Thursday, January 17, 2013

Working Out the Kinks

As I like to do each holiday season, I recently picked up a classic from my youth and re-read it for the sheer pleasure of doing so. This year it was Robert L. Stevenson's Treasure Island ... mostly because the copy I own slides nicely into my coat pocket and, well, like most romantic nerds, I have a fondness for all things pirate related. But more than that, I hold a lasting fascination for the extraordinary history and, especially, the engineering of large ships.

I mean that in the broadest sense, mind you. I can no more explain the difference between "tiller lashing" and the "mizzen shrouds" than I can speak Swahili, but the mere fact that there's such an extensive, detailed and colorful vocabulary for seafaring business captures my imagination. More than that, though, is the simply astounding human effort it obviously required, through countless years of trial and error (and countless human lives lost), to reach the level of nautical know-how we had by the time Long John Silver and his mutinous crew set out from Bristol on the Hispaniola to find the buried treasure on that faraway island.

Not only were such large ships highly expensive ventures, the building of which required lots of space and years of skillful precision (and too often only so that a single navigational misstep in shallow rocky waters...or more famously, iceberg-infested open seas... would send the entire enterprise unceremoniously to the ocean's floor), but up to today, the continuously perfected best practices and optimization (inside and out) of the ships themselves over time is a testament to the determination of humans to explore this world. Maximizing every square inch above and below deck, the innovations of storage and survival essentials, to say nothing of the experience it takes to understand what tools and supplies are important to bring for the voyage out and the return home... it's a staggering, accumulative accomplishment.

Consider the humble beginnings from which the likes of, oh say, the QEII began. This is the passage from Treasure Island where the young Jim Hawkins finds the half-mad, marooned Ben Gunn's hidden boat:
I dropped into the hollow, lifted the side of the tent, and there was Ben Gunn's boat--homemade if ever anything was home-made; a rude, lopsided framework of tough wood, and stretched upon that a covering of goatskin, with the hair inside. 

I had not then seen a coracle, such as the ancient Britons made, but I have seen one since, and I can give no fairer idea of Ben Gunn's boat that by saying it was like the first and worst coracle ever made by man. But the great advantage of the coracle it certainly possessed, for it was exceedingly light and portable.
How many revisions to this ancient design did humans make over the centuries? How many fatal errors resulted in earlier "accomplishments" being scrapped and new ones being demanded?

I thought of this while watching this extraordinary video of life upon the International Space Station. Give it a few minutes...it's so beyond fascinating:


Here we humans are again, in a vessel that will surely be viewed as "rude" and "lopsided" by our descendants as Ben Gunn's coracle was to Jim Hawkins. But isn't it marvelous? How brave must one be, knowing the dangers, to take a rocket up to this tin can floating miles above the earth? All in service of working out the kinks. All in service of perfecting the model through trial and error. 

It's wondrous...that's all.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where is the link?

1/17/2013 09:30:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

sorry...had a slight technical problem (ironically)...link there now

1/17/2013 09:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great story and video. Thanks!

----- ondine nyc

1/17/2013 10:03:00 AM  
Blogger soboyle said...

If you want to sink into a nautical world that will keep you submerged for some time, try Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey Maturin series.

1/17/2013 10:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Whale Oil trade of the 1800s built the USA, vast fortunes were made. The Whalers had to go farther and farther out to find they whales and that meant exploring the pacific ocean.

It was like being in outer space out there on a ship. Imagine being in the crows nest scouting for whales .You can see roughly 6 miles (the horizion) before the earth starts to curve.

Those teenagers who sail around the world solo are the ultimate Badasses.

I wont set foot in the ocean. It would be nice to live in Malibu thou.

The life of Pi was pretty good . I always wanted a pet Tiger.

1/17/2013 10:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

AMAZING! Thank you for sharing.

1/17/2013 01:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Larry said...

I'm a great lover of "Moby Dick" and some of Melville's other novels (such as "Redburn") myself. As said by one of the Anons above, whaling was a critical industry in 19th-century America, and not only were vast distances traveled in highly dangerous circumstances, but the ships themselves were floating factories for processing the valuable whale blubber into oil. There's a good little book by Nathaniel Philbrick, "Why Read Moby-Dick?" - which, duh, gives a lot of very good reasons for reading "Moby Dick."

1/17/2013 02:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Billionaire Asteroid Miners are the next Trillionaires .I Interstellar Overdrive Mofros. aye more petrol for the Art Market.No one can hear you scream in space.....

1/18/2013 10:14:00 AM  
Blogger CAP said...

R L Stevenson is great.

So is Jack London. I love going back to Jack London stories...

1/21/2013 07:57:00 AM  

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