Sea and Ships

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Architects: Basil Spence and Partners ◦ Theme Conveners: C. Hamilton Ellis and Nigel Clayton
Display Designers: James Holland and Basil Spence, O.B.E.

Our ancestors came by sea and found here natural havens for their craft. We still live on the sea and by it, using this same coastline as the childbed of our inheritance – the building of ships for the world and for ourselves.

The years before steam

Several nations have had their spell of preeminence at sea. The British tradition has been continuous.

We are proud enough of our great days of sail, but we are prouder still that most of the changes that a growing world demanded were made by our shipwrights and designers. To-day, we still make the pace in the design, construction and operation of ships for every purpose that the modern world requires.

The days of change

About the time that fast sailing ships were reaching their perfection, iron hulls were replacing wood. Sail’s rival in propulsion – the steam engine – was also gaining ground. In 1843, for example, the Great Britain, though built basically as a six-masted sailer, was fitted with a powerful steam engine and a single propeller. The Great Eastern, launched in 1858, and for many years the world’s greatest ship, was equipped with not only engines to drive her propeller but a paddle engine too.

By the late ’70’s steel was replacing iron in the hulls, and new types of machinery made steam propulsion more efficient and reliable. British industry was ready for the change and took the lead at once in building ships of steel.

Modern propulsion

Modern ship propulsion dates from 1897, when Sir Charles Parsons gate-crashed the Diamond Jubilee Naval Review with his experimental ship Turbinia and showed a clean pair of heels to the fastest of the Queen’s ships. This startling demonstration was the first time the performance of the steam turbine had been seen by a large and influential public. From that moment its development was rapid.

A more recent, though not universal, development is the introduction of electric propulsion, whereby the power of high-speed turbines is transmitted electrically to the propellers, which must turn comparatively slowly.

But the development of turbo-electric propulsion could not have happened without simultaneous development in three other fields. One was the change from coal to oil burning. Another was in metallurgical research, which produced materials that can retain their strength at the very high temperatures needed in the turbine. The third improvement has been in gearing. This was made possible by the development of machine tools to the pitch where they could cut metals with an accuracy of a thousandth of an inch.

Continuation of metallurgical and engineering progress such as this is going to establish the marine engine of the future – the combustion, or gas, turbine. Metallurgists have already found the necessary new materials that can retain their strength at the required temperatures, which are far higher than occur within a steam turbine.

The displays of marine propelling machinery in this section also show the rival of the steam turbine – the modern heavy oil engine. This engine is the product of an original invention of Herbert Akroyd Stuart. After a period of development on the Continent, the lead in its design and manufacture came back to Britain, which is still ahead in making the propelling machinery for motor ships.


To look at propellers seem large, simple things, but their design and finish is far from being a simple job. All propellers for big ships are tailor-made for the one hull they must thrust through the water. Every dimension is precisely calculated, and the finish of the propeller, after it has been cast, is precision work.

In the designing of propellers, the pitch of the blade has to be varied along its length since the water does not flow past it uniformly. As no hull is precisely the same as another, these slight variations have to be worked out during trials with scale models in experimental tanks, such as the one demonstrated further on in this Pavilion.

There is still a number of propeller problems to which we do not know the answers. Two of these which are being investigated now are cavitation and “singing”. Cavitation is pitting caused by the attack of sea water. It ruins the precision work done in the finishing shops and cuts down efficiency. “Singing” propellers result from vibration in the blades. This is picked from the water by the hull and gives the ship an irritating sound-effect.

Building a ship

The great business and industry of building ships is shown in the central area of this Pavilion. So complex a story cannot be described in full; but the displays give a series of impressions of the more important events in the birth and growth of a new vessel.

The owners’ needs in cargo or passenger space, speed and economic outlook give the designers the first indication of the dimensions of the ship; but her design, as a robust, well-balanced structure capable of operating on the routes desired, turns out to be a compromise between many more considerations than these.

When working drawings have been produced for every possible part of the ship, the shipyard personnel take over, staying on a high black floor called the “loft”, where the shape of the vessel, full size, is laid down in white lines.

The growth of the ship from this beginning, and the many crafts and skills that bring it about, are summarised here. After some displays of fitting out, the sequence culminates in a summary of modern trends in design.

The ship testing tank

It is accepted practice nowadays for new ships to be constructed first in model form and for their underwater characteristics to be studied (and, if necessary, modified) during trials in an experimental tank.

An 80-foot section of such a tank is included in this Pavilion, and tests will be carried out here with model hulls. The demonstrations of the techniques used have been arranged with the cooperation of the National Physical Laboratory, which has played a leading part in developing this application of science to shipbuilding.

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Harvesting the sea

So far, the displays have been mainly conceded with passenger and cargo ships. Now the story turns to an equally important facet of our maritime life – the sea fisheries.

The methods of this great British industry depend primarily on the habits of the fish themselves. Some, like the herring and mackerel, live and feed near the surface and are caught by drift nets; others, like cod and plaice, live on or near the sea bottom and are caught in trawls. A third group, the halibut, for example, are best fished by means of long lines.

The British fishing grounds have always been expanding and now stretch from the near waters around the coast, through the middle waters of the Faroes to the farthest grounds of Iceland and the Arctic Circle. As the area of fishing has grown, so has the expanse of unprofitable water. Now, to aid the experience and intuition of the skippers, organised scientific research is finding out more and more about the growth, the feeding and the movements of the fish so that their whereabouts and numbers can be predicted with some certainty. Connected with this work are studies of over-fishing the productive grounds so that the stock of fish in North European waters shall be rationally exploited.

Preserving and distributing the catch

Fish is one of the most perishable of foods, and with the lengthening of the sea voyage to the fishing grounds the problem of their preservation begins on board. Science and industry are very alive to the necessity of this, and there has been considerable advance in the methods used in recent years.

An even larger problem is the handling, packing, storage, transport and distribution of the fish ashore, and here, again, are notable improvements worthy of display.

The catches are largely seasonal and their weight may vary daily. It is only by methods of storage that do not detract from quality that this uneven supply can meet a constant demand.

Fishing gear and vessels

This section illustrates how British industry is providing the fisherman with the essentials for his job. As well as improved ships and more efficient gear, the fisherman can now rely also on a wide range of modern equipment for navigation and for the location of fish. Examples of the way he is now served are displayed here.

Special ships for special purposes

Britain is not only pre-eminent in the quality of the ships she builds, but she constructs more ships for specialised purposes than any other nation. This is the theme of the culminating section of this Pavilion.

A bold display of the stems of three very different types of vessel illustrates the variety in result. They are a whale factory ship, a passenger liner and a large tanker for British oil.

The central exhibit is a model of a floating dock, containing a modern liner. Around this are examples of twenty-four different vessels, all specialised for a particular kind of duty.

The great business of operating these and other types of ship is the subject of the Sea section in the neighbouring “Transport” building.

Sea transport

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Theme Convener: C. Hamilton Ellis

The great story of British shipbuilding is the subject of the “Sea and Ships” Pavilion; British discovery at sea occupies a whole section of the Dome. But there is yet another aspect of our maritime heritage which must be added if the development of our theme is to be a true one – the operating of ships.

Without the enterprise of our ship owners and their associates in the vast business of operating shipping lines, the growth of the British Commonwealth would have followed very different trends. Without a mercantile marine such as we have now, we people of Britain and our industries would starve.

This section of the “Transport” Pavilion exists for the display of the things we produce to make safe and sure the operation of ships. It is just, however, that they should be shown against a background which epitomises the rise and preeminence of our mercantile marine. Most of its great strides forward have been made well within the last hundred years.

Of all the recent developments in the business of ship operating, the coming of wireless was probably the most revolutionary. Nowadays, after his charts and compasses, the captain looks to his wireless as his prime source of necessary intelligence. News, weather, orders, distress, arrangements at the port of destination – all these go through the wireless officer.

But still the brain of the ship at sea is her bridge. Here are her compasses and the gyropilot, to steer her automatically on a selected course when she is clear of navigational hazards. Here the helmsman is at the wheel. Revolution and rudder indicators tell the bridge of the ships performance, and order telegraphs carry instructions from there to the engine-room. Examples of all such vital equipment are gathered in the bridge area of this Sea Transport section.

Below the bridge area, and hung out from the side of the Pavilion, is a modern ship’s lifeboat, built of all-welded steel and capable of carrying eighty people. Around it are grouped appliances designed to maintain safety at sea and to preserve lives. Britain has taken a leading part in framing the rules that ensure safety in the ships of all nations.

But safety at sea depends most on the charting and marking of the navigable waterways. For us this is, in short, the achievement of our hydrographers, and of Trinity House, which maintains the lighthouses, lightships and buoys, and licenses the pilots of our home waters. Essential, too, are the dredgers that keep the channels clear, and the pilot boats and the tugs that see the great ships safely to their berths.

One of our islands great natural advantages is a coastline with many natural harbours. But our industry would long since have outgrown them if the skill of our engineers had not kept pace with the growth of the ships and the enterprise of those who operate them. Lowestoft is one example of a small port where engineering works have kept the vagaries of the coastline at bay and improved our heritage.

“Sea Transport” and “Sea and Ships” together show how we live on the sea and by it. Sea routes are the lifelines of this nation, and we have no more vital spots than the docks and harbours where they terminate. Here our essential foodstuffs and raw materials are brought ashore, here the products of our commerce and industry are poured out to the world. Here, too, are the gateways of Britain for the travellers by sea. The most recent of our docks and harbours to be completed is Southampton. This we display to illustrate the complexities and the achievements of a modern meeting place of land and sea.


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Theme Conveners: C. Hamilton Ellis and Nigel Clayton ◦ Display Designers: Austin Frazer and Ellis Miles

The memorial to British discovery by sea is the chart of the globe. Straits, bays, seas, islands, headlands, rivers, and even whole countries – all the world over they mirror back names from Britain.

Britain was the first sea-discovery of our forebears. For some races this island, in itself, might then have brought an end to voyaging; but for us it has been a harbour, rather, from which we have continued to launch ourselves out into the world. Of all the arenas where the destinies of nations are decided we still prefer to face our difficulties at sea.

Four hundred years ago the nation was in a pass from which the only escape was by new foreign markets for our goods, and the establishment of trade with countries overseas. It was in seeking them out in the uncharted world that British sailors made greater contributions to sea discovery than those of any other nation. They had the enterprise and leadership, they built the ships that would keep the seas and, besides these, they had an ingrained curiosity and skill which laid the foundation of scientific navigation.

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James Cook

In this small gallery of the Dome we cannot pay tribute to all the names renowned for discovery at sea; we have, instead, singled out the greatest of them all – James Cook – for special mention. His life is summarised by the names of his exploring ships – Endeavour, Resolution, Adventure, Discovery. He was a great seaman, but unique in his time for the attention he gave to the welfare of the men who worked his ships. He was a great navigator, but his genius as a surveyor made each voyage classical, each another foundation stone for modern geography. He was a very great explorer and a man of science, but his humanity and understanding were such that no extermination or slavery followed his discovery of a new race or people.

In six years Cook systematically eliminated a landmass – the Great Southern Continent – the existence of which had been firmly imagined by geographers for twenty-five centuries. His worth as a hydrographer cannot be overestimated.


It was the British who first set about a systematic charting of’ the whole world and for many years it was British charts, which we did not keep to ourselves, that the ships of all nations relied on. Modern methods in hydrographic survey, as well as the many uses for which charts are now produced, are illustrated on this gallery, together with other aids to navigation and tide prediction.

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Research ships

But exploration by sea has not stopped at charting the surface waters. The cloak of Drake and Cook has now fallen on the men of science who by physical, chemical and biological techniques are adding to our knowledge of all its aspects. This phase began with the sailing of H.M.S. Challenger in 1872 – the first ship to be fully engaged on oceanographic research. Her modern counterpart is the Research Ship Discovery II, famous particularly for her work in Southern waters.

Science of the sea

In the second part of this gallery the displays show some of the things that science can tell us about the sea – its composition, its physical behaviour, the nature of the ocean beds and the living creatures that inhabit it. British research has been particularly active in studying the animals and minute plants that live near the surface – the plankton. They play a vital part in the cycle of life in the sea – not only for fish but even for many whales which feed almost entirely upon these diminutive animals.