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In a podcast with Joe Rogan, Jimmy Carr made the claim that:

Whaling was the biggest industry in the world in 1903.

However, some people in the comment section dispute this, claiming that Carr meant to say 1803 rather than 1903. I can't find any sources to confirm the claim, and I do find it potentially strange that whaling would continue to be so predominant even after the invention of electric light 24 years earlier in 1879.

Since Carr didn't define exactly what he means by "biggest", any relevant metric is acceptable, i.e. biggest by GDP, biggest by employment, biggest by share of global trade, etc.

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    Even in 1803, I would find it extremely surprising for whaling to be bigger as an industry, than say farming (or even plain fishing).
    – TimRias
    Nov 16, 2023 at 11:10
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    It might be 1900 instead of 1800. Quote = some scientists estimate that more whales were hunted in the early 1900s than in the previous four centuries combined ref: media.nationalgeographic.org/assets/reference/assets/… This source says it was 'most prominent business in America' thoughtco.com/a-brief-history-of-whaling-1774068
    – pinegulf
    Nov 16, 2023 at 12:26
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    @Reubend electric light didn't replace whale oil: it wasn't just used for lamps, and there was demand for whalebone too. Kerosene, petroleum, and other fossil fuels replaced whale oil. Added to which, mechanisation had made the whaling industry brutally efficient. Nov 16, 2023 at 18:27
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    I'm not finding anything to confirm the claim, lots of stuff suggesting that the 1960s was the biggest global whaling year. Mainly I see transport consistently as the biggest since 1800, but no specific figures for 1903 to compare the two.. Nov 16, 2023 at 23:04
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    I found multiple references claiming that around 1880 whaling was the fifth-largest sector of the economy in the United States. (Google ‘whaling “fifth largest”’.) Here’s one example: historynewsnetwork.org/article/144755
    – Dan Romik
    Nov 17, 2023 at 4:11

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