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Coppering the Fleet

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Alex Carrick

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Alex Carrick is Chief Economist for Reed Construction Data. He specializes in economic forecasting and statistical services.

Economists

Faced with the rapid changes brought about by computers and the Internet, one can easily be fooled into thinking that leaps in technology are something new in the course of human events.

Faced with the rapid changes brought about by computers and the Internet, one can easily be fooled into thinking that leaps in technology are something new in the course of human events. In actual fact, there have been similar seismic shifts throughout history. These have often come in the area of military advances, to gain an advantage over an enemy.

The addition of stirrups to saddles was one such "giant step" that enabled the mounted hordes of Genghis Khan to sweep across Asia. Another well-known example was the use of longbows by the British against the French at the battles of Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt in the mid-1300s to early-1400s as part of the Hundred Years/' War.

I/'m currently reading a terrific book by an American professor, Arthur Herman, that looks at the history of the British navy. To Rule the Waves discusses a momentous decision made by Lord Sandwich, Head of the Admiralty, in the late 1700s. He gave the go-ahead to “copper the fleet”. Copper plates were attached to the outside hull of the first ships of the line in 1779. Half the fleet was converted by 1781. As you can imagine, this was an expensive undertaking.

Up to that point in time, the constant soaking of wooden ships in saltwater left them coated with barnacles and seaweed that needed constant cleaning in drydock. Suddenly, coppered ships required far less maintenance and downtime. It was a huge leap forward and unique in its time. The copper sheathing also gave the ships a “new burst of speed and a lighter touch in handling”.

Mr. Herman makes the point that it was innovation like this that allowed the British navy to grow into the largest industrial enterprise in the world, a position that it held for several hundreds of years.

Alex Carrick

by Alex Carrick last update:May 9, 2008

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