For more than two decades the social construction of technology, a theoretical and methodological approach that seeks to unpack the social context of technical systems, has informed the work of historians of technology. According to coeditors Don Leggett and Richard Dunn, maritime and naval historians largely have overlooked the insights that can be gleaned from such an approach. In Re-inventing the Ship, the two scholars have compiled a collection of essays that investigates the British ships of the long nineteenth century as objects of science, technology, and maritime culture.
Many of the book’s ten chapters derive from papers presented at a symposium held at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich in September 2009. They are arranged in rough chronological order, with some examining specific people or events and others painting a more general picture of maritime culture in the nineteenth century. Most chapters draw heavily from the secondary literature, although a few make good use of primary sources, especially Crosbie Smith’s exploration of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company’s formative years and Richard Biddle’s analysis of occupational health at Portsmouth Royal Dockyard.
Thematically, the first eight chapters may be organized into three distinct groups. The first includes essays by Crosbie Smith, Oliver Carpenter, and Dunn. All analyze business-related aspects of British shipping, with Smith examining the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, Carpenter investigating the Robinson line of tramp steamers, and Dunn looking at some of the maritime instruments developed and marketed by William Thomson (Lord Kelvin). These articles illuminate the multifaceted networks of shareholders, shipwrights, inventors, architects, workers, owners, engineers, and naval officers that made British shipping ubiquitous around the globe.
A second set of essays, by Christopher Harvie, Leggett, and Duncan Redford, explores the role of the ship in British maritime and naval culture. Harvie offers a few literary and artistic examples of the iron steamship as a symbol of the industrial era, while Leggett examines the social networks, circles of expertise, and object meanings of Britain’s mid-Victorian “culture of naval supremacy” (p. 74). Redford investigates the Royal Navy’s adoption of the fleet submarine in the early twentieth century, claiming that a “corporate culture” infatuated with battleships and battle fleets shaped the design of the Royal Navy’s submarines, rather than “tactical or operational considerations” (p. 158). This claim is starkly revisionist, but Redford’s piece contains limited archival research and as such poses no real challenge to the work of historians like Jon Sumida and Nicholas Lambert. [End Page 496]
Richard Biddle and Ann-Flore Laloë author a third grouping that looks at the specific spaces where the so-called re-invention of the ship took place. In an informative chapter, Biddle investigates the changing frequency, nature, and causes of work-related injuries—“hurts” in the parlance of the day—at Portsmouth Royal Dockyard. He shows that the introduction of steam and iron into the shipyard led to a shift in the most common types of hurts, from hernias, lacerations, and contusions to burns, eye injuries, and respiratory ailments. Laloë revisits the supposed discovery of Bathybius haeckelii, pointing out that ships served not only as a means of transport for scientists but also as spaces where science could be conducted.
The final two chapters are thematically distinct and consist of essays by naval historians William McBride and Andrew Lambert. McBride provides a concise overview of warship design in the United States, from the Continental navy through the turn of the twentieth century. He argues that American warships tended to be better armed, larger, stronger, and more fuel-efficient than comparable European vessels. Lambert concludes the collection with a reflective essay that considers nineteenth-century Britons’ emotional shift from hubris to anxiety, living as they did in an empire historically tied to the sea but located at the vanguard of a new scientific, technological, and industrial era.
Although Leggett and Dunn overstate the extent to which their volume marks “a departure from existing models...