June 11, 2013

The lost 10 centuries

I WAS FASCINATED RECENTLY to read a paper that claimed in the year 1000, Mediterranean ships were no better than those built a thousand years earlier.  In other words, no progress was made in ship design or construction in 10 centuries.

It reminded me of something I read somewhere long ago that claimed the principle of the wood plane was lost after the Roman empire collapsed and it wasn’t until hundreds of years later, after the Dark Ages were over, that someone re-discovered the principle of this valuable little tool. Isn’t that extraordinary?  How can people just simply forget how to make a plane?

In any case, Mediterranean ships in the year 1000 were rigged with squaresails that were, of course, no good for getting to windward, so that any voyage that involved beating against the wind was likely to be extremely lengthy and uncertain.

The paper I was reading, The Role of Energy in Western Growth, recalled the experience of St. Paul who was sent as a prisoner from Syria to Rome. His vessel, with 276 people aboard, skirted the coast northward, intending to winter in Crete. But she was hit by a storm, driven for two whole weeks in damaged condition, and finally ran aground in Malta.

It wasn’t for hundreds of years after the year 1000 that Mediterranean ships finally were able to make better progress against the wind, notably through the invention and adoption of the Arabic lateen rig — still seen in use today on many vessels, including Arab dhows and American sailing dinghies.  In fact, the modern sloop is basically a lateen sail split into two separate pieces.

The lateen rig, plus the appearance of better charts, pilot charts, and tide tables, increased the productivity of Venetian ships, which previously had not dared the passage to Egypt between October and April.  They could now make two return voyages to a year from Venice to Alexandria instead of just one.

In the 13th century more significant improvements were made, including the adoption of the magnetic compass, the Venetian sandglass for accurate timing of log lines, and the wooden traverse board, which helped the navigator with his dead reckoning.  There was steady progress after that in ship design and construction, as well as improved methods of finding latitude, so that between 1470 and 1820 Western Europe’s merchant fleet increased by about 17-fold, sponsoring the growth of an age of comparative prosperity.

But my mind still boggles over those lost 1,000 years when development in the maritime world stood still in the West, and the Vikings, still using the old methods of building what were basically large rowing boats, were nevertheless employing the latest in technology — and using it to frighten the pants off everybody.

Today’s Thought
There is a period of life when we go back as we advance.
— Rousseau, Émile

A professor of chemistry walked into a pharmacy.
“Give me some of those small round tablets of the monacetic acidester of salicylic acid,” he said.
“You mean aspirin?” said the pharmacist.
“Yeah, that’s it,” cried the professor.  “I can never remember that name.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

10 centuries? That's nothing, for cement it's been 20!