Marine inventions are vital to our enjoyment of the sea. Britain is a nation of inventors. We invented the TV, the engine and the light bulb. We even invented the sandwich. The shoehorn was ours long before the rest of the world had shoes, and the wheel too. I’m virtually certain we invented the boat (we certainly know how to build them - see 10 great British boat builders) and probably the oceans on which they sail! And in our downtime, with inventions like electricity, pork pies and America safely in the bag, we invented every worthwhile sport ever played.
In short, we have a fine history of ingenuity, and yet for the mariner, there are some marine inventions that by virtue of sheer impact deserve to stand head and shoulders above all others. Here are just five great marine inventions.
(1) Marine Chronometer
In the early 18th century, knowing your whereabouts on the face of the globe was difficult. As the world’s greatest global power, Britain was extremely keen to remedy that.
The problem was simple. While a sextant and some celestial observation could give you a good idea of your latitude, measurement of your longitudinal location required an accurate timepiece. If a sailor could know the time at a place of fixed longitude (such as Greenwich), then at noon at his actual location, he could extrapolate how far east or west he must be of that line. For every four minutes earlier, he would be one degree east and for every four minutes later, he would be one degree west. However, the movement of a ship at sea (not to mention fluctuations in temperature and humidity) made accurate timekeeping virtually impossible.
In 1714, the Government offered a huge prize of £20,000 to the first man who could solve "The Longitude Problem". Nearly 50 years later, a joiner by the name of John Harrison succeeded with the world’s first marine chronometer. His invention would remain central to ship navigation until the advent of GPS more than two centuries later (see also New longitude prize for the British public).
(2) Internal combustion engine
A sailing boat is a fine thing, in much the same way as a radiogram, a hand-cranked pocket watch or a quill. But if the great Brunel saw the value in engines for marine applications nearly 200 years ago, then it seems like folly to overlook them.
While the first steam engines enabled unprecedented feats of speed and reliability, it was the internal combustion engine that emerged in the 19th century that has made the greater impact. Of course, it was a great technical challenge to ignite fuel in an enclosed space in such a way as to repeat the operation quickly and easily and to harness the results. In 1859, Etienne Lenoir produced the first effective model in Paris. Modelled on the principle of a contained explosion in a canon barrel but along the lines of a horizontal steam engine. This would lead onto the first ‘suck, squeeze, bang and blow’ four-stroke engine, courtesy of Nikolaus Otto in 1878. Indirectly, this led to the vast array of inboard and outboard marine inventions we all now take for granted.
(3) Screw propeller
There are plenty of men who might claim to have performed a crucial part in the invention of the screw propeller (not least Robert Wilson, a Scottish engineer and Francis Pettit Smith, an English farmer). Whoever played the greatest role, there is no doubt that the first third of the 19th century saw several pioneering minds develop the irresistible principle of a rotating blade to the point where it became a workable propulsive tool.
It was Brunel who was among the first to recognise the scale of its importance, when he used it on the SS Great Britain. It helped to make that ship not just the largest and most powerful in the world, but also the first built from iron and the first to employ steam-powered screw propulsion for its crossing of the Atlantic in 1845.
It was also in 1845 that the Royal Navy put the screw-propelled HMS Rattler up against the paddle ship, HMS Alecto. In both extended sea passages and an outright tug of war, the screw-equipped vessel came out on top, heralding the beginning of the end for the agricultural looking paddle wheel. How peculiar then that 170 years later, picking the right prop for a planing boat still seems to be as much about trial-and-error as theoretical calculation (see How to select the right propeller for your boat).
Radar (or Radio Detection And Ranging) is a simple thing in principle. Definitely one of the great marine inventions. It involves firing out some electromagnetic radiation (microwaves or radio waves) and recording the way in which they bounce back to a receiver.
The time they take to return, as well as their strength and any changes in their frequency generate a picture regarding the shape, size and movement of objects in their path.
The value of radar as regards early detection of a threat from the air or sea is obvious. Unsurprisingly, the Second World War was a powerful catalyst in the development of the relevant technologies. Once, the interpretation of a radar picture was a job best done by a specialist, the latest incarnations from the major manufacturers make a radar image every bit as user-friendly as the chartplotter displays on which it can be overlaid. Already indispensible in the air and at sea, it is anticipated that the future will see both long and short-range radar-assisted safety features find their way into cars too. Want to know more about the latest technology? See Rupert Holmes' feature What is AIS and is it worth fitting?
Invented by the American Defence Department, the Global Positioning System adopted the principles of a time-measuring, three-dimensional approach laid down in the research of Dr Ivan Getting at the Raytheon Corporation.
It used the outlandishly marvellous idea of a set of satellites linked to ground stations, in order to generate a network of reference points against which the location, speed and direction of even a fast-moving GPS-equipped object could be measured. Taking that position and plotting it on a real-time digital chart with a level of accuracy that renders the differential entirely irrelevant makes modern GPS indisputably brilliant.
The fact that increasing miniaturisation has enabled GPS to find its way onto handheld devices as well as ships, planes and cars makes it even more valuable. Of course, its trouble-free reliability has consigned the delectable marine chronometer to the scrapheap. It also threatens to undermine our own navigational self-reliance in the same way that automotive satnavs have stripped us of map-reading intelligence. But you wouldn’t want to be without one (see 10 perfect Christmas gifts for sailors).