The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Built by draughtsmen and boilermakers

In the opening passages of his essay SHIPBUILDING, Sir Nathaniel Barnaby, K.C.B (late Director of Naval Construction, Whitehall), paints a picture of a lost time of still earlier naval majesty, a picture imbued with those same glorious and sombre, sun-set colours that Turner used to depict "The Fighting Temeraire" being towed away to the breaker's yard. It is a long, elegiac preamble, such as has no proper place in a work of reference, and typical of the verbiage that would be culled from the 'definitive' 10th edition of Britannica.

"WITHIN the memory of the present generation shipbuilding, like many other arts, has lost dignity by the extended use of machinery and by the subdivision of labour. Forty years ago it was still a "mystery" and a "craft." The well-instructed shipbuilder had a store of experience on which he based his successful practice. He gained such advantages in the form and trim and rig of his vessels by small improvements, suggested by his own observation or by the tradition of his teachers, that men endeavoured to imitate him, neither he nor they knowing the natural laws on which success depended. He also had a good eye for form, and knew how to put his materials together so as to avoid all irregularity of shape on the outer surfaces, and how to form the outlines and bounding curves of the ship0 so that the eye might be compelled to rest lovingly upon them. He was skilled also in the qualities of timber. He knew what was likely to be free from "rends" and "shakes" and "cups" which would cause leakage, and which would be liable to split when the bolts and treenails were driven through it. He knew what timber would bear the heat of tropical suns without undue shrinking, and how to improve its qualities by seasoning. He could foretell where and under what circumstances premature decay might be expected, and he could choose the material and adjust the surroundings so as to prevent it. He knew what wood was best able to endure rubbing and tearing on hard ground, and how it ought to be formed so that the ship might have a chance of getting off securely when she accidentally took the ground or got on shore. Such men were to be found on all the sea-coasts of Europe and on the shores of the Atlantic in America.

"A great change came over the art when steam was introduced. The old proportions and forms so well suited for the speeds of the ships and for the forces impressed upon them were ill adapted for propulsion by the paddle, and still less so for propulsion by the screw. Experience had to be slowly gained afresh, for the lamp of science burned dimly. It needed to be fed by results, by long records of successes and failures, before it was able to direct advancing feet. The further change from wood to iron and then to steel almost displaced the shipwright. Ships for commercial purposes may be said to be built now, so far as their external hulls are concerned, by draughtsmen and boilermakers. The centres of the shipbuilding industry have changed. The ports where oaks (Italian, English, and Dantzic), pines from America and the north of Europe, teak from Moulmein, and elm from Canada were most accessible,-these marked the suitable places for shipbuilding. The Thames was alive with the industry from Northfleet to the Pool. It still lingers, but it is slowly dying out. Travellers along the Mediterranean shores from Nice to Genoa mark the completeness of the change which a few years have made. The Tyne and the Clyde and the Mersey have become the principal centres of the trade. [...]"

The many pages that follow detail the new science of shipbuilding , its remarkable advances and achievements (even to the thickness of ironclad armour). The opening remarks imbue this with a strange resonance for the modern reader, who might ponder the vanishing traces today of the dignified labours of the draughtsmen and boilermakers of Liverpool, Glasgow, or Sunderland.

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