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.


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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.



Theme Conveners: Surgeon Vice-Admiral Sir Sheldon Dudley, k.c.b., f.r.s., and Nigel Clayton ◦ Display Designer: Peter Ray

The “Country” Pavilion and “Homes and Gardens” together show what is being done in two quite different spheres to make the best and most pleasant use of the small amount of space that is available for living purposes in Britain. The “Health” Pavilion deals with another aspect of the peoples well-being; it shows what is being done to make the small span of life of the individual as fit and fruitful as it can humanly be.

“Humanly” is important. The thing which has always distinguished British work in medicine, surgery, public health and nursing is the recognition that every patient is an individual human being. It follows, then, that the patient peculiar needs and happiness must be ensured before the “scientific” part of medical treatment – operations, inoculations, and so on – can become really effective. “Care of the patient” in this sense is still something for which Britain is famous.

Knowing your body

A mechanic cannot repair an engine until he knows the way that engine works. Similarly, the great achievements of surgeons and doctors in recent times would be impossible without the knowledge passed on to them by the pioneers who first discovered how the body works, and the scientists who are still revealing the secrets of its many mechanisms.

In such research, the British have played a leading part. What is more, the renown in the names from the past can very often be equalled by that of our men of science in the present time. Hughlings Jackson, Sherrington and Adrian are world-famous in matters relating to the nervous system. It was Harvey, 300 years ago, who first discovered the circulation of the blood; Barcroft and Haldane in our own time have added much to our knowledge of the blood itself and respiration. In nutrition, Hopkins and Mellanby were foremost in recognising the nature of vitamins. In the control of the bodily machine Bayliss and Starling have added greatly to knowledge, while Banting and Best are the benefactors of all sufferers from diabetes by discovering the role of insulin.

The human body, then, is like a land rich in prizes for its explorers, and British initiative here has been characteristically active.

On knowledge follows development. What we have done with what we know is told in the remaining sections of the Pavilion which describe the research, skill and organisation that exists in Britain to maintain the health of fifty million individual human bodies. Mental health is, of course, equally important, but it does not lend itself to display in an exhibition.

Safe water, good drainage and the right food

Much as we differ, as individuals, in our idiosyncrasies, there is a number of requirements common to us all, if the nation is to be secure in health. Three of these in which the British have been pioneers are: safe water, good drainage, and the easy supply of the proper foods, so that there shall be no malnutrition. In all of these, the British way has been to put the emphasis on prevention, as being better than any cure. Our most recent example of this was the scientifically based organisation of mass feeding on a nation-wide scale during the war.

Prevention rather than cure

Safe water and safe drainage are now accepted without a thought by most people in Britain. There is, however, another specific form of prevention of disease in which Britain has led the world, of which the individual is fully conscious because he plays an active part in it. This is vaccination and immunisation. The efficiency of these in maintaining the nation’s health would be altogether vitiated if the individual citizen did not himself make the voluntary act of being vaccinated or inoculated, and of ensuring that his children are similarly protected.

It was Jenner, a Gloucestershire doctor, who started mass immunisation a hundred and fifty years ago, when smallpox was a familiar scourge throughout the country. Later, Wright and Leishman did pioneer work on the enteric fevers, such as typhoid, which becomes particularly menacing in times of war.

Biological standards

i75Some of the more important substances used in medicine, such as anti-toxins for controlling infectious diseases, drugs needed for treatment, and so on, occur as a small part of a complex mixture, and the proportion varies from one sample to another. If treatment is to be successful, therefore, it is vital that the amount of this “active principle” present in any sample shall be precisely known. This is now measured in terms of international units accepted throughout the world. Charged with maintaining these international units and standards for all substances that come within the international scheme, Britain shares the honour with Denmark. Among these substances are the anti-toxins for diphtheria; hormones such as insulin for diabetes; drugs for the heart such as digitalis; vitamins and penicillin.


This, the century’s most important discovery in clinical medicine, sprang from the historic work of Fleming and Florey. The discovery of penicillin has stimulated the search for similar therapeutic substances.

Restoration of health

Since the days of Hunter, whose influence established surgery as a science in Britain, and of Lister, the greatest surgeon of all time, British surgeons have given new principles and technique to the world in various specialised fields – in Thoracic Surgery, whereby operations on the heart and great blood vessels and lungs are now possible; in Orthopaedics, now becoming more and more the surgery of broken bones; and in Plastic Surgery, whereby many sorts of deformities due to wounds and burns have been so effectively repaired.

No scientific surgery at all was possible before the two great discoveries of asepsis and anaesthesia, and, until the recent extensive use of blood transfusions, numbers of deaths continued to result from surgical shock and loss of blood. In all these three saving developments, British research has played a part.


Finally, there is one essential factor in the successful cure and rehabilitation of the sick; that is, the human factor of good nursing. All British progress in medical treatment bears the additional stamp of a superb tradition of nursing – the Nightingale tradition. It is through the British nurse of to-day that the community’s care for its sick and injured is focused on to every individual patient in the land.