Poison Hand Darted Harpoons and Lances

(Note: Because prussic-acid lances are so closely related and important to the overall concept of poison implements they are included here with poison harpoons).

Poison Harpoon

Robert Christison Prussic Acid Harpoon. (Author's collection).

The development of the harpoon included designs that would both fasten to and simultaneously kill the whale. If the harpoon could kill the whale, there would be less chance of it getting away. Also, the dangerous operation of hand lancing could be eliminated. In the Arctic, killing the whale with the harpoon would solve the problems of a whale towing a whaleboat into ice floes or having to cut the line when a whale would dive under the ice.

Early attempts to employ a harpoon that would also kill a whale are noted as early as 1810. Francis Rotch of Nantucket proposed that the standard two flue iron could be heated in a chafing dish, i.e., in a small fire built in a pan in the whaleboat. The idea was that when the hot harpoon was darted into a whale it would raise the whale's blood temperature and cause death. Aside from the obvious problems of having a fire burning in a wildly bouncing whaleboat, or even lighting it, the amount of blood to be heated in order to have any effect was enormous, and one or two red-hot harpoons would not contain enough heat to have any effect. This was not a practical solution.

Robert Christison Prussic Acid Harpoon




Christison Prussic acid harpoon, 1831. Overall length is 36", distance between barb tips, closed, is 9". Maker's mark stamped on boss behind head and also on the socket, IA. (Author's collection)

The first real attempt to design a hand darted harpoon that would fasten to and kill a whale simultaneously originated in Scotland in 1831. The firm of W. and G. Young, involved in the northern whale fisheries, wanted a harpoon that would kill a whale quickly to prevent it from diving under the ice. The Youngs approached Sir Robert Christison, a well-known expert on poisons at the University of Edinburgh, and asked him to invent a harpoon for them, one that would utilize poison as the killing agent. Christison finally accepted the challenge, and chose pure hydrocyanic acid, or prussic acid, because of its extreme potency. Christison's prussic-acid contained two glass cylinders for the liquid poison, each approximately four inches long and three-fourths of an inch diameter, together containing almost two ounces of poison.

The general configuration of the Christison harpoon was the two-flued type, but with pivot barbs extending the flues. Immediately behind each flue the boss of the iron was concave for a distance of four inches to accept the vials of poison. At the rear of this four-inch length was a protrusion, cast with the head, that positioned the vials and held them in place behind the flues. The flues protected the glass containers during penetration and allowed them to enter the whale without impeding the penetration of the iron. There were provisions for fastening a copper wire to the head to secure the tubes and to crush them after the iron was darted. In 1860 Christison explained his design in an article, "On the Capture of Whales by Means of Poison," in the New Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, n.s., xii:

It remained to devise a method of discharging the poison from the glass tubes at the right time. After various trials, the plan fixed upon was to attach firmly to each side of the harpoon, near the blade, one end of a strong copper-wire; the other end of which passed obliquely over the tube, thereby securing it in its place; then through an oblique hole in the shaft, close to the upper end of the tube; and, finally, to a bight in the rope, where it was firmly secured. It is plain that the rope cannot be drawn straight before the copper wire is broken; and the copper wire was so strong, that it could not be broken without first crushing the tubes; to facilitate which, a spiral indentation was made upon the tubes for the wires to lie in.

Christison head detail showing attachment points for the wire and oblique hole through which the wires passed to the whaleline. (Author's collection)

Christison was required by the Youngs to keep his invention secret, and he remained silent until 1860, after the Youngs had died and their heirs were no longer involved in whaling and released Christison from his promise of silence. It was then that he made the design known, thinking that in the years since 1831 there may have been advancements that could make the poison harpoon more feasible and of benefit to the whale fisheries.

Christison later learned that the Youngs had made a slight change in his design. Rather than having the glass vials crushed by copper wire, they had the pivoting barbs extended on the part forward of the pivot pin so that when forced to pivot open the inner portion of the barbs pressed against the glass to break it and release the prussic acid. This also eliminated the need for the oblique hole cast in the boss. There is no known surviving example of this later improvement, however Christison provided a sketch of it in his article in The New Edinburgh Philosophical Christison Harpoon ModificationJournal, mentioned above (see illustration at the left). He also gave dimensions for it: From barb tip to the shank is 4-1/8", between barb tips when closed is 8-1/2", where poison tubes are lodged is 4" long, 9/10" wide and 1" thick. Note the absence of the oblique hole through the boss for the copper wire in this second version.

In 1832 Ship William Young of Lieth, Scotland, was fitted out with these prussic-acid harpoons, but was crushed in the ice before the irons could be used. Another whaleship, Clarendon, was sent out with prussic acid in 1833 and Christison described the use of poison during that voyage:

The fact is, that a harpoon-gun was provided; and another seaman states that he himself fired it for the first and only time it was used; that the harpoon was buried deeply in the whale, which immediately "sounded," or dived perpendicularly downwards; but that in a very short time the rope relaxed, and the whale rose to the surface quite dead. And he added, that the men were so appalled by the terrific effect of the harpoon, that they declined to use any more of them.

Sketch from Robert Christison, "On the Capture of Whales by Means of Poison," The New Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, n.s., xii, i (July 1860), p. 75.


Poison LancePoison lance

Poison lance; length is 41-1/4" (origin unknown).

Although Christison remained silent about the poison harpoons, crew members apparently did not, and soon rumors and stories leaked out. Others designed similar harpoons. One such implement, a lance, utilized the same idea for releasing the poison as the Young's modification to Christison's harpoon, that is, the inner portion of the pivot barb pressed against and crushed the glass vial when opened by withdrawal forces. A further design improvement put the fragile glass container of the deadly liquid within the shank, which protected it against accidental breakage.

A United States patent was granted to Dexter H. Chamberlain of Boston, Mass., on August 17, 1835, for a prussic acid harpoon very similar to the Christison design. All records of this patent were lost in a fire at the Patent Office in 1836, however there is a brief article about it in the Mechanics' Magazine and Register of Inventions and Improvements, vol. VI, No. 1 (July 1835):

Mr. Chamberlain has constructed a harpoon upon a new principle, which conveys to the bottom of the incision a small vial of prussic acid, - the most deadly of all the known poisons, inasmuch as the vital energies seem to be overthrown very soon after this horrible liquid is brought in contact with the blood. The harpooner, as is customary, will throw the instrument with all his might, without regard to the spot - for his object is to inject the poison. When the whale starts, by re-acting on the line attached to the harpoon, the vial is instantly crushed, and death let loose within his mighty frame. There can be no redemption for the whale - die he must, for he is a warm blooded animal.

The action is very similar to Christison's, and the description can be seen to fit the poison lance pictured above. The date of Chamberlain's patent, 1835, is only a few years after Christison's invention in 1831. One might conjecture that the lance above may be the Chamberlain design, but there is no patent drawing, known example or other description that would support that conjecture.

Ackerman's Poison harpoon

Detail of Ackerman Iron

Paul Ackerman Poison harpoon and lance, with detail of the harpoon. Marking on the lance is,"P. ACKERMAN INVENTEUR / TURBEUF AU HAVRE." Similar markings on the harpoon. Length of harpoon is 38-7/8"; length of lance is 47-3/4".

A prussic-acid harpoon and a prussic-acid lance were patented in France, May 17, 1845 (French Patent No. 1443), by Paul Ackerman. In Ackerman's design a glass container of the poison was loaded into the hollow shank of the implement through an opening in the head. The opening was concealed by a small hinged cover that opened and closed and slid forward to latch it in place. The cover extended back to cover a slot in the shank section containing the poison, sliding in a dovetail arrangement. At the rear of the sliding cover was a lever that opened to a right angle with the shank and folded flat when not in use. When the implement was darted deep enough, the lever contacted the side of the whale and that forced the sliding cover back, exposing the poison. A stop on the shank prevented the cover from sliding back too far. Both the lance and harpoon worked on the same principle.

Fixed head Poison Iron

Fixed-head prussic acid harpoon.

Photograph courtesy of History of Technology Division, NMAH, Smithsonian Institution.

Although there is no record of prussic-acid harpoons having been used in the American whale fishery, they were carried on some vessels, including Susan of Nantucket, Fame of Nantucket, and America of New Bedford. James Templeman Brown, an assistant in the Department of Art and Industry, U.S. National Museum, during the latter part of the nineteenth century wrote in The Whale Fishery and Its Appliances, 1883, that two poison instruments "were made in France and brought to Nantucket as patterns by which others might be made and introduced into the American fleet." The two implements referred to are now in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. One of these was a fixed-head type, shown above, with a separare part that was free to slide back and forth approximately four inches in a large slot cut through the heavy square boss behind the head.. The fixed head was a two-flued configuration with a pivot barb for each flue. Perpendicular to the head, and on each side of it, was fixed an additional small barb. The sliding piece also had two pivot barbs which were in the same plane as those of the fixed head. When the sliding part was in its rearmost position, a glass container of poison could be placed into the slot between the head and the sliding part. After penetration, when tension was applied to the whale line by the running whale, the withdrawal forces acted to close the gap between the fixed head and the sliding part, thereby crushing the vial of poison and releasing it into the whale

.Adjustable Head Poison Iron

Adjustable-head prussic-acid harpoon.

Photograph courtesy of History of Technology Division, NMAH, Smithsonian Institution.

The second type of prussic-acid harpoon referred to by Brown was the adjustable-head type. The head of this harpoon had the same general configuration as the fixed head of the previous iron and was made with a large rectangular bar immediately behind it. The bar fit into an opening in a widened section at the forward end of the harpoon shank and could slide back and forth in it. The sides of the bar were concave to accept two vials of poison, one on each side. Two slots, cut through the sides of the widened section in which the bar was placed, corresponded with the concave sides of the bar and allowed the glass vials to be positioned partly in the slots and partly in the concave bar when the head was in its rearmost position. A large steel pin placed transversely through the rear of the bar extended into the slots. This pin prevented the head and bar from becoming detached from the main body of the harpoon.

When the head was pushed back, a glass vial of poison could be placed in each of the slots. After the iron had penetrated the whale, and tension was applied to the whale line, the forces of withdrawal caused the transverse pin through the bar to bear against the vials and crush them, releasing the poison.

It is doubtful that these irons were actually used as models for poison harpoons made in theUnited States. There were other designs that were used. James Templeman Brown mentioned above that the whaleship Fame of Nantucket carried prussic-acid harpoons. These were designed in the early 1830's by William Coffin, Jr. of Nantucket. In the History of the American Whale Fishery, Waltham, Mass.,1878, Alexander Starbuck recorded that in July 1883 Fame "Sailed in search of whales, sea-serpents, &c.; was armed with a patent harpoon charged with poison." In November of the same year Susan sailed from Nantucket, and she also carried prussic-acid harpoons. Of this voyage, James Templeman Brown said, "Mr. Samuel Tuck ... of Williamsburg, N.Y., formerly agent of the Susan, says that a harpoon similar to the old double-barbed iron was made by a Nantucket blacksmith, with slots for bottles of acid, but it was not used at all during the voyage."

"Mechanicus" Poison Harpoon

Mechanicus DrawingsMechanicus harpoon

Left: Drawings by Mechanicus. ...........Right: Author's interpretation of the Mechanicus Poison harpoon.

In August 1833 an inventor calling himself "Mechanicus" described a hand-darted poison harpoon of his own design in a letter titled, "Sea-Serpent Harpoon" to the editor of the Mechanic's Magazine, and Register of Inventions and Improvements. He explained:

In these days of inventions and of sea-serpents, I deem it meritorious to contrive something for the destruction of such ugly looking monsters as have lately furnished such wonderment to the good people down east. Now, sir, if any of your readers should ever take a notion to go either whaling or sea-serpenting, I would advise them to be provided with some half dozen of the machines of which I send you the drawings.

The harpoon was of a two-flued configuration with a narrow hole drilled from the tip to the boss of the shank behind the head, joining a hole through the side of the boss into which was screwed a nipple for a percussion cap. The longitudinal hole through the head was filled with "a proper quantity of some poisonous substance, the effects of which shall be powerful and rapid." The firing mechanism, located in the side of the boss, consisted of a spring-loaded hammer and a two-pronged trigger to hold the hammer cocked. When the iron was darted into a whale, the blubber pressed the trigger back and released the hammer which detonated a percussion cap on the nipple. The explosion forced the poison out of the hole through the head of the harpoon, like a hypodermic needle, to kill the whale. One fault with this design would be the fact that the poison was injected as the harpoon entered, too early to have much practical effect. There are no known examples of this harpoon. It seems it was patented in 1833, but a fire at the Patent Office in 1836 destroyed all records before that time.

Crews of whaleships quickly learned of the potency of the poison contained in all types of poison harpoons and refused to use them. James Templeman Brown explained in The Whale Fishery and Its Appliances:

The use of this kind of harpoon was soon abandoned, as several of the crew of a French ship were poisoned when handling the blubber of a whale killed by the acid. Although instruments of this type were carried by several American vessels, notably the ship "Susan," of Nantucket, and others, none of them, so far as the record shows, have been used, the crews having been deterred by the disastrous results experienced by the French.

Another interesting viewpoint concerning the use of poison in the whaling industry was expressed in an article January 27, 1867, in The Whalemen's Shipping List, and Merchants' Transcript, a weekly publication in New Bedford. This article quoted the London Post. Expressing concern that fish would eat the remains of whales killed by the poison, the article stated:

But if an ounce of the poison will kill a whale in a few minutes, it would be adequate to the destruction of a whole shoal of small fish, which themselves would be devoured by others, and so on indefinitely. ... Such a destruction of fish would be deplorable in itself, but as the quantity of the poison would be continually diminishing according to the number of fish through which it passed, the dose at last might become so small as not to kill for hours, or even days, and the fish might be caught while yet alive, and brought to market. The method appears adequate to diminish the risk of human life incidental to whaling, and to be humane as regards the whale itself, which it kills so rapidly; but even these advantages would be purchased at too dear a rate if all the other fish in the sea are liable to be poisoned as well as the whale.

When whalemen realized that poison harpoons were too dangerous for many reasons, they looked elsewhere for the solution of fastening to and killing a whale simultaneously with a hand harpoon. Explosive harpoons that employed gunpowder became the focus of the development in the early 1840's.

©: 2000 - 2008Thomas G. Lytle . All rights reserved

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