Ships and Science: The Birth of Naval Architecture in the Scientific Revolution, 1600-1800

By Fitzsimonds, James R. | Naval War College Review, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

Ships and Science: The Birth of Naval Architecture in the Scientific Revolution, 1600-1800


Fitzsimonds, James R., Naval War College Review


Ferreiro, Larrie D. Ships and Science: The Birth of Naval Architecture in the Scientific Revolution, 1600-1800. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007. 432pp. $45

This is the first in a planned two-volume history of the application of scientific theory to ship design. Larrie Ferreiro is well qualified to take this on, having both trained and worked as a naval architect and having earned a PhD in the history of science and technology.

The sailing ship was arguably the most complex mechanical system in common use prior to the Industrial Revolution. Thus a natural development of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was, for emerging "scientists," to try to explain the behavior of the ship at sea. The initial goals were to understand how it was that ships floated and were propelled through the water, with the ultimate objective of applying scientific principles to optimize the design of ships before they were actually built. Ferreiro traces the pursuit of this emerging ship science through the work of key individuals, most notably Pierre Bouguer, the "father of naval architecture." The book also takes a topical approach, focusing on efforts to develop the major concepts of ship design, including the proper configuration and placement of masts and sails, hull resistance in water, hull displacement, buoyancy, the center of gravity, and the metacenter. Running through this history is the evolving process of naval architecture through the end of the eighteenth century, including the development and standardization of terminology, ship models and plans, and experimental techniques.

This is ultimately a story of failure, a succession of scientific dead ends on the road to eventual enlightenment. Most of the baseline theoretical work of this period was later determined to be incorrect due to a variety of limitations inherent in early science, including inadequate mathematics, limited experimentation techniques, a lack of reliable means to spread ideas, and not least of all, dogged adherence to Aristotelian physics. …

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