Shipboard fire preventation till the steamboat advent

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Shipboard fire preventation till the steamboat advent

Starting a fire

Mankind has been concerned with water and fire since earliest times. Though protection from them was of paramount importance, these were elements needed for life. The discovery of making fire was a milestone in human development; it changed the balance of power in the animal kingdom. Man took precedence as he used fire for everyday life.

In early communities making fire was a delicate task and one would always be kept burning. The watchman who would let it die, might well loose his life. Man discovered that fire could warm him in winter, keep his enemies at bay, and make food far more palatable while widening the range of edible products. Having learnt how to make fire, he had to learn how to control it. Hence, fire fighting must be about as old as the technology of making fire itself (Rushbrook 1961).


Throughout the centuries a considerable number of inventions have dealt with the use of water. Man has looked at vast water expanses in different ways. He has been awed by their mystery, their fury and the danger they constitute. Others have not hesitated to consider them as easy highways for communication, travel, con­quest; still others have since times immemorial been trying to find ways of exploring oceans, even to extract the energy it dissipates.

Thence Man undertook the difficult task to build seaworthy crafts for sea borne transportation. He turned to tree trunks, hollowed or tied them together, using plant fibres or animal skins to make the boats watertight so that he could navigate rivers, lakes and calm seas. Egyptians, Greeks (Ploutarkhios) and Romans (Macquart n.d.) developed sea-going vessels, ships plied the Nile (Anonymous 1917) and sailed the Mediterranean, navies were built, but based on a boat found in the Firth of Forth (Scotland), the history of shipbuilding and navigation dates probably back some 8,000 years. (de la Gravière n.d.; Maher 1967) Egyptians ventured at a relatively early date into the "Erythrean" Sea. (Maspero, n.d.) They, the Greeks and the Ro­mans also played a major role in establishing the first harbours, some pre-dating Al­exandria, witness the recent discovery of Herakleion. Shipbuilding is even touched upon in Ploutarkhios (46 or 49 – 125).

Improvement of vessels has been a constant concern as from ordinary rafts man progressed to rowing boats. Development in shipbuilding resulted probably from man’s curiosity of the world beyond his shoreline horizon, his stubbornness, and his impulse to transport his goods for commercial purposes. (Farrere 1930; Holmes 1906; Moreland 1933; Poyouade n.d.) Humans being of a rather bellicose nature, undoubtedly warlike intentions must not have been far behind. Thus vessels were used in profit generating trade, barter and goods exchange, and for exploration and conquest.

First steps towards fire safety

Fire prevention and fighting have always been primary concerns of ship-owners and ship-captains. Even today, in the age of computers, fire at sea is still an occur­rence feared by seamen. A fire at sea when wooden vessels plied the oceans was even more terrifying than today. Not only would everything burn, including the hull, even a crew that had taken to the lifeboats, if any was available, had poor chances of being picked up by another ship. Chances were even that the other seamen would rob or kill them, and if they made it to shore land-pirates may be waiting for them. A landfall could only be made with the aid of very rough navigational aids and, as the traditional saying goes, with "the help of God".

Even in calm weather the seamen’s lives were in danger of fire or, in later times, of a sudden explosion from powder being set aflame, quite often due to carelessness. As loss of life was common in such occurrences, special provisions were made later for emigrant ships, usually crowded, and for ships laden with cotton. Today the ba­sic legislation governing fire safety is vested in the SOLAS Convention. That matter is touched upon in a companion paper. Fires at sea are potentially the most hazard­ous and costly in terms of human life. Yet the saying goes that knowing the enemy is winning half the battle…The study of the history of fire avoidance not only gives a picture of fire fighting through the ages, it contributes to the development of new, more effective, fire-fighting methods. This paper aims at presenting a historical re­view of various methods of fire avoidance.

Throughout time various methods of fire protection were tried. Timbers were covered with raw hides, or with cloth made from hair, which were thoroughly soaked with water before being used: or sometimes, though seldom, covered by metal sheets. Remarkably the use of alum to render timber fire-resistant, was known to the Ancients. Man discovered eventually that water is a most effective medium for extinguishing fires. Naval engineers endeavoured to find new materials to build ever safer vessels. Shipbuilders and naval architects worked on new technologies and constructions.

Recognition of the importance of fire prevention sprouts forth from the many papers and documents dealing with the problem. Rules and regulations enforcing safety measures were in existence rather soon: for example after the discovery of the Americas, and consequently of tobacco, smoking had to be confined to specific ship areas, thus aboard the HMS Superb smoking tobacco was allowed only in the estab­lished place under the forecastle. Even the 18th century pirates and buccaneers had their fire prevention regulations: "That man that snaps his arms (flintlock gun) or smoke tobacco in the hold without a cap to his pipe, or carry a lighted candle with­out lanthorn, shall receive Moses’ Law [forty stripes lacking one] on the bare back." Contemporary shipbuilders were extremely conscious of the need to provide for the galley fire, and for stoves in cabins, but equally cognisant of the imperious need to prevent fires from starting.

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