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Transport over water is a necessity in most parts of the world. Since time immemorial ships have been constructed in any place with a suitable shoreline, easily procured supplies of timber, and an available workforce. The improvement in ship design and construction has been a process of evolution, slow at first, but gathering speed over the centuries, leading ultimately to the sophisticated ships of the 21st century. It is interesting to compare the simplest dugouts still to be found in less developed parts of the world and to appreciate that the design of even these humble craft has variations brought about by experience in operation. Following on from carved logs, dugouts, and similar craft, early shipbuilders in many Middle Eastern lands produced vessels constructed with papyrus, and elsewhere craft, like the coracle and the kayak, were formed of animal skins stretched over timber framework.

Wooden Shipbuilding.

Well over 1,500 years ago, the skill of building ships with wooden planks was developed, a method that continued until the middle of the 19th century for commercial ships and which is still in use today for smaller vessels. Methods of construction have altered little over a thousand years: The shape of the ship is constrained by frames (or ribs) covered with a shell of thinner planks, the plank edges being secured and caulked to prevent leakage. The ship has a spine, or keel, on which the frames are set up and which in turn support the beams, longitudinals, and other parts. Timber is a flexible material, able to yield and adapt to complex shapes, and with centuries of experience, methods of construction have become fairly standard throughout the world.

The western tradition of shipbuilding evolved over a period of about 500 years. During it the sailing ship became a fairly efficient vehicle, but also one in which the layout and rigging have a form which is constrained by conventions understandable to multilingual, international crews. Hence, over the years, improvements and developments were accepted on a worldwide scale.

For several reasons, wooden vessels cannot be constructed in the traditional way with a waterline length much in excess of 80 metres (260 ft). As the ratios of the various dimensions, such as length to breadth, are fairly constant, this length limitation made it difficult to improve cargo-carrying capacity, and a plateau in efficiency was reached. Any small improvements came about by manipulation of the key proportions of ships. This often made them unseaworthy, a situation exacerbated by the elementary knowledge of naval architecture at that time. Also wooden ships often had a fairly short lifespan if maintenance was lacking, or if they were laid up for lengthy periods. A further problem came through demand for timber outstripping supply in many countries during the 18th century. At this time, industrial shipyards were being created in Europe, and for the first time there came an appreciation that shipbuilding was an assembly business requiring detailed planning, material control, ample manpower, and safe access to water. The stage was set for iron.


Subjects: Maritime History.

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