Shipwrecks, science and maritime safety

The 19th century saw more than its fair share of shipwrecks, alongside scientific and technological leaps in maritime safety. Here our Heritage and Collections volunteer, Laurence Scales, surfaces some of these stories from our archives.

Ships sinking was a problem first aired at the Ri in 1830 by an inventive gentleman of whom little is known, Ralph Watson.

'Mr Watson's plan for preventing ships foundering at sea consists in introducing air tight copper tubes in the spaces between the beams…'

They did not catch on.

The Manby Mortar

Captain George Manby came the same year to talk about 'The Means of Preserving Lives in Cases of Shipwreck'. By this time his Manby Mortar, a device for firing a rope from the shore to a vessel in distress, was old news; the gadget had already saved over 200 lives since 1808.

In his 1830 Ri talk, Manby now proposed a bigger mortar to project an anchor which lifeboat oarsmen could use to haul their craft out to sea against pounding surf.

  • Etching of 19th century men and cannon about to fire a rope

    Manby mortar, 1842 drawing

    Credit: Johann Jacob Weber (Hrsg.), 1803–1880, Illustrirte Zeitung, Nr. 10 vom 2. September 1843. Public Domain


Compass correction

For much of the 19th century, ships foundered because they did not know where they were, and a reliance on magnetic compasses on board iron ships brought its own challenges.

Astronomer Royal George Airy's 'Correction of the Ship's Compass in an Iron Vessel' prompted Michael Faraday to give a lecture on the subject in 1839.

This topic was not, at that time, new. Compass compensation had been around since explorer, navigator and cartographer Matthew Flinders wrote about it while a prisoner of war in 1805. It is needed to offset the magnetic deviation of the compass, caused by magnetized iron within a ship, which would otherwise send the ship off course.

However, it took the near wreck of the steamship Rainbow to ignite a real interest in this important topic. At the time, Airy restrained Faraday from giving many details, but by 1866 another lecturer, Archibald Smith, was allowed to reveal a little more.

  • Drawing of steamship

    Iron Steamer Rainbow

    Credit: van Treslong Prins, P A J Bloys, 1840. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. CC-BY-NC-SA-3.0


Lighthouses, oil lamps and soot

When Faraday gave his 1843 lecture ‘On Ventilation of Lamp Burners’:

'The theatre was so crowded that many persons could not gain admission.'

This lecture was on lighthouses, with their oil lamps which mischieviously dimmed their own light by depositing soot on the glasses.

This lecture is one of the handful by Michael Faraday which were recorded verbatim and published. In fact, Faraday’s only patent concerned his sootless lamp (which he gifted to his brother).

Faraday was scientific advisor to Trinity House, which is responsible for lighthouses in England and Wales, for 30 years before the role passed to his Ri successor, John Tyndall.

  • Lighthouse in London wharf at dusk

    Bow Creek Lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf in London

    Credit: CC BY-SA-3.0


Lighthouse lenses

King’s College London’s Professor of Manufacturing Edward Cowper, also spoke ‘On Lighthouses’ in 1851, rather belatedly marking the completion in 1844 of Alan Stevenson’s lighthouse, which towers over rocks at Skerryvore off the Inner Hebrides.

Apart from overcoming the difficulties of its construction the lighthouse authorities had also been trialling and adopting the French Fresnel lens system which made the most of the light available.

  • Illustration of nine British lighthouses

    Comparative elevations above mean sea level of principal British Rock Lighthouses

    Credit: Public Domain, from the British Library's collections, 2013

  • Illustration of lighthouse lantern with Fresnel lens

    Cutaway drawing of a lighthouse lantern room from mid 1800s showing the Fresnel lens

    Credit: Adolphe Ganot. Public domain


Electric lighthouse illumination

Under Faraday’s guidance the more conveniently situated South Foreland light on a headland near Dover began using electricity in 1858 and he consequently took 'Lighthouse Illumination' as his subject again in 1860.

These were the early days of electric light. Illumination was provided by electric arc and current by Frederick Hale Holmes’ new magneto electric generator. When speaking, Faraday was not long back from a difficult visit there, snow having obstructed his inspection for several days. It was some time before electric lighting was regarded as reliable and convenient enough to replace flames.

  • Photograph of large 19th century electric generator

    Souter Lighthouse's original generator by Fredrick Hale Holmes

    Credit: CC BY-SA 4.0

Meanwhile ships were continually lost.

The Metreorological Office and telegraphic warnings

In just one calamity off Anglesey in 1859 more than 400 people aboard Royal Charter died due to the most severe storm to hit the Irish Sea in the 19th century, the Royal Charter Gale.

This disaster hastened creation of the Meteorological Office. Its head, Admiral Fitzroy (formerly of HMS Beagle), came to the Ri in 1862 to deliver 'An Explanation of the Meteorological Telegraphy and its Basis, Now Under Trial at the Board of Trade'.

‘It follows that telegraphic warning may be sent in any direction reached by the wires, and that, occasionally, on the occurrence of very ominous signs, barometric and other – including always those of the heavens – such cautions may be given before storms as will tend to diminish the risks and loss of life so frequent on our exposed and tempestuous shores.


Although great strides had been made, lighthouses were still of no help in fog. A member of the Royal Commission on Lights, Buoys, and Beacons (1861), John Hall Gladstone took that subject at the Ri in 1863 telling of experiments with bells, gongs, guns, steam whistles and trumpets. For now, it was all very low tech.

‘At the Skerries, near Holyhead, terns and other sea-birds are encouraged, as their cries serve as a warning to vessels during fog; but unfortunately some rats escaped from the “Regulus,” which was wrecked there about seven years ago, and they are destroying the birds. A cat has been tried, but she preferred birds to rats.’

In the series of trials in which John Tyndall was involved, he was struck by a long held misconception of how atmospheric conditions affected sound. He reported his conclusions 'On the Acoustic Transparency and Opacity of the Atmosphere' at the Ri in 1874.

‘The real enemy to the transmission of sound through the atmosphere has, I think, been clearly revealed by the foregoing inquiry. That enemy has been proved to be not rain, nor hail, nor haze, nor fog, nor snow not water in fact in either a liquid or a solid form, but water in a vaporous form… This acoustic turbidity often occurs on days of surprising optical transparency.’

Such researches were too protracted and inconclusive to save the German steam vessel Schiller, wrecked in fog off the Scilly Isles in 1875, killing 335.

In 1878 Tyndall revisited the subject in 'Recent Experiments on Fog Signals' devoting most of his attention to warning guns and rockets.

Foghorns eventually won out.

  • Illustration of a man standing by a large horn

    Illustration of a foghorn from John Tyndall's book 'Sound'

    Credit: From Sound by John Tyndall. Public domain:


Human folly

Finally we come to a wreck particularly horrifying because the cause was not weakness in the face of nature’s wrath, but human folly. Discoursing 'On Some Fallacies connected with Ships and Guns' in 1871, Edward Reed (1830-1906), Chief Constructor of the Navy, tackled

‘That question of stability which the loss of the Captain has recently brought into so much prominence.’

He showed extraordinary restraint, having long been opposed to the fatal design of the HMS Captain.

Whilst the Royal Navy was producing its first generation of ocean going steam powered warships with large guns in swivelling turrets, Reed produced a similar ship of his own design. But, the less conservative design of the Captain gained public support.

The HMS Captain sat low in the water and the turrets raised her centre of gravity. She still sported sails which were exceptionally tall. She was also constructed overweight. Setting sail before her stability test results were published the HMS Captain capsized in high winds off Finisterre drowning nearly 500 people, including her designer, Cowper Coles.

  • Painting of sailing ship

    Painting of the British warship HMS Captain, completed in April 1870 and capsized in September 1870

    Credit: William Frederick Mitchell, before 1881. Orginally published in the Royal Navy in a series of illustrations. Public domain

Despite these many shipwreck disasters, advances in science and technology during the 19th century paved the way for much improved safety at sea.

Laurence Scales leads London tours featuring the curious history of science, invention and medicine. He is a graduate who has worked in various engineering industries.

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