Atlantic World merchant vessel technology--anecdotal evidence

Phillip Reid Discussion

I am beginning a dissertation project with the working title "Merchant Ship Technology and the Development of the British Atlantic, 1600-1800."  Among other types of sources, I'm looking for anecdotal archival or published primary source material in which those engaged in the shipping business in this world--ship owners, masters, ship builders, state officials, merchants, and mariners--mention or discuss vessel technology in their correspondence, journals, logs, and other written documents.  I'm interested in their opinions, judgments, specifications, and instructions regarding design, rig, construction, lading, and equipment.  The goal is to evaluate continuity and change in the technology over the period.  If anyone can suggest a specific collection or work likely to contain such information, that would be most helpful.  I'd like to have a list of the most promising sources by the end of the month.  Thanks for any help.

Phillip Reid

PhD student

Department of History

Memorial University of Newfoundland

9 Replies

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Dear Phillip

Two books come to my mind, which are focusing on the nineteenth century, but nonetheless might include helpful references for your research:

* Frederick W. Wallace. Wooden Ships and Iron Men: The Story of the Square-rigged Merchant Marine of British North America, the Ships, their Builders and Owners and the Men who Sailed them. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1924.

* George B. Goode. The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1884–1887.

Goode's book includes a number of interesting plates showing sailing ships and deck plans, among other things. It has been digitised, you can find various versions of it here:

Regarding anecdotal evidence from primary sources, there is a diary of a sailor in the New Bedford Whaling Museum that might be of relevance:

* Horace L. Palmer. The Diary of a Foremast Hand on the First Voyage of the Bark Wanderer – Whaler of New Bedford, 1878–1880. New Bedford Whaling Museum: ODHS 0409.

If I remember correctly, Palmer is repeatedly commenting on the practice of using old and ramshackled merchantmen as whaling vessels in the Atlantic. However, this also refers to the nineteenth century, but maybe you are interested nevertheless.

All the best



While I do not have any specific source suggestions, I would like to suggest that if you are not a member of the H-Net Sci-Med-Tech group, you might join that list and cross-post your quiry there. I have found the science and technology people, particularly organizations like the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), very open and helpful with my research into maritime technologies.

Best of luck.

James Risk, Ph.D. Student, University of South Carolina

[EDITOR'S NOTE: H-Sci-Med-Tech is a good idea and they share a project with H-Material-Culture called "The Stuff of Science,  Medicine, and Technology." If you post your query to either of these Networks, you might request in the query that it be included in this joint page and it will be included in both Networks.]

Dear Phillip - 

While they are more informational in nature, John Smith's A Sea Grammar (1627) and Henry Mainwaring's The Sea-man's Dictionary (1644) will be extremely useful for the earlier period. 

~ Anna Holloway

Thank you Felix!  PR

Thanks for the help--I will definitely follow up. 

Thank you Anna--the earlier period is of course the much harder one!  Adding those to the list now.  Best, Phillip

I am currently working on a dissertation about the operational aspects of 18th-century maritime smuggling among the West Indies and the North American colonies. Although vessel technology is not my primary focus, it is an element of my work. I have found merchant correspondence to be helpful with this. Occasionally, these archives will include correspondence from captains back to the office, but even where it is one-sided, merchants' correspondence often includes references to materials and measurements. This is particularly true in contracts with shipwrights/suppliers.

Insurance records are another useful resource for this data. Depositions taken in the wake of marine casualties often include technical details, particularly where gear failure was considered part of the cause.

I would caution against excessive reliance on published how-to professional textbooks from the period. Then as now, actual practices and technology at sea frequently diverged from the best-practice recommendations of textbooks.

Carl Herzog



Carl--your caution is dead-on, and also applies to plans.  We have to use them but with care.  Thanks for corroborating what I strongly suspected about correspondence.  I would love to know about some specific collections in which you've found this sort of thing.  --Phillip

First I want to remind everyone of a seagoing adage that is applicable to this discussion and that is "different ships, different long splices."  As those of you who have been studying maritime history for a while know, a long splice is a method of permanently joining two pieces of line (a splice) while only minimally increasing the line's circumference so the line can pass through the swallow of a block.   The point of the saying "different ships, different long splices" refers to each ship and captain having a different way of doing things, often the same thing. 

Never was this more true than during the age of sail when ships were made of wood, canvas, hemp, pitch, and other "workable" materials.  Before industrialization and its notion of efficiency through standardization and the introduction of iron and later steel to ship construction which made it harder to change things, captains, bosns, sailmakers, carpenters and others in authority aboard ship often made changes "to suit."  All it took was some wood, a hammer and some nails or screws or some canvas, hemp, a sail needle, and a sailmaker's palm and voila things were altered "to suit."   

While two ships might be built to the same set of plans and perhaps even on adjacent stocks, keep in mind it was common practice during the age of sail that a ship's first captain supervised her construction.  Because the captain taking a ship to sea for the first time was supervising her construction, fitting out, commissioning or refitting, things were often altered "to suit" even at this early stage in the ship's life.   

As sailing master of a steel tall ship in the 1990's, I "altered things to suit" such as the cut of the sails, certain sheet leads, etc.  So the practices of altering the ship "to suit" continues into the present so long as the ship's company possesses the necessary skills and the equipment to make the changes. 

More than any other ship type afloat today, sailing ships are living things that evolve over time depending on the needs and preferences of their crews.  Having earned my History MA, I understand the need to "document" and the need to try and make history a science (although I don't agree with the notion of 'scientific history') by using "official sources" and "specifications."  However, sometimes your best source regarding the ship, fittings, and equipment design, as well as deck layouts, rigging, and other things that could easily be altered "to suit" is going to be that "anecdotal" evidence from someone, like the master, sailing master, bosn, carpenter or any other member of the ship's people with the skills and authority to make a change "to suit" at a specific time in the ship's life.