Economics of Whaling Symposium

The whaling industry as the first venture capital business model in the United States

Friday, August 11, 2017
10 am – 3 pm Talks @ the Whaling Museum
3:30 pm – 5 pm   Reception and tour at the Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum

Presented in partnership with the Rotch-Jones-Duff House & Garden Museum
Rotch-Jones-Duff House & Garden Museum logo

Whale ship owners and agents showed tremendous business acumen by creating an incentive-based pay structure that motivated captains and their crews to optimize profits. Simultaneously, the distribution of risk through syndication allowed for enormous profits despite predictable losses at sea. The Whaling Economics Symposium brought together professors, historians and businessmen to discuss the success of this 19th century American global enterprise and the application of this unique business to modern finance.

10 am – 11 am
Whaling as a Business: Its Finance, Organization, and Management

Eric Hilt Associate Professor of Economics, Wellesley College
How were whaling businesses organized and managed? What lessons does the whaling industry hold for modern firms? This lecture explored the evolution of whaling as a business, from its earliest origins in the colonial era, to its peak in the 1850s. The business strategies pursued in different eras was examined, and the experiment of organizing whaling ventures as corporations undertaken in several different ports was analyzed. The central role of ownership incentives among the agents organizing the voyages was highlighted.Whaling was an extraordinarily risky business, and its contracts and organizational forms adapted in response.
View lecture on YouTube

11 am – 12 noon
The Entire Business of the Place is the Whale Fishery: Specialization and Management in the New Bedford Port District, 1789-1884
Michael P. Dyer, Senior Maritime Historian, New Bedford Whaling Museum
There were seven ports in the New Bedford Port District and while each engaged in whaling, the agents from those ports adopted different strategies to bring their products to market. The most successful agents in the larger ports like Fairhaven and New Bedford customized their voyages to the needs of the market and maintained a large enough fleet of ships to mix up the intent and destination of their voyages. Agents made business connections with specific refiners and retailers to meet the unique needs of the market. For example, Westport agents dealt almost exclusively with New York refiners. Some New Bedford agents dealt with London, some with Bremen, some with Havre. Some dealt with other agents in New Bedford, Boston, Albany, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Attendees learned about how the New Bedford Port District dealt in a highly specialized product and discovered the documents that clearly demonstrated the management techniques employed.
View lecture on YouTube

12 pm – 1 pm

1 pm – 2 pm
Whaling Ventures – Harvard Business School Case Study

Jonas P. Akins, Co-Author
Attendees experienced the risk and reward associated with whaling investment by tackling a Harvard Business School Case Study – Whaling Ventures. This session explored the business history of the American whaling industry, from its earliest days in the waters off New England to its role as one of America’s first global enterprises. The case examines the origins of whaling, the sophisticated financial structures used to fund the voyages, and the ways in which organizational and compensation structures were adapted to the human capital and risk management challenges of a whaleship at sea. The case study is a key component of the popular second-year MBA course at Harvard Business School, The Coming of Managerial Capitalism, has been featured in HBS alumni programs, and was profiled in the January 2, 2016 edition of The Economist. The case study was distributed in advance and Jonas lead a HBS modeled discussion.
View lecture on YouTube

2 pm – 3 pm
Beyond the Piers: New Bedford Whaling Culture in the Rest of the Country
Jamie Jones Visiting Assistant Professor of English, University of Illinois
At the same time that oil and other products from the 19th-century whaling industry entered the American economy, stories and images about the whaling industry entered the wider American imagination far beyond the piers of New England. In this talk, Jamie Jones discussed a few examples of New Bedford whaling culture that found audiences elsewhere: the NBWM’s own magnificent Russell and Purrington moving panorama, a dead whale that made a cross-country tour as a sideshow in 1883, and the whaler that was exhibited at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

3:30 pm
Reception & Tour at the Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum
Co-sponsored by the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the Rotch-Jones-Duff House & Garden Museum


Members: (both NBWM & RJD) $25
Non-members: $35

Economics of Whaling Symposium Flyer (pdf)