In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Social History of the Bulbous Bow
  • Larrie D. Ferreiro (bio)

With our new name for the research note, Inside the Black Box, we highlight the special character (and appeal) of these articles: their tight focus on particular artifacts, historical moments, or debates within the field. This month we have a supplemental way to see inside the black box—visit for a slide show on the history of the bulbous bow with additional images and narration by Dr. Ferreiro.


The bulbous bow is the most visible technological artifact of contemporary naval architecture. The ISO bulbous-bow symbol is seen on every type of vessel, from passenger ships to crude oil carriers (fig. 1). The modern underwater bulb that projects from the front of the ship partially cancels out waves formed at the bow, thereby reducing resistance and improving efficiency. But the use of projecting bulbs on ships dates back to antiquity. Despite the continuity of the artifact itself, both the purpose and perception of the bulbous bow have changed over the years.1

Its first incarnation was as the ram, the iconic weapon of Greek and Roman war galleys, but its utility faded with the rise of gun-carrying sailing warships. Reborn during the 1800s in the image of those galleys, the ram became the weapon of choice for early ironclads of limited firepower. Its symbolic [End Page 335] hold over naval planners and pundits as the emblem of Roman-era heroism ensured its continued existence, even as it became obvious that the ram was deadlier in accident than in war, and long after warships had acquired the improved gunnery that made ramming an anachronism. In the early twentieth century, a new type of bulbous bow—the bulbous forefoot—became the maritime equivalent of Art Deco streamlining that captured the public imagination. The modern Inui bulb found on almost every vessel is held up as the embodiment of applied science in contemporary shipbuilding, although the danger of wreaking severe underwater damage when one ship accidentally rams another remains a major problem.

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Fig. 1.

Bulbous bow on a Chinese merchant ship, with the international symbol for bulbous bows (ISO standard 6050:1987) just to the left of the anchor. (Source: Alexandre Sheldon-Duplaix.)

This article examines both the social and cultural contexts in which the bulbous bow has evolved over the course of three millennia. “Guns, like everything else, have their social history,” noted John Ellis in The Social History of the Machine Gun. In the years since Ellis’s groundbreaking study, historians have been investigating and retelling the social and cultural stories surrounding technological artifacts. The works of Wiebe Bijker and Trevor Pinch, in particular, have examined the social factors that influence the [End Page 336] course of their technological development; other authors, notably Eric Schatzberg, demonstrate how technologies can be shaped by culture and ideology.2 The case of the bulbous bow shows how, during the nineteenth century, the cultural symbolism attached to the ram inspired a military mindset that rejected firepower in favor of the nautical equivalent of the bayonet charge; and in the modern age, how its imagery as a work of both aesthetic and scientific progress has all but blinded the public to its potential as an unintended weapon.

The Bow as a Weapon: The Ram in the Era of Oared Warships

The origins of the ram bow are only sketchily known. It was used as a weapon only in Mediterranean fleets, such as those of Greece, Phoenicia, and Rome.3 Iconographic representations of ships with elongated bows date back as far as circa 1200 bce, although the earliest known mentions of the ram bow in battle are from circa 535 bce.4 The most famous type of ram warship was the trieres (better known as the trireme), with three banks of oarsmen to provide the speed necessary to punch a hole in an enemy ship (typically from four to eight knots). At the battle of Salamis in 480 bce, the effectiveness of the ram was demonstrated when roughly 380 Greek triremes defeated a flotilla of about a thousand Persian and Phoenician galleys, which were...


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pp. 335-359
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