Sunday, September 21, 2014

Nelson and Brunel linked by ship’s pulley-blocks

The age-of-sail is often associated with the Napoleonic era. But the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution and the construction of steam-powered iron ships, saw the era of wooden fighting ships rapidly draw to a close. One sign of impending change was noted in 1805, when Lord Nelson personally acknowledged how new technology was replacing the old ways.

The wooden block, an essential component of any ship’s rigging, is a direct link between Admiral Lord Nelson and Marc Isambard Brunel, father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the builder of some the greatest steam ships the world has ever seen.

At that time, a first rate ship of the line required about 1000 blocks of different sizes, and every year the Royal Navy required over 100,000 blocks. HMS Victory carried over 900. For centuries, blocks had been hand-made by outside tradesmen but the resulting quality was inconsistent, the supply irregular and the blocks were expensive.

In 1802, Brunel proposed a system of making blocks using machinery and in August of that year he was authorized by the Admiralty to proceed.
With Brunel’s modern Block Mill established and operating at Portsmouth Dockyard, Lord Nelson was anxious to witness the new technology before he sailed. His diary schedule for 14th September included a visit to the Mill, to see how modern innovations applied to block making.

What Nelson witnessed that day was an assortment of machines driven by two 22.4 kw (30 hp) steam engines including circular saws, pin turning machines and mortising machines. By using these mechanical devises, 10 men could produce, in any given time, as many blocks as 110 skilled craftsmen.
It seems fitting that on his last day on British soil before embarking on HMS Victory, Admiral Lord Nelson recognised that a new era of manufacturing was dawning, in particular in relation to sailing ships.

Refs: Wikipedia pages
Pics: Mast and rigging HMS Victory (2006), HM Bark Endeavour and Bark Europa, Nelson figure-head and statue - Portsmouth, England.

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