A marriage of saltwater and electricity

Laurence Scales delves into the archive to discover the shared heritage of the Royal Institution and Lloyd's Register.

Saltwater and electricity create something of a fizz with oxygen and hydrogen given off at the electrodes - a neat metaphor for the excitement generated by Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s (LR) sponsorship of the 2016 CHRISTMAS LECTURES, flagship of the Royal Institution. Delving in the archives reveals diverse connections between the Ri and saltwater (and indeed LR) going way back.

Lloyd's Register

  • Lloyd’s Coffee House

    Lloyd’s Coffee House 

    Credit: Lloyd’s Register Foundation Heritage & Education Centre

  • Lloyd's Subscription Room

    Edward Lloyd’s coffee house

    Credit: Public domain

Conversations and business transacted in Edward Lloyd’s coffee house spawned not only the insurance market Lloyd’s of London but also the community of shipowners and charterers who sought to protect their assets, endorsing only those ships that were properly maintained. Today, ship surveyors do not just check the design and construction of the hull but also the propulsion and control systems, fire prevention, corrosion protection and much more.

A common ancestor

  • John Julius Angerstein

    John Julius Angerstein

    Credit: Public domain

LR and the Ri share a common ancestor in John Julius Angerstein (c. 1732-1823), a wealthy broker, philanthropist and art collector whose art collection also formed the nucleus of the National Gallery. He became one of 58 founding proprietors of the Royal Institution in 1799. When those interested in marine insurance and safety at sea were seeking to formalise the casual arrangements hatched in the old coffee house days, Angerstein helped to lead that change: he was Chairman of the Society for the Registry of Shipping (precursor of Lloyd's Register) in the 1790s.

Copper bottoms

  • Cutty Sark

    Cutty Sark's hull

    Credit: Laurence Scales

After he left the Ri, Sir Humphry Davy came unstuck trying to stop the corrosion of copper sheets fixed to the bottom of wooden sailing vessels. The copper deterred the growth of weeds and barnacles that added weight and drag to merchant vessels and naval ships, and the nibbling of marine worms. Davy’s experiments showed that the corrosion could be stopped by attaching an easily replaceable lump of another metal of different reactivity which was corroded in preference to the copper. A programme of equipping ships with these ‘sacrificial anodes’ began in 1824. Unfortunately, the scheme was so protective of the copper than it no longer shed traces of poisonous salts that kept marine life from rampaging round the hull. The Admirals were not pleased.

Moby Dick

  • Faraday's Thames water.

    Credit: Paul Wilkinson

  • Faraday's Thames Water

    Faraday's bottle of Thames water.

    Credit: Royal Institution

We don’t know exactly why, but on a shelf in Faraday’s Laboratory in the basement of the Royal Institution is an old wine bottle containing the bilge water he collected from the smelly recesses of a whaling ship in the London docks. Recorded in Faraday’s hand is the name of the ship, the Samuel Enderby. The real ship makes a fictional appearance in the classic novel Moby Dick. The whaling firm of Enderby also provided the enormous link of iron anchor chain that Faraday used as the core of the biggest electromagnet made to that date (1845), using it to discover the universality of magnetism. You can see it also in Faraday’s Laboratory.

Michael Faraday was very much interested in the safety of life at sea and was scientific advisor to Trinity House (the organisation running English, Welsh and Channel Island lighthouses) from 1836. 


  • John Thornycroft (1843-1928, left) and Phillip Watts (1846-1926, right)

    Credit: Public domain

Phillip Watts was the designer of the Dreadnought, the new generation of armoured navy vessels that entered service on the eve of World War 1. Like many other ship owners, naval architects and marine engineers his interest in the appliance of science led to membership of the Ri. Another example was John Thornycroft who, still in his teens, built the first steam launch capable of keeping up with the Oxford and Cambridge boat race! His company went on to build some of the fastest craft of their time.

We should add that, today, you don’t need to design a Dreadnought to become a member of the Ri.


  • Alexandra Palace

    Alexandra Palace transmission mast.

    Credit: Laurence Scales

The CHRISTMAS LECTURES of 1936 on Ships were given by an expert in fluid mechanics, Professor Geoffrey Ingram Taylor, and were the first to be glimpsed on television, though only for about 15 minutes. Television broadcasts had only started the previous month! Transmissions lasted a couple of hours a day. There were no outside broadcasts and a short extract from the CHRISTMAS LECTURES on the rolling of ships was staged live at the BBC studio at Alexandra Palace. This was perhaps the first science on TV.

Taylor had himself been encouraged into a scientific career by attending Oliver Lodge’s CHRISTMAS LECTURES on the Principles of the Electric Telegraph in 1897. Initially researching waves of the quantum mechanical variety, Taylor’s interest turned to the kind of wave you can sail on.

Lectures on shipping

  • GI Taylor giving the lectures 80 years ago

    GI Taylor giving the CHRISTMAS LECTURES on ships 80 years ago.

    Credit: Royal Institution

Geoffrey Ingram Taylor’s CHRISTMAS LECTURES of 1936 were not the first on shipping at the Ri. We think that honour goes to Arthur Howe Holdsworth (1780–1860), a Devon merchant and inventor, who gave a Friday Evening Discourse on the subject in 1827.

Shipbuilding in Britain increased until after World War 1. But it was still a substantial home industry when GI Taylor chose Ships as his subject in 1936. He began the series by dropping a Yule log into a tub of water, introducing buoyancy, stability, diving, and Archimedes’ principle. Taylor had recently won a Royal Society Gold Medal. What do you do with a gold medal? He did not have a gold crown like Archimedes but he realised his medal would demonstrate the principle to an Ri audience admirably.

He went back to the ancient traders and explorers for his second lecture (burning incense to romanticise his theme). A keen sailor himself Taylor talked about yachts and ‘native craft’ in the third lecture. As a boy he constructed a boat in his own London bedroom, eventually sailing it as far as Sheerness.

Then he demonstrated the benefits and difficulties of using scale models to predict the behaviour of huge ships. His penultimate lecture covered navigational tools including compasses and gyroscopes. In his final lecture he talked not only of the challenges involved in moving a ship but also the methods of propulsion employed by ducks and fish. 

CS Faraday

  • CS Faraday

    CS Faraday

    Credit: Ri Archives

In 1864 an unlovely ship was launched on the Tyne. It was the first purpose-built of its kind. Slightly obese looking, when sitting high in the water it appeared to have two sterns. That is, it had a rudder at each end. It could turn on a sixpence. It was described in the Illustrated London News.

‘A large iron steam-ship, named after that most eminent natural philosopher the late Professor Michael Faraday, was launched, on Feb 17th… The iron hull has been built under the inspection of Lloyd’s agents, and obtained the highest certificate of classification.’

Cable ship Faraday had tanks for coiled cables and means for laying them and grappling them up from the deep. William Siemens (1823–1883), whose ship she was, had come to London as a young man to seek his fortune. Hardly had he set foot in this country than he saw exhibited at the Royal Society of Arts a lump of brown vegetable gum collected in the Far East which was to be the making of the international telegraph system. This gutta percha proved an excellent insulator for submerged electric cables. Telegraph cables became a major business of the Siemens brothers. Faraday himself supported the 26 years-old William’s membership of the Ri.

Load line

  • Load line logo

    Load line icon on Cutty Sark

    Credit: Robert Brook on Flickr CC BY 2.0

By pure coincidence the Illustrated London News carries immediately beneath the news of the launch of Faraday a small item concerning the visit to Liverpool of Samuel Plimsoll MP and his receipt of ‘a hearty welcome to that town’. Plimsoll would become the seaman’s friend, introducing a few years later, by act of parliament, a safe load line on the hull of a ship, clear warning if the vessel is overloaded. On the side of a modern ship the comforting letters LR may still be seen astride the load line, indicating a ship surveyed and classed by Lloyd’s Register. LR’s activities have now diversified into applications such as marine and energy technologies and food production and food safety.

Laurence Scales leads unusual London tours focused on the curious history of science, invention and medicine. He is a graduate and has worked in various industries including marine engineering. He is a Heritage & Collections volunteer at the Ri.

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