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  • Ships and Science: The Birth of Naval Architecture in the Scientific Revolution, 1600–1800
  • C. I. Hamilton
Ships and Science: The Birth of Naval Architecture in the Scientific Revolution, 1600–1800. By Larrie D. Ferreiro . Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007. ISBN 0-262-06259-3. Illustrations. Figures. Appendix. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xvii, 441. $45.

The shipwright Phineas Pett recorded in his autobiography that in 1609 a tiresome theorist shipbuilder boasted one of his designs would be "so rare a sailer, and every way so well conditioned, as she should run beyond the moon." But, Pett gloated, she proved to be "the veriest bauble and drown devil that ever went to sea." (W. G. Perrin, ed., Navy Records Society, 1918, pp. 45, 70f.) Practical empiricists like Pett generally did much better, though even they were often embarrassed to discover that their vessels needed a girdling of wood to give sufficient stiffness under sail. Within 150 years, however, [End Page 1228] as the book by Dr. Ferreiro tells us, thanks to crucial advances in the theories of sailing, hydrostatics, and ship stability, the basic tools existed for the prediction of the characteristics of ships, even if—for various reasons—they could not yet be easily mastered.

Already two of the central themes in the volume at hand have been suggested, not just the prediction of ship performance, but also the tension between the practical shipbuilder and the theorist. However, the author tackles much more than that. As centrepiece there is the work of the scientist Pierre Bouguer, notably his seminal Traité du navire (1746), plus the exchange of ideas between European savants, the advancing professionalisation of naval architects, and the development of naval science in no fewer than seven European powers (France, Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Venice).

The book is thus highly ambitious in content and form; it is also impressively researched, well written, handsomely produced, and admirably fills a significant gap in the secondary sources. It will be of great utility to historians not just of navies but also science and technology. One thing missing, though, is a convincing explanation for the wide differences between the two main naval rivals, Britain and France. For instance, it seems misplaced to suggest that competition in warship construction from private yards depressed science in the British government dockyards, since recourse was had to the private yards usually only during wartime. Furthermore, the separate national approaches to naval construction were to be found more generally in the pure and applied sciences. There is surely a wider phenomenon here than Ferreiro allows for, involving questions of culture and mentalités.

There is also one apparent anomaly. Ferreiro lavishes praise on the eighteenth-century theoreticians, but reiterates that their designs proved relatively disappointing. The theory then underlying French warship construction was impressive, but the calculations were often flawed, or beside the point. To perform at their best, apparently, French ships needed to be re-masted, re-rigged and re-coppered by the practical empiricists in British dockyards, then stowed and sailed by a crew of seasoned British seamen. Nevertheless, Ferreiro's approach is not at all Quixotic. We must understand there is to be a second volume, called Bridging the Seas: The Development of Naval Architecture in the Industrial Age, 1800–2000. This looks like being even more ambitious than the one at hand. It should also give the context in which eighteenth-century developments can be properly valued, and will surely be keenly anticipated.

C. I. Hamilton
University of the Witwatersrand
Witwatersrand, South Africa


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pp. 1228-1229
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2010
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