Ezra Kelley Watch Oil

Original content by: Dr. Paul Goodwin

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About This Artifact

Ezra Kelley (1798-1895) was a watch maker from New Bedford, Massachusetts.  He is credited with the discovery that oil from the jaw and head of porpoises and blackfish (or pilot whales) was the best known lubricant for the delicate workings of watches and chronometers.  In actuality, the lubricating quality of porpoise oil had been known since about 1816.  According to Capt. Caleb Cook, writing in the Scientific American in 1880, watchmakers originally used olive oil as a lubricant until they found porpoise oil was better.  In 1829 Solomon Cook of Provincetown sent several gallons of blackfish oil to Kelley who, after experimentation, judged the blackfish oil better than that from porpoises.  It did not congeal at low temperatures and was safe to use on brass.   He began his watch oil business in New Bedford in 1844.  For years it was the best known and most trusted whale oil lubricant.  His oils came in several grades.  While blackfish oil was used for the most delicate machinery, such as watches, sperm oil was advertised as best for sewing machines, firearms, and telegraphs.  His advertising for his products was dramatic and often showed the taking of blackfish. 

Watch and machine oil is yet another example of the many products derived from the whaling industry and the important role lubricants played in industrialization in the 19th century.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. How does the discovery of a certain resource (e.g. porpoise and blackfish oil) inspire people to find a use for it?
  2. How critical were lubricants to the rapid development of the industrial revolution?
  3. What do you think has since replaced whale oil as a lubricant?