The Try-Works

As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.

—The Try-Works

A unique feature of ships in the Sperm whale fishery are her Try-works—huge iron pots mounted on a brick kiln, set amidships. When human beings first began hunting whales for their meat and blubber, the rendering of that blubber had to be done on land, and so only coastal fisheries were exploited. With the advent of the Try-works, whaling ships were free to kill whales in all oceans, and process their blubber into valuable oil while at sea and looking out for new prey. This kind of engineering was precursor to many industrial practices yet to be thought of, refined and implemented in the coming industrial revolution. 

Like all technological breakthroughs, the entire system of the whale oil industry was ‘rendered’ obsolete (yuk yuk) by the discovery of vast petroleum resources in the expanding American West. The Sperm whale fishery’s stake in the energy industry shrank immediately when the oil began to flow, and thus industrialized whaling became economically unsustainable—that is of course, until the advent of new killing and rendering technology that accompanied the technological boom that was created by the very discovery of the oil that should have ended whaling entirely (!!!). Whales were hunted nearly to extinction until the 1970s. Whales are still taken by Japanese and Russian industrial ships, which is entirely unacceptable in the ecological and economic situation in which we find ourselves—not to mention that these creatures possess perhaps just as or more complex systems of consciousness that we endeavor to know, and most likely never will, for the betterment of the earth’s future as a whole.

In this game, if you happen to take a shift at the Try-works, you have a right to collect the oil you have rendered, and what other source do you have at sea than the spoils of another mate. Thus a ‘lay’ is collected from each player as payment.

(see The Lay)

Original Image Courtesy of The New Bedford Whaling Museum.