The 18th century industrial revolution brought about a tremendous expansion of the shipping industry. The high incidence of fires on ships engaged in trading, caused ship owners to produce their own fire prevention regulations. Typical was one providing that "fires were prohibited at night expect for use of the sick, and then only by the stove. Candles were to be extinguished by nine o’clock between decks and at ten o’clock at the last in cabins" (Rushbrook 1961).
Hartley (1785) in his book Fire Plates maintained that houses and ships could be made safe from fire by the simple expedient of nailing either iron or copper plates to the undersides, of floors or decks. Copper fire plates were recommended for the ships because they could stand proof against the constant soaking and corrosion of salt water.
Although fire safety has always a foremost concern, little progress was made to improve ships’ safety until the disaster of the Titanic. The international community’s shock led to initiation of legislation (Rushbrook 1961).
On her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, bound for New York, the RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg on April 15, 1912, just south of the tail end of the Grand Banks and sank within two and a half hours. Although the night was clear and seas were calm, the loss of life was enormous with more than 1,500 of the 2,224 passengers and crew perishing. The Titanic, brand new flagship of the White Star Line, was the largest passenger liner of its time, displaced 66,000 tons and was capable of a sustained speed in excess of 22 knots. The vessel had been built according to the latest safety design, featuring compartmentation and such innovations as automatically closing watertight doors. Ironically publicity regarding these features had given it the reputation of being unsinkable.
The sheer dimensions of the Titanic disaster created such public reaction on both sides of the Atlantic that governments were prodded into action, leading to an international treaty on ship safety, the first Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention. The First International Conference on the Safety of Life at Sea, was convened in London on November 12, 1913. The convention signed on January 30, 1914, by the representatives of the world's various maritime powers, provided for the International Ice Patrol, and included minimum standards for radio communications and lifesaving equipment on passenger ships. Although the International Ice Observation and Ice Patrol Service began in 1914, the outburst of World War I prevented the formal ratification of the treaty (U.S. Coast Guard). The torpedoing during that war of the passenger vessel Lusitania by a German submarine, and the ravages caused by fires as it sank, further brought clamours for international rules.
Fire danger on sailing vessels
Early ship construction was utterly simple: wood was the basic material and sails were used to propel the ship (Anonymous 1917). Despite ornamental sculpture of vessel like figureheads, the crafts were no masterpieces of shipwright’s art. Risky indeed was a sea voyage in those days. (Anderson & Anderson 1947; Clowes n.d.; Lave 1934; Lethbridge n.d.; Torr n.d.).
Among the earliest records of an accident aboard a ship is one presented in Rushbrook’s book:" The fire occurred at night caused by one of the Queen’s bed-women who left the Queen’s head-kerchief on the stove where the candle was burning: it set the clothing on fire, but the Queen, awakening, quickly threw it overboard and thereby extinguished the fire." Another chronicle describes the destruction of the large ship Biscayah by an accidental fire, which reached her powder storage area and blew her up. Many ships were lost or damaged through being set on fire after having been struck by lightening (Rushbrook 1961).
Fire as a weapon used at sea
Fire became also a major weapon in sea warfare. (Hadle n.d.) Man’s destructive ingenuity has indeed been remarkable. During the Battle of Actium, fought in 31 BC, Marc Anthony’s (83 – 30 BC) fleet had constructed wooden towers from which weights and "balls of fire" were thrown unto enemy ships. Greek scientist Archimedes (about 287 – 212 BC) made a metal mirror of such great size that by using it to focus the sun’s rays on the Roman ships invading Syracuse in 212 BC, he managed to set some of them afire. The practice of setting fire to an old vessel and sailing it into the enemy fleet or its ports, goes back many centuries and was extensively used throughout the Middle Ages. The so-called "Greek Fire", known as an efficient weapon from around the seventh century of the Christian era, may well have been in use earlier. The igniting liquid was poured through brazen tubes from the bows of the ship. When exposed to air, it instantly ignited. Since the prows of the ships and galleys were usually shaped to resemble imaginary creatures -dragons for example-it must have appeared to those on ships under attack, as if a dragon was furiously spitting. Adding to the horror, thick smoke, a loud noise and a disgusting stench accompanied the fire (Rushbrook 1961).
Little has changed in modern warfare: setting the enemy afire or inflicting such damage that the vessel would take water and sink, remain very much the so-called Art of War. Only the intensity of firepower has increased and counteracting efforts–fire extinction--have been refined.
Fire prevention aboard ships has been a major concern of vessel operators and designers since Man launched a craft, to roam the seas, more sophisticated than the original carved out tree trunk. Anti-fire measures progressed as ship design improved. But approaches remained the province of owners and the matter stayed a legal vacuum. It would take the advent of steam propulsion to witness the birth of international legislation. And then only after major disasters would stir public outcry.
A companion paper recounting how such legislation unfolded will trace fire prevention as sails yielded to boilers[Krystosik & Charlier 2003].
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