Industries Not Worth Saving - U.S. Whaling: An Innovation Story for Today, The Atlantic | Innovation & Institutions, Will it Blend? |

"An extinct business offers surprisingly current lessons about the triumph of technology, the future of work, and the inevitable decline of industries that might not be worth saving."


...the vessel's technology had become so easy to maneuver, even an unwashed cannibal could use it.


In context, consider the companion predatory for-profit higher education news - taking advantage of the GI bill for returning vets and producing, for some vets, what turns out to a worthless degree, with considerable debt, and slim job prospects.


BLUBBER!    Fat had never made a city so flush.

In the mid-nineteenth century, New Bedford, Mass., was the center of the whaling universe and the richest city per capita in the United States -- if not in the world, according to one 1854 American newspaper. The US whaling industry grew by a factor of fourteen between 1816 and 1850.

Innovations in winch technology made it easier to pull in or let out large sails, reducing the number of skilled workers needed to man a vessel.

...Winch tinkerings practically made the book Moby Dick possible. Melville could realistically populate his book with shady, far-flung, ragtag characters precisely because the vessel's technology had become so easy to maneuver, even an unwashed cannibal could use it.

Other featured innovations:

  • Americans sailed bigger and better ships, guided by smarter ocean cartography and more precise charts.
  • ...whale captains were innovators in employee compensation. 
  • ...tinkerings with harpoon technology led to the invention of the iron toggle harpoon, an icon of 19th-century whaling.

Decline wasn't in the rise of the oil/petroleum economy, it was:

  • US workers got too darn expensive, and other countries stole our share of the whale business.
  • Between the 1860s and the 1880s the wages of average US workers grew by a third, making us three times more expensive than your typical Norwegian seaman.
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