Oct

19

Cochrane: Britannia's Last Sea-King
by Donald Thomas
1978, The Viking Press

The book begins with the story of the Cochrane family. The subject's father was the 9th Earl of Dundonald and in the 1780s he tried to salvage the family's fortunes with innovation:

As a young man, the Earl had spent a short while in the navy. During this period, he had noticed the ravages of worms on the bottoms of ships, where they ate into the structure of the hull. The replacement of so much rotten timber was a considerable drain on the resources of the Admiralty. A few ships were "hobnailed", the bottoms covered with large-headed iron nails, but this was far too expensive a method to be undertaken often. The 9th Earl, pondering this problem, thought of the coal on the Culross estate….He had undertaken some simple experiments of his own with coal, in a kiln. When it was "reduced" to coke, a thick black substance was given off, known as coal tar. But might not the coal tar be refined in such a way that it could be used to coat the hulls of ships?

[ The Earl pays for a test where one side of a buoy was painted with coal tar and the other left as is. ]

Yes, the test had been a complete success, protecting the side of the buoy against the worm while the other side had rotted. No, the Admiralty was not interested in the invention.

The Earl was dumbfounded by this reply….Still with young Lord Cochrane in tow, he began to visit shipbuilders, to see if there was some special technical problem involved in using coal tar, some minor defect which he might be able to overcome. He received his answer at last from a shipbuilder in Limehouse.

"My lord," said the man, "we live by repairing ships as well as by building them, and the worm is our best friend. Rather than use your preparation, I would cover ships' bottoms with honey to attract worms."

Similar objections, wrote Lord Cochrane, were "everywhere encountered" among the shipbuilders. "Neither they, nor any artisans in wood, would patronise a plan to render their work durable." As for the Admiralty and the Navy Board, it was common knowledge that many of the clerks in the King's dockyards also acted as agents for the private contractors. They were hardly likely to recommend to the Board a substance which would lead to a recession among those on whose behalf they acted and whose profits they shared.

Epilogue to the story:

The financial catastrophe which had overtaken the Earl in no way diminished his enthusiasm for scientific investigation. While he and his creditors were in prolonged negotiation for the disposal of Culross, he produced his largest and most important publication, A Treatise Showing the Intimate Connection that Subsists between Agriculture and Chemistry. But once again, he was in advance of his time. What was dismissed as eccentricity in the Earl of Dundonald was to be hailed as the genius of discovery in Sir Humphrey Davy. Indeed, the most bitter irony of all was still far in the future, when the Earl was an old and dying man, struggling to support his ailing mistress and her child in Parisian squalor, to which he had been driven by the most remorseless of his creditors. From the miseries of this exile, where drink had become his last consolation, the old man heard that the Lordships of the Admiralty had conceived an interesting new idea. In 1822, they had asked a committee of the Royal Society, under the chairmanship of Sir Humphrey Davy, to investigate the possibility that coal tar might be an effective and cheap preservative for ships' bottoms. The committee reported favorably and the Lordships congratulated themselves on their acumen. Not only was their suggestion vindicated but the cantankerous Scottish earl who had taken out a patent in the 1780s had neither heart nor money to renew it in 1806. The Admiralty, by biding its time, got the process for nothing.

An overview of the 10th Earl's life.

Henry Gifford asks:

Why didn’t fishing boats, freighters, ferries, etc. adopt this technology?

Stefan Jovanovich responds:

Because it was foul stuff to work with compared to pine tar and Davy was promoting the uses of coal over which Britain had the same near monopoly that North Carolina had over turpentine and pine tar.  Britain became coal mad as they discovered that British midlands anthracite had superior qualities for ship's boilers over everyone else's stuff.  (When Admiral Dewey's squadron won the Battle of Manila Bay, they were fueled by British colliers from Hong Kong.)

Peter Grieve writes:

It looks like shipworm could have an impact on the city we love:

These Tiny Wood-Eating Creatures Want To Sink Brooklyn Bridge Park


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