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Inside Computers and Spacecraft, a Legacy of New Bedford’s Whaling Days Lives On

Daniel Ackerman
George Mock, CEO of Nye Lubricants, examines historic bottles of whale oil lubricants at the company's Fairhaven headquarters.

The laboratory at Nye Lubricants buzzes with chemical analyzers and scales fine enough to weigh a speck of dust. At one bench, Linda Gouveia, in a lab coat and goggles, pops open a metal cannister about the size of a pineapple.

It emits a soda-can sigh, depressurizing after spending three weeks cooking at 200-degrees and a pressure 6 times greater than atmospheric.

“This is called an oxidation bomb stability test,” Gouveia explains coolly.

From the cannister, she pulls a stack of five petri dishes, each smeared with pumpkin-colored goo. She points to a petri dish. “This grease right here is actually used for aviation,” says Gouveia, who works in Nye’s product development lab.

The grease is a lubricant. It helps Boeing airplanes deploy landing gear before touchdown. This test ensures the grease will stand up to the rigors of aviation.

Daniel Ackerman
Linda Gouveia performs quality control testing on a batch of aviation grease.

Highly engineered grease—that is Nye’s specialty. The company’s Fairhaven factory employs nearly 200 workers. And it oozes out the stuff that spins computer hard drives and smooths the power steering in nearly every American-made car.

But Nye got its start well before computers or cars. In the mid-1800s, New Bedford, just across the Acushnet River from Fairhaven, was the epicenter of the global whaling industry. Nye is one legacy of the defunct industry that lives on, quietly greasing the gears of modern technology.

A seafaring start

“It's very interesting to me, from my seat as the curator of maritime history, to know that Nye oil still exists,” said Michael Dyer of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Throughout the 19th Century, whale oil landed in New Bedford lit streetlamps and candles worldwide. Whale oil burned cleaner and brighter than other fuels. The industry drew vast fortunes to the city, which became the wealthiest in the country per capita, according to Dyer.

Local businessman William F. Nye thought he could expand the lucrative whale oil market even more. He realized that oil from sperm whales had special properties, particularly at low temperatures. “It didn’t congeal, it didn’t thicken, and it didn’t corrode the metals,” said Dyer.

In the 1860s, Nye started selling the oil as a lubricant for timepieces.

Many of his early customers were whalers themselves. Each vessel needed a chronometer for navigation—one that would keep ticking for years at sea, through tropical heat and arctic chill.

If that chronometer went haywire, “you could lose your ship, and everybody on it, and the entire cargo, and everything,” said Dyer. “So it has to work.” With Nye’s lubricants, it did.

Nye helped build a new market for whale oil products, and the timing could not have been better.

Into the space age

Even as the whaling industry declined heading into the 20th Century, there was no shortage of machinery in need of lubrication. The textile industry boomed on the South Coast. In the 1920s, New Bedford “led all the nation in the production of fine cotton and yarns,” according to a U.S. Department of Commerce documentary. Spinning machines in the city’s mills needed reliable lubrication, and Nye provided it.

Daniel Ackerman
Nye produced specialty whale oil lubricants for a range of machinery.

The company also expanded its product line, marketing specialty lubricants for all kinds of machinery—bicycles, firearms, music boxes and more. In the computer era, Nye lubricants found their way into laptops, printers and PlayStation controllers (the company’s joystick grease is rated for 5 million button-mashings during its lifetime). Nye’s product is even helping NASA’s Perseverance rover explore the surface of Mars.

The company phased out whale oil decades ago—now they make mainly petroleum-based and synthetic greases. Still, Nye’s CEO George Mock said “the basic mission of the company hasn’t changed all that much. And it is a lubricant as an enabling technology, designed in to help a designer’s device work better, longer, more efficiently.”

Grease rarely gets its due. But the products Nye pumps out have kept our machines humming smoothly, from the seafaring age to the space age.

Daniel Ackerman
Today, Nye produces petroleum-based and synthetic lubricants.

Daniel covers the South Coast for WCAI. He comes to the station from Minnesota Public Radio, where he reported on science and the environment. Daniel has produced audio documentaries on a motley mix of topics, from the science of sewage to the history of automobile license plates. He holds a PhD in climate change ecology from the University of Minnesota. Daniel is a 2021-22 Report For America corps member.