CHSTM Working group proposal: History of pre-industrial watercraft technology

Phillip Reid's picture

I am gauging interest in a working group hosted by the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. A preliminary proposal for the group follows. If interested, please respond by Tuesday, 28 March; the proposal is due 1 April.

For information on the Consortium, see

For more information about me, see

Preliminary proposal

Phillip Reid, PhD


For most of human history, watercraft have been among the most, if not the most, complex, sophisticated, and expensive technologies employed by humans to work, travel, and fight in their worlds. They were, like other contrivances, designed and created in vernacular and artisanal traditions; understanding watercraft helps us understand those traditions in a broader sense. The development of specific types of vessels influenced, and was influenced by, specific agendas for migration, the exploitation of other species for human consumption, and competition with other human groups. Understanding those specific types helps us understand those specific agendas. This working group will bring together historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and material-culture specialists to advise and encourage each other in pursuit of original research projects. It will help create a home for the study of pre-industrial watercraft technology in the history of technology, a field in which it has, to this point, been under-represented. In the near term, it will provide a forum for potential contributors to a focused collection of essays I intend to edit and have published, with the working title Technological Choice in Early Modern Watercraft: Adaptation in an Age of Encounters. Prior to, or concurrent with, the publication of that collection, I will also propose a seminar series with the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London.

Draft proposal (to be completed if and when other scholars express interest in participating):

This group will consist of historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and material-culture specialists working on original research in watercraft technology from prehistory to c. 1800—though carryover technology past that date would certainly be included. The primary purpose would be to plug individual researchers into a network of scholars who could potentially contribute their own knowledge or resources to assist others.

Study of this subject requires a multi- and interdisciplinary effort. It has been hampered in the past by disciplinary compartmentalization, and that is, unfortunately, still true. Any effort we make to overcome that tradition is useful, and this could be one way to do that. When researchers from different disciplines actually talk to each other and ask each other questions, they are all forced to recognize the default differences in emphasis and approach of those different disciplines, and forced to make some effort to align those into enough overlap that overall comprehension of the subject advances.

I am not aware of any other CHSTM group, past or present, dedicated to this subject, nor am I aware of any outside the organization—though the latter could be my own ignorance. To gauge interest, I will post notice on the relevant H-Net forums, the Society for Historical Archaeology, the Society for Nautical Research, the International Maritime History Association (the latter two of which I am a member), and individual colleagues at institutions where other interested scholars are likely located, with a request to spread the word.

While I have a near-term goal for this group—to serve as a forum for potential contributors to the edited collection mentioned in the proposal’s abstract—I see no reason why it could not continue indefinitely, given adequate interest.