Candles very convenient to read by... They afford a clear white Light; may be held in the Hand, even in hot Weather, without softening... They last much longer and need little or no snuffing."

Best bit of info from Brox "the brightness of the flame of a pure spermaceti candle that was 7/8" in diameter and weighed 1/6th of a pound would eventually become a standard of measure for luminous intensity -- one candlepower -- against which the light of all other candles, all lamps, and even the first electric lights would be measured."

This, more than anything else, gives me a unit of measure. Some more digging is needed to find equivalent measures for other light sources, but it's a step in the right direction.

Also, for those interested, Brox's book looks like a fascinating read -- I wish I had more time to spend with it now.
posted by .kobayashi. at 3:18 PM on October 18, 2010

« Older Car Loan With Income, But No Income   |   Vegetable salads that can be dressed well in... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.