Saturday, February 4, 2012

An Overview of Maritime History

                            Maritime History and It’s Significance to Modern Society.


                                                     Kevin Scott Bolinger

   Welcome aboard one and all. I know it has been some time since I last posted anything here, but sometimes, even for me, real life beckons. I also realize that I have mostly shifted to doing articles on ships, yet is it a great passion for me, and I love sharing, even if very few share that love. I decided, since I noticed that many of the terms and descriptions I use can confuse those not well versed in nautical lore, to, instead of working on another ship history, instead concentrate on giving a brief overview of Maritime history as a whole. So please, bare with me as I try and bring the importance of our past into the eyes of the present.

    To our modern society, ships and shipping are sometimes rarely taken notice of unless something goes wrong. Yet, one hundred years ago, things were far different. Many of the celebrities that clogged newspaper headlines back then were not people, but passenger ships, ocean liners. These ships were regarded as being so important, that even the slightest mishap was headline news. They were, after all, as John Maxtone-Graham so eloquently put as the title of his book on the subject, “The Only Way To Cross.”

    Ships are perhaps one of the most important developments mankind ever produced. I know many look at them and feel there really is nothing special about them, yet think where you would be without a ship somewhere in your ancestry. Humanities roots can be traced to the plains of Africa, yet if someone had not figured out a safe way to cross the vast quantities of water our world possesses, we would all still be there, and it is doubtful civilization as we know it would have risen to this level. Face it, our world is 75% water. If it was not for the advent of the airplane, I feel that ships today would still be in the public consciousness as much as they were in the 1800’s. Do not get what I mean? Simply pick up a piece of period literature, and look for all the nautical references. Even a farmer in the middle of the United States had the basic concepts of nautical lore as part of his knowledge base. Today, if you ask someone what a knot is, they tell you it is what you tie into string.

    Anyway, let me get off the lectern for a moment, and try to give as brief a rundown as I can on the history of shipping. I will not bore you with tales of drunken sailors, or pirates. Most of that stuff is still common knowledge. I will focus mainly on the one truly important aspect of ships in the last few centuries, the movement of people from one continent to another. Everyone knows the tales of famous explorers like Columbus, Cook, Magellan, ect. Many also know how the Pilgrims’ crossed from England and helped start what is now the United States. I think, for this lesson, we will start a bit closer to our own time, and the advent of the Trans-Atlantic ocean liner.
SS SAVANNAH, a true innovator.

    As technology in the world started to become more and more mechanized, and simple steam engines were being created for the first time, many began to try and figure a way to use this new tech to make travel across the ocean more predictable. Under sail power, passengers could be expected to be aboard a ship for months at a time. The prospect of this was so dire that only the very brave would undertake such a voyage. Attempts were made to try and keep a schedule with sail powered vessels, the most famous being the Black Ball Line, yet even they could be waylaid by a freak storm, or if the prevailing winds died down. The first ship to ever cross the Atlantic under full steam power was the SS Savannah in 1819. Before that, steamships were relegated mainly to rivers and lakes, because the amount of fuel needed for a crossing was enormous.

    To many, crossing under steam power was still a novelty, and the accommodations on most early steamships were Spartan at best. Ships were side-wheelers, and while that is good for a river or lake, where the waters are relatively calm and flat, on the open ocean, the rolling of the ship would sometimes bring the paddles out of the water, causing engines to run too fast, and lead to mechanical failure. For this very reason, early ocean going steamships were really hybrids, using a mixture of steam and sail to make a crossing. Then in walked a man with a vision, that man, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
The first true ocean liner, GREAT WESTERN

     I know many of you will not recognize his name, yet he really is the father of the modern ocean liner. In fact, he was a bit too far ahead of his time, and his third vessel became such an abject failure that is seems that is all he is remembered for. Monuments to his genius are found all over modern day England, from the Thames Tunnel in London, to hundreds of famous railway bridges, and even some of the first suspension bridges ever built out of steel. In the early 1830’s , he struck upon the idea of making ocean steamship voyages a simple extension of railway travel. The train brings you to a dock, you board a ship, cross the ocean, and board a train there to your final destination. He knew that to overcome some of the inherent problems of steamship travel, a purpose built ocean going passenger ship needed to be created. The result, the SS Great Western
The GREAT BRITAIN as she is today.

    Brunel’s first foray into the world of ocean crossing was met with mild success, yet he saw that the paddle wheel was really the Achilles heal of modern ships. His next vessel, the Great Britain, was one of the first large ships fitted with a screw propeller, while also being one of the first passenger ships built of iron. She would go on to great success, though by her time, competition had arose, mainly in the form of a savvy businessman from Nova Scotia, Canada, but more on him soon enough.  The Great Britain enjoyed a long life, but sadly, she was eventually wrecked in 1846, when she was grounded due to poor navigation. She was salvaged and repaired, but eventually her life would lead her to the Falkland Islands, where she would be used as a warehouse, then a coal hulk, before finally being scuttled. In 1970, her hull was raised and returned to England, where she was fully restored to her glory in a permanent dry dock, where she still rests to this day, a popular attraction for tourists.

    Brunel really wanted to out-do everyone in the shipping world. He drew up plans for a giant of a ship, a ship so massive it had five funnels, and would run on both screw propulsion and paddle wheels, as well as sails. Her coal bunkers would hold enough fuel to go nonstop from England to Australia, by way of rounding Africa. Unfortunately, she was never used for the purpose she was designed for. The Great Eastern would go down in history as one of the greatest blunder to sail the seas. Even her launch was plagued with problems. Back in those days, ships were launched sideways, into local rivers where the shipyards were based. As ships grew larger and longer, it was necessary to launch them stern first, to help distribute the weight. At 690 ft, and nearly 20,000 gross tons, the Great Eastern was the largest ship in the world, by a very large margin in 1858 when she was launched. To demonstrate this, her length was not surpassed until 1899 with the launching of the Oceanic for the White Star line, and her tonnage was not beaten until 1901 with the launching of the RMS Celtic, also of the White Star line. Brunel decided to launch her sideways, and sadly, she got stuck.

OCEANIC of 1899.
Brunel in front of the hull of the GREAT EASTERN

                It took months to get the Great Eastern into her natural element. Eventually she would be completed, yet, the company that owned her decided to put her on the North Atlantic run, instead of the Australian run she was designed for. The ship quickly became a financial disaster. She would spend more time tied up than actually being used. Her one major highlight was that her great size allowed her to carry enough cable to help lay the worlds first Trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. The stress of what had become of his great ship was too much for Isambard, and he died in 1859 at the age of 53. As for his Great Eastern, she ended her days as a hulk used for advertising billboards until she was eventually scrapped.
A model of the GREAT EASTERN.

    While Isambard was busy formulating his schemes for oceanic domination, a quiet but highly intelligent businessman named Samuel Cunard stepped in to start a new shipping line. He knew, that besides passengers, countries were also looking to have mail transported safely and with regularity across the waves. He travels to England, and convinced parliament to grant him the first mail subsidy, which he used to help fund and maintain his ships. His first passenger ship, the RMS Britannia became a success, and the rest, as they say, is history. Cunard is one of the very few shipping lines still in existence today, though sadly she is a shell of her former glory, being owned now by parent company Carnival. Her ships, though, have many names which are famous, even to those not versed in Maritime lore. Vessels like the Mauretania, Lusitania, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, the list can go on and on. I will not delve too much more into the history of Cunard, if you want a real good read on the line, track down the book "Age of Cunard," by Daniel Allen Butler, it is a fascinating read.
BRITANNIA, the first Cunard liner

    In the early days of Trans-Atlantic travel, speed became the name of the game in the one-upsmanship the various lines played with each other. An unofficial award for the fastest crossing, called the Blue Ribband was “handed out” and companies would use that in their advertising. One of the lines with the fastest ships in those early days was the Collins Line. Sadly, for Collins, all that speed came at the cost of many lives lost, including his own wife, daughter, and youngest son.

    Collins had four of the fastest ships in the early 1850’s with two more being built for the line. However, disaster would befall his ship, the Arctic, after it was struck amidships in fog. She would take most of her passengers to the bottom with her. The following year, Collins’ ship, the Pacific would be lost with all hands, though her fate would remain a mystery for most of the next century. Many speculated she had struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic, the truth was, she had sunk not far off the coast of England, and her wreck was discovered accidentally when fishermen kept getting their nets caught in her. With these disasters, the Collins Line soon fell into bankruptcy and eventually vanished. Soon after, safety became paramount, at least for a while.
Sinking of the Collins liner, ARCTIC

    Cunard dominated passenger travel, even boasting that “The Cunard has never lost a life.”  This was a true statement at the time, and though her ships were not free from disasters, none had resulted in a single death. They were regarded as one of the safest lines around, and they soon set their sights on being the fastest as well. Cunard would hold the Blue Ribband for a significant amount of time. However, she was soon faced with a new rival, The White Star line, who would go for comfort over speed, luring passengers with luxury. White Star would attract the cream of the Trans-Atlantic crop, but even they would have a few record breakers in their history, the first being the very fast and beautiful RMS Teutonic.
The fast and beautiful TEUTONIC

    So, you are all now very confused. Why have I put down some of this history of passenger ships? Well, it goes back to what I said earlier, where would you be today, if at some point in your ancestry, someone did not board a ship. These various lines, like Cunard, White Star, and the rest, did not build their large fast ships for the First Class trade, far from it. These lines may have decorated the ships to the tastes of First Class clientele, but the bread and butter of their operations were the Third Class immigrant trades. That is right, these ships were designed primarily as immigrant ships, even ones as luxurious as the Titanic. For every First Class passenger a ship carried, they also carried three to four Third Class passengers. This is why many of the lines went into financial ruin in the time period leading to the Great Depression, the United States put a cap on incoming immigrants, choking off the main source of income to the lines.

    Now, perhaps I should throw in a little education of some of the nautical terms I use from time to time. Let us start with the obvious ones. First up, knot. A knot is one nautical mile or 6076ft. It is used to measure the ships speed over the bottom. To put it in modern terms, a ship going about 22 knots is doing about 25mph. That may not seem like much, but think of how big a ship is, and how fast a car going 25 seems to be when you are standing still. Knots are also used in air travel, the measurement is the same, though there are slight variations on the theme that I will not go into, because I am not an aviation expert.

    Two of the more famous terms are Port and Starboard. These simply are the sides of the ship, literally left and right. The best way to remember which is which, port has four letters and so does left. Bow is another well used term, simply, the nose of the ship. Stern, respectively, is the end of the ship. Sometimes you might see me use the term abaft, this simply means behind a certain location, as in the stern of a ship is located abaft of its bridge. One term I do not think I have ever used yet is leeward. This one confuses me as well at time, though from my understanding, it is usually the side of the ship facing away from weather, hence it is calmer. There are more terms, but for the most part, I will usually only use the ones easier for folks to remember.

    One thing that I feel needs to be cleared up is the concept of tonnage. The tonnage of a ship is not the actual weight of the hull, instead it is a measurement of the square footage within the ship. It was derived from the early days of wooden cargo ships carrying barrels known as tunnes. A ships size was said to be how many tunnes she could carry in her hold. When discussing a ships actual weight, the term displacement is used. For a ship to float, it must displace an equal amount of water to its own weight. So, to put it into practical terms, we shall use the Titanic. Her gross registered tonnage was 46,000, however, her displacement, her true weight, was 66,000 tons of water. Both figures are impressive, yet pale in comparison to the tonnage and displacement figures of modern ships.
A stoker at work.

    The propulsion systems of early steamships were quite simple, being no more complicated than the average locomotive on land. I have sometimes referred to triple expansion engines or steam turbines. I will get to turbines next, but for now, let us concentrate on the reciprocating marine engine. It worked by steam being fed into a piston, forcing it down to turn a crank attached to a shaft that lead to the propeller. As ships grew larger and more efficiency was needed, the steam began to be reused, leading to more cylinder, usually with each successive cylinder head being larger that the one before it, due to the steam losing pressure as it went from piston to piston. This would ensure that the ship would get the most out of its boilers and coal. The reciprocating marine engine came to its culmination in the quadruple expansion engines built for the Olympic class lines of White Star, still to this day the largest steam engines ever put aboard a ship. Unfortunately, they were outdated when installed, as a newer and better technology had come into it’s own.
A diagram of the engines of the OLYMPIC class

    Enter Charles Parsons. I will not go into detail on him, as I already did in my Lusitania article, but, I will say, the man changed the way ships were run.  His invention of the marine steam turbine was a stroke of genius. The problem most companies were facing in the very early 1900’s was the cost of coal, and, for every knot over 20, it cost you double the amount of coal to maintain that seed. Turbines allowed for a more direct use of high pressure steam to directly act upon the propeller shafts. Higher speeds were possible, yet the problem with coal consumption still remained. A steam turbine works almost like any other turbine. Tiny fan blades are hit by the steam, turning the shaft Thousands of blades made up a turbine, usually in circles of descending size within the housing. The main advantage of the turbine, besides speed, was size. It was far smaller than the larger reciprocating engines, which allowed for a smaller engine space, so that more space could be relegated to passengers. For example, the Olympic class engines were four stories tall, yet the engines of the Mauretania and Lusitania, being turbines, only were as high as two decks, a huge space savings.
A look at the inner workings of a Parson's steam turbine

    The problem with coal consumption was not solved until ships stopped using coal and converted to oil. The oil could be better regulated, gave far more energy for its size, and also reduced greatly the number of crew members on a ship, saving companies money. On average, a ship would have 300 men in engineering, mostly those feeding the coal into the boiler furnaces, these men being known as stokers. Along side them worked the trimmers, men responsible for keeping the coal in the bunkers level, to keep the ship on an even keel. Then there were the passers, the men that would take wheelbarrows of coal from the bunkers to the stokers. All of those were removed from a ship once it converted to oil, engineering going from 300 men to 60. Now, that was bad news for those men, sadly, yet it did make the lines more profitable, spending less on wages.

    Sadly, when all this technology was being developed to make ships faster, more efficient, and more profitable, another invention was taking shape, one that would kill the passenger ship as we know it. That was, of course, the airplane. At first, there was no competition, planes did not have the range of ships, and were prone to crash in the early days. However, as the 1950’s came around, things began to change. Jet engines were introduced, and soon travelers realized that they could spend a few hours on a plane rather then a few days on a ship, and at a fraction of the cost. The Cunard line tried to play against this with there famous slogan, “Getting there is half the fun!”  It was a good try, but even they quickly went into decline in the mid to late 1960’s.

    So, where does that leave us in today’s world? Well, most consumer goods still travel by ship when coming overseas, mainly in cargo containers made to be quickly put on tractor trailers. Ships of sizes never dreamed of before now sail the oceans of the world, yet are hardy noticed. As for passenger travel, only one true ocean liner plies the seas, and that is the giant Queen Mary 2. What sets her apart from other cruise ships, her bow is reinforced to take whatever the North Atlantic can throw at her, and despite regulations to the contrary, a special compensation was made for her to have her lifeboats higher up on the ship, to keep them safe from waves during heavy storms. A normal cruise ship, though massive, is really very fragile, as was shown in the recent Coasta Concordia disaster. Without a reinforced bow, a cruise ship cannot cross an area as volatile as the North Atlantic, a few have tried and suffered great damage. Modern cruise ships are still very impressive machines, yet they are the destination in and of themselves, where as ships of old took you to a destination.
The imposing bow of the QUEEN MARY 2.

      So, are ships still important? Yes, but not for the same reason they were a hundred years ago. Today, they are a means of bringing large quantities of good to consumers, such as cars, electronics, clothing, food, and most importantly, oil. The largest ship in the world is not a passenger ship, nor a bulk container ship. It is an oil tanker, the Seawise Giant. At over 1,500ft in length, a breadth of 500 ft, a tonnage of over 650,000, no other ship in history comes close, yet you have probably never heard of her. She is so large, she cannot use the English Channel, nor the Suez Canal. Yet her importance to the global economy cannot be understated. So, next time you fill up your car, just think of what it took to get that fuel to you. Also think of what it took to get that car to you. Ships are still very important, though, because they are relegated to less glamorous tasks than they were in the past, they are slipping out of public consciousness. I hope I have given you a little more appreciation for these very important pieces of our history. Next time, I will look at what is the worlds deadliest ship disaster, and I guarantee that most of you have never even heard of this ships name. Till then, may the wind be at your backs.

The SEAWISE GIANT under one of her earlier names.


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