The whaling industry was at its height in the nineteenth century as it helped power the Industrial Revolution. The center of the whaling industry in the US was in Nantucket and later New Bedford. But there were a number of breakthroughs that powered the industry. Here, Jackie Mead tells the story of Lewis Temple, a free African American who invented something very important for the whaling industry.

A statue of Lewis Temple in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Source: LGagnon, available  here .

A statue of Lewis Temple in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Source: LGagnon, available here.

Hunting whales has been an integral part of Native American communities for millennia, but whaling had never been practiced on such a massive scale as it was in the 1800s. The Industrial Revolution demanded whale oil to light the factories, as well as the plastic-like baleen for lady’s corsets and spermaceti for mass-produced candles and perfumes. Whaleships became floating factories for processing the massive creatures, complete with tryworks for boiling the whale blubber into precious oil. A consumer might pay as much as $2.50 for a gallon—$80 today.[1] This meant whales were essentially swimming petroleum deposits, and massive fortunes could be made by those brave enough to hunt them down.


An Upstart City

Nantucket, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, was an obvious capital of the whaling industry. By the 1840s, however, they were being eclipsed by an upstart mainland town: New Bedford.[2] In 1851, Herman Melville wrote in his masterpiece Moby Dick, “New Bedford has of late been gradually monopolizing the business of whaling,”[3]and that “nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford.”[4]The city had a superior harbor that fit even the biggest of whaleships, and a rich industry sprang up around the waterfront.

One person that came to the city to make their fortune was a free African American named Lewis Temple. He was born either a slave or freedman in Richmond, Virginia around the year 1800. Temple arrived in New Bedford in 1829 and married Mary Clark, presumably also African America, and had two daughters shortly after.[5]A blacksmith by trade, he opened a shop on Walnut Street in 1836 and began producing the various metal objects required on whaling ships.


The Weapon of Choice

The most important tool of a whaler was his harpoon: a barbed iron point mounted to a long wooden handle. When thrown at a whale, the barbs would catch in the blubber and prevent the harpoon from dislodging. The crew would grab onto a rope tied to the harpoon and be pulled through the ocean as the whale tried to escape, a risky experience referred to as a “Nantucket sleigh ride.” When the whale was too exhausted to continue, they would then row close enough to stab the leviathan to death. 

If the harpoon came out during the chase, the whale would get away. Since almost all crews were paid through a cut of the profits, losing a whale was a significant hit to their paycheck.[6] 

In the first half of the nineteenth century, harpoon tips resembled arrowheads. These would frequently tear holes in the whale’s blubber instead of lodging in it, leading to angry whales and no profit. Toggling harpoons, which have a frontward cutting edge and a backwards sweeping barb that pivots (or toggles), had been used in the Arctic for centuries. New Bedford whalers were aware of this technology from hunting in Alaskan waters, but were unable to replicate it.[7]


A New Harpoon

Lewis Temple created the first iron toggle harpoon in his Walnut Street shop in 1848. It was similar to its Arctic predecessors, with a sharp point and swinging barb that was held in place by a pin. A small piece of wood held the head straight while it was thrown into the whale, breaking on impact and allowing the barb to pivot ninety degrees into the blubber. This was far more effective than the traditional harpoon, quickly becoming the weapon of choice for all savvy harpooners. 


Lewis Temple, Inventor

Lewis Temple never patented his invention. Although a gifted blacksmith, he never received a formal education.[8]The idea of obtaining a patent probably would not even have crossed his mind. Only three to ten percent of patent holders were African American, many choosing to file under the name of a white lawyer to ensure their product had a fair shot.[9]Since Temple was unable to write his own name, it was unlikely he could have hired one without help. With nothing to prevent them, other blacksmiths freely copied his idea and made their own improvements. 

The Temple family continued to grow, and Lewis began to train his son, Lewis Temple Jr., in blacksmithing. He moved shops several times, renting homes nearby for his family.[10]He was elected Vice President of the New Bedford Union Society in 1834, the city’s first anti-slavery group. It is also possible he knew a young Frederick Douglas in the 1830s, when the famous author was pursuing odd jobs at the wharfs.[11]

His lack of commercial success, despite his stroke of genius, may have been the motivation for the local firm Delano and Pierce to offer Temple a new shop in 1854. However, he was never able to work in it. 

Earlier that year, Temple was walking home at night and tripped over a plank left out by a New Bedford construction crew, sending him into a sewer ditch and injured beyond hope of recovery. His wife and children sued the city for negligence, winning $2,000 in March 1854. Temple died only six weeks later.[12]The local newspaperran a story describing how the Temple family had yet to receive their settlement payment, which was finally given to his widow in February 1857.[13]



The New Bedford sailor and artist Clifford W. Ashley wrote in 1926, “It is safe to say that the Temple toggle harpoon was the most important single invention in the whole history of whaling.”[14]Although he was never able to profit from his work, Lewis Temple made a significant impact on the American whaling industry. His toggle harpoon helped make the city the richest per capita in the entire United States.[15]In 1880, $10 million (yes, 10 million 1880 dollars) was flowing through New Bedford, all the product of the toggle harpoon. Herman Melville wrote “all 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.”[16]

A statue of Lewis Temple stands outside the New Bedford Public Library. The artist depicts him standing in a blacksmith’s apron with his new invention in his hands, unaware of how it will change the industry forever.


What do you think of Lewis Temple’s role in the whaling industry? Let us know below.

[1]PBS, “The ‘Whale Oil Myth’,” 2008.

[2]PBS, “The History of Whaling in America.”

[3]Herman Melville, Moby Dick(New York: Constable and Company, 1922): 8. 

[4]Melville, Moby Dick,40.

[5]New Bedford Historical Society, “Lewis Temple.”

[6]Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea(New York: Viking Penguin, 2000): 18.

[7]Sidney Kaplan, “Lewis Temple and the Hunting of the Whale.” Negro History Bulletin17 (October 1953): 8. 

[8]Kaplan, “Lewis Temple,” 7.

[9]Michael J. Andrews and Nicolas L. Ziebarth, The Demographics of Inventors in the Historical United States (2016): 8.

[10]Kaplan, “Lewis Temple,” 10.

[11]New Bedford Historical Society, “Lewis Temple.”

[12]Kaplan, “Lewis Temple,” 10.

[13]New Bedford Historical Society, “Lewis Temple.”

[14]Kaplan, “Lewis Temple,” 7.

[15]Derek Thompson, “The Spectacular Rise and Fall of U.S. Whaling: An Innovation Story.” The Atlantic(February 22, 2012)

[16]Melville, Moby Dick, 41.