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04 December 2019

Oil, storms and knowing part 2: Pliny, Franklin and the IPCC Special Report on Oceans

This post is the second of a pair to mark the period of the 25th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and is contributed by Andrea Deri, Cataloguer.

In addition to seafarers, fishers in the Mediterranean Sea applied oil as Pliny the Elder and Plutarch described. Divers released olive oil from their mouth and used the oil film on the sea surface as a ‘skylight’ for underwater fishing. Oyster collectors in Gibraltar did just the same. They made use of their observation that oil prevented ripples formation and the smooth surface allowed steadier and deeper penetration of sunlight for increased visibility under the water.

Seal hunters also benefitted from the smooth sea surface created by oil. In their case it was the common seal that ‘released’ the oil as 18th-century Welsh zoologist Thomas Pennant, shared hunters’ observations:

Seals prey beneath the water, and in case they are devouring any very oily fish, the place is known by a certain smoothness of the waves immediately above.

An image shows three seals lazing on a rocky outcrop
Common seals create an oily patch on the sea surface when they consume their oily fish underwater. Seal-hunters were aware of this phenomenon. From Thomas Pennant, British Zoology Volume I Plate XII (London, 1812:167) 728.f.26.

Pouring oil on the sea was practiced and endorsed even by the British Admiralty (1891) as a way to prevent waves from crashing over the vessel:

Many experiences of late the utility of oil for this purpose is undoubted, and the application is simple. […] A very small quantity of oil, skillfully [sic] applied, may prevent much damage both to ships (especially the smaller classes) and to boats, by modifying the action of breaking seas.

The oil was often applied from an oil bag, ‘usually filled with oakum (teased rope fibres), and/or cotton waste, and fish oil was indeed the preferred (and cheapest) medium used.’ The oil bag was hung over the side of the vessel, immersed in the sea, windward, and pricked with a sail needle to facilitate leakage of the oil. […]’

Sea captain J. W. Martin describes the most recent use of oil bag in ‘launching or recovering ships’ boats, embarking or disembarking a pilot’ and makes the point that carrying an oil bag was compulsory in British ships’ lifeboats’ equipment until 1998.

It was Benjamin Franklin whose experiments provided impetus for exploring the science, the physics, behind the phenomenon: why and how oil prevented waves from breaking. In the spirit of Enlightenment Franklin used an experimental approach to triangulate and scientifically account for practitioners’ observations.

The correspondence of English and Dutch ‘learned gentlemen’ reveals their excitement and commitment for compiling oil stories from as diverse sources as possible – ‘ancient’ (Latin and Greek classics), ‘vulgar’ (lay knowledge), anecdotal, published and experimental – in order to defend the authority of either practitioners’ or natural philosophers’ approach to understanding the oil’s wave stilling effect.

Franklin acknowledges his bias towards ‘modern’ (18th century) ‘learned’ people’s knowledge compared to old and lay sources:

I had, when a youth, read and smiled at Pliny's account of the practice among seamen of his time, to still the waves in a storm by pouring oil into the sea […] [I]t has been of late too much the mode to slight the learning of the antients [sic]. The learned, too, are apt to slight too much the knowledge of the vulgar. This art of smoothing the waves with oil, is an instance of both.

This candid self-reflection is all the more interesting as Franklin and his fellow Enlightenment philosophers benefited from the data, which they snubbed at, for formulating their ideas. By privileging the fast-developing scientific approach, the ‘learned gentlemen’ facilitated the shift of epistemic authorities from traditional knowledge to science and contributed to the politically constructed divide between different ways of knowing.

A drawing shows a nineteenth-century rowing boat approaching an endangered sailing ship in a stormy see
A lifeboat approaching a ship in a stormy sea, from Description of the Royal Cyclorama, or Music Hall: Albany Street, Regent’s Park ... (London, 1849) RB.31.a.23(2)

Within the scientific paradigm, integration of practical and scientific inquiry remained a challenging enterprise with resistance from all involved.

However, a new paradigm seems to be emerging in the context of the unfolding climatic changes. While the authority of knowing still held by science, the relevance of local, traditional and indigenous ways of knowing appears to be slowly acknowledged (again):

Scientific knowledge, Indigenous knowledge, and local knowledge can complement one another by engaging both quantitative data and qualitative information, including people’s observations, responses and values. However, this process of knowledge co-production is complex and IK and LK possess uncertainties of a different nature from those of scientific knowledge, often resulting in the dominance of scientific knowledge over IK and KL in policy, governance, and management. [IPCC 2019:37]

The IPCC special report on ‘The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate’ published in September 2019 portrays science and local knowledge (LK) and indigenous knowledge (IK) as complementary, an attitude that pours oil on the troubled waters of the local knowledge - science nexus.

Thanks to Marja Kingma, Curator, Germanic Collections, BL European Studies; Dr. Saqib Baburi, Curator, Persian Manuscripts, BL Asian and African Collections with contributions from Arani Ilankuberan, Curator, South Indian Collections; Phil Hatfield, Head of Eccles Centre, BL Eccles Centre for American Studies and Julian Harrison, Lead Curator, Medieval Historical & Lit., Western Heritage Collection;

References and further reading:

Franklin, B. ‘Of the Stilling of Waves by Means of Oil. Extracted from sundry Letters between Benjamin Franklin, L.L.D. F.R.S. William Brownrigg, M.D. F.R.S. and the Reverend Mr. Farish’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1774, 64(0), pp.445–460. Available at: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rstl.1774.0044 [Accessed 3 December 2019].

Gilkes, M. F. ‘A Whatsit’ Mariner’s mirror, 2009. 95(3), pp.336–337. Shelfmark Ac.8109.c.

IPCC, 2019. Summary for Policymakers. In: IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.[H.-O. Portner, D.C. Roberts, V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, M. Tignor, E. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, M. Nicolai, A. Okem, J. Petzold, B. Rama, N. Weyer (eds.). In Press. Available at https://www.ipcc.ch/srocc/  [Accessed 3 December 2019] 

IPCC and Allen, M.R., Global Warming of 1.5 oC?: Global Warming of 1.5 °C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. Technical Summary [in press]. [online] (Geneva, 2019) Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2019/02/SR15_TS_High_Res.pdf. [Accessed 3 December 2019] 

Martin, J.W.C.F. ‘Oil Bag’. Mariner’s mirror, 2010, 96(1), pp.94–95. Shelfmark Ac.8109.c.

Mertens, J. ‘Oil On Troubled Waters: Benjamin Franklin and the Honor of Dutch Seamen’. Physics Today 59 (2007), 36. (P)PQ00-E(51) <https://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/1.2180175> [Accessed 3 December 2019] 

Pennant, T. British Zoology (London, 1812:167) Shelfmark 728.f.26. Volume I Plate XII

Pliny the Elder, Natural history, with an English translation in ten volumes by H. Rackham, M.A. (London, 1938)?
 Book II, CVI. 233 - CIX 235 page 360 Latin, page 361 English translation Shelfmark 2282.d.150

Plutarch, Moralia in Fifteen Volumes, with an English translation by Lionel Pearson and F. H. Sandbach (London, 1965)?
 Volume XI 854 E - 874 C, 911 C - 919 F Shelfmark 2282.d.96.

Taylor, A. D. and J.J.P Hitchfield, The West Coast of Hindustan Pilot: including the Gulf of Manar, the Maldive and Laccadive Islands (London, 1891) Shelfmark V 8711

Wyckoff, L. A. B. ‘The Use Of Oil In Storms At Sea.’ Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 23, (1886), 383–388. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/983222  [Accessed 3 December 2019] 

Oil, storms and knowing part 1: Seafarers Calm Waves with Oil

This post is to mark the period of the 25th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and is contributed by Andrea Deri, Cataloguer.

A storm at sea is one of the most feared experiences, as it often presages shipwreck. Mariners would do anything to survive tempestuous waters, from weather forecasting to casting holy oil or auspicious soil from the tomb of a Persian Sufi saint, Abu Eshaq Kazaruni (d. 1035) on the waves.

Occasionally, sailors wailing from fear were also briefly plunged into the sea: to calm them, not the waves though.

A medieval illumination showing a group of people with varied skin-tones and costumes crammed into a ship. A young boy is being dangled by his arms over the side.
A Persian pageboy is thrown overboard briefly in order to calm his fears from Saʿdī Shīrāzī, Gulistān (CE 1258), part of his collected works or Kullīyāt. IO Islamic 843, Folio 42v

Oil features prominently in K. V. Hariharan’s paper on ‘Sea-dangers in Early Indian Seafaring’, a catalogue of traditional adaptation practices to a range of marine hazards, including cyclones: ‘Seafarers seemed to have known the effect of oil to smoothen the sea surface’. As storms approached seafarers ‘covered their body and garments with oil to smoothen the surface of the water they touched on thus presenting less resistance to the wind and preventing breaking of the waves – the real dangers in wave motion’.

The sewn boats in the archipelago of Lakshadweep, South India, boats fastened with coir, not nails, have also been coated with an oily material for the same reason seafarers covered themselves with oil: making the vessels waterproof and smoothing the water around them.

In addition to coating, seafarers also poured oil directly onto the sea to prevent the waves from breaking on their vessel. Throwing oil on the waves was applied so widely that it became in idiom in Dutch (‘olie op de golven gooien’) and English (‘pouring oil on troubled waters’) with the meaning of settling a disagreement and ‘bringing about a state of calm after great anger or excitement, etc., by tact and diplomacy.’

‘Oily seas’ that appear during the stormy southwest monsoon (June-September) along the Kerala coast, however, are not caused by mariners but natural processes. According to B. Arunachalam, an authority of Indian marine navigation:

[…] such a sea-surface – the kedu neer – is believed by seamen to generate a relatively smooth surface, ideal for anchoring or drifting during foul weather in rough seas. The mudbanks of Cochin, for this reason, are treated as safe anchorages during active monsoon times. 

Kedu neer  (Tamil  கெடு நீர் ) literally means ‘bad water’. It refers to a turbid and calm marine area with almost no waves. A recent scientific study suggests the calmness of the ‘oily sea’ is linked to the wave damping effect of fine suspended matter, not oil. Mariners may have called these patches ‘oily seas’ as the water over the mud banks near Cochin, Kerala, known to generations of fishers, behave similarly to waters that have no waves because they were covered by a thin oil patch.

A close-up of a wooden boat on water, with an area of calm water immediately around it contracting with the rippling water further away
Traditional sewn fishing boat, small odam, in Agatti, Lakshadweep, India, coated with an oily substance. Photo by Andrea Deri, 23 February 2007

 

A simplified image of the coastlines around the Indian Ocean. The site of Cochin is highlighted.
Map of the Indian Ocean in B. Arunachalam, Heritage of Indian Sea Navigation. (Mumbai, 2002:9) YA.2003.a.26499. Cochin, where the oily seas of the mud banks provide safe anchoring during the monsoon season, is marked in South India.

 

A hand=drawn chart of a coastline and island
Traditional Kutchi sea chart, with east at the top, features the Malabar coast, shown as seen from the sea, with coconut palms in B. Arunachalam, Heritage of Indian Sea Navigation. (Mumbai, 2002:28) YA.2003.a.26499. The Cochin port (Kochi Bandar) played an important role in local and regional trade. South Indian ports are considered to be some of the oldest maritime centres.

 

It was not only in the tropical seas where mariners made use of the oil’s water calming properties. Bede, the Anglo-Saxon scholar and monk, tells us ‘How Bishop Aidan foretold to certain seamen a storm that would happen, and gave them some holy oil to lay it’ [642-645 AD] off the Kentish coast in cold North Sea, recorded in the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, in the British Library at Add MS 1450.

Bede lists his sources including Utta, the priest who received the oil from Aidan, in order to add credibility to Aidan’s sea calming, revered as miracle. The credit, however, perhaps should go beyond Aiden, to local mariners anonymous to chroniclers.

As Aidan served on two islands, Iona and Lindisfarne, he spent considerable time in boats where he may have experienced and learned the practice of pouring oil on waves from local fishers and seal hunters who ferried him. Could Aiden’s holy oil be the same kind of oil local mariners used to quell waves? If so, this is an example of how local knowledge or rather adaptation practice to extreme weather became canonised.

A stylised medieval image showing three robed men in a sailing boat.
St Cuthbert (c 634-687) in a boat at sea, with two other men, from Chapter 11 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert. Yates Thompson 26 f. 26 Cuthbert became a monk after his vision of St Aidan who died in 651

 

Nautical idioms preserve seafarers’ practices. Most of us, landlubbers, need to take a historical perspective to unpack and appreciate their meaning, and we may still ponder over their relevance today. Faced with the unfolding changes of our climate, a major concern of our time, seafarers may serve a great source of inspiration by the way they kept their knowledge alive with keen observation, tireless experimentation and sharing.

If you have an "oil on water" story, you can tell us here.

References and further reading

Arunachalam, B. Heritage of Indian Sea Navigation (Mumbai, 2002)  Shelfmark YA.2003.a.26499

Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (London, 1954). Book III, Chapter XV. Shelfmark 4824.m.1

Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum; Plympton annals for the years 1066-1177, Shelfmark Add MS 1450

Hariharan, K. V. ‘Sea-Dangers in Early Indian Seafaring’. Journal of Indian History, 1956. 34 (Part III (Serial No 102)), pp.313–320. Shelfmark Ac.1928/2

Jeans, P.D. Ship To Shore: A Dictionary of Everyday Words and Phrases Derived from the Sea (Santa Barbara, 1993) Shelfmark YC.1996.b.3808

Jyothibabu., R. Balachandran, K.K., Jagadeesan, L., Karnan, C., Arunpandi, N., Naqvi, S.W.A., Pandiyarajan, R.S., 2018. ‘Mud Banks along the southwest coast of India are not too muddy for plankton’. Nature Sci. Rep. 8, 2544. Available online at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-20667-9 [Accessed 3 December 2019].

OED, pour oil on troubled waters. [online] Oxford Dictionaries | English. 2019. Available online at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/pour_oil_on_troubled_waters [Accessed 3 December 2019].

M. b. Otman, ‘Ferdaws al-moršediya fi asrar al-samadiya’. In: F. Meier and I.A. Afšar, eds., Die Vita des Abu Ishaq al-Kazaruni in der Persischen Bearbeitung von. (Istanbul, 1943) Shelfmark Per.D.537

Sa'di Shirazi, Gulistan (CE 1258), part of his collected works or Kulliyat. Shelfmark IO Islamic 843, Folio 42v

Subramanian, P.R. Kriyavin tarkalat Tamil akarati: Tamil-Tamil-Ankilam (Madras, 2000)

Simpson, J. A. and E. S. C. Weiner eds., Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford, 1989:749) Shelfmark OIA 423

Varadarajan, L. Sewn Boats of Lakshadweep. National Institute of ([Dona Paula], 1998). Shelfmark YP.2019.b.606

Wright, J.R. A companion to Bede: a reader’s commentary on ‘The ecclesiastical history of the English people’. (Grand Rapids, 2008) Shelfmark YC.2009.a.15214.

06 November 2019

Local Heroes - Trevithick's steam locomotive demonstration of 1808, "Catch Me Who Can"

In September 1808, the Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick exhibited and operated a steam engine called "Catch Me Who Can" on a circular track of about 100 feet in radius, on a site to the south of Euston Road within walking distance of the British Library. This was the first time in the world that a steam locomotive was used to haul paying passengers on a railway. (It was not the first time that passengers had been carried by steam at all, as five years earlier Trevithick had carried passengers on a steam-powered road vehicle, the London Steam Carriage, and in 1804 had used the world's first steam railway locomotive to haul employees of the Penydarren ironworks in Wales.)

Trevithick was the pioneer of the use of high-pressure steam in power, as advances in metal refining had made it possible to create boilers that could safely contain it. His stationary engines were much more efficient than the earlier low-pressure engines of Newcomen and Watt.

It is not clear exactly how long the locomotive operated for, but it was for at least a fortnight. A marathon operation of a continuous 24 hours was promised, but never carried out, probably due to a failure of the track. The very high entrance fee of two shillings may also have put the public off, as well as the delays in getting the demonstration working. The first advertisements had promised that the attraction would be opened in mid-July, something that might be seen as a portent of notorious later delays in London railway openings.

The site has been identified from contemporary reports and maps as probably being a field known as South Murralls, which is now somewhere under the main complex of University College London. During reconstruction of the UCL Chadwick Building a little further south-west, in 1999, a cinder pit was discovered that may have been connected to the demonstration.

Two paper tickets depicting an early steam locomotive, with handwritten notes.
Original tickets to the Catch Me Who Can demonstration. Photograph by Science Museum Group, used under a CC-BY-SA license

The only reliable depiction of what the locomotive looks like seems to have been a drawing on the entrance tickets, a few of which have survived. The oldest surviving drawing of the locomotive in action was made in 1872 and appears to have been imaginative, with the locomotive based on the ticket depiction. Famous drawings of the scene attributed to the artist and cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson and dated "1809" are now recognised as probably being early-twentieth-century forgeries. More recently, a contemporary drawing by the artist John Claude Nattes now in the collection of the Guildhall Library under the shelfmark Nattes Drawings No. 50 has been recognised by J P S Buckland, and confirmed by John Liffen, to probably show the boiler of the locomotive before its final assembly. It is very similar to the boiler of a Trevithick stationary steam engine of the same era now at the Science Museum.

A group based in Bridgnorth, where the original engine is thought to have been constructed, has built a replica based on the ticket depiction and other locomotives by Trevithick for which detailed drawings and models have survived.

A four-wheeled steam locomotive stands in an industrial-looking shed
The Catch Me Who Can replica at Barrow Hill. Photograph by Hugh Llewelyn under a CC-BY-SA license.

After the end of the experiment, Trevithick seems to have given up interest in steam locomotion. It may have been because he did not get the amount of money or support that he hoped for, but he was also involved in a range of other projects at the time, including an attempt to build a Thames Tunnel (in which he was nearly drowned in a cave-in) and a short-lived engineering works in Limehouse. In 1810, after a serious illness, Trevithick returned to his home in Cornwall, and much of the rest of his life was spent in mining projects in South America.

Sources and further reading:

Liffen, J. Searching for Trevithick's London railway of 1808, in Boyes, G. (Ed.), Early railways 4, Papers from the Fourth International Early Railway Conference, Sudbury: Six Martlets Publishing, 2010, pp. 1-29. Shelfmark YC.2011.a.3466
Payton, P. Trevithick, Richard. In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, most recently updated 2007, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/27723, available electronically in the British Library reading rooms
Tyler, N. Trevithick's circle, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 2007, 77(1), pp. 101-113. Available electronically in the British Library reading rooms