Ships and Science:
The Birth of Naval Architecture in the Scientific Revolution, 1600-1800

Larrie D. Ferreiro

The MIT Press 2007
A book review by Danny Yee © 2010 http://dannyreviews.com/
The first systematic treatise on naval architecture, the 1746 Traité du navire, was written by Pierre Bouguer while on a Geodesic Mission high in the mountains of Peru. And the prologue and epilogue of Ships and Science together are effectively a brief biography of Bouguer, who played a key role in the three developments in the theory of naval architecture that are its central focus.

As background, chapter one offers a brief history of Western European navies during the period, focusing on broad operational and administrative policies and approaches to shipbuilding. This also introduces one of the key themes of Ships and Science, which is that builders were far from "mere carpenters" and that naval architecture was not, in this period, of much use to them; it was, rather

"developed and used by various navies, starting in the late 1600s, in response to a bureaucratic need by naval administrations for greater control over their constructors and for standardization of the ship design process".
There is an emphasis here, and throughout, on France, where much of the key theoretical work was done and where it had the most effect on actual construction practice, but Britain naturally features prominently and Ferreiro's scope extends to Spain, Scandinavia and Venice.

The three core chapters cover key case studies in the development of naval architecture, bringing to life the debates that drove these developments and the key figures involved.

Chapter two considers the development of a theory of forces on a ship under sail, and in particular the debate over the dérive, the angle of advance of a ship. It also touches on theories about the operation of the rudder and the placement of masts. As well as Bouguer and Leonhard Euler, who play major roles throughout, notable participants in the debate on the movement of ships included Bernard Renau, Christiaan Huygens, and Johann Bernoulli. Their work here helped drive the development of a proper vector theory of forces.

Chapter three turns to the shape of bows and sterns. The debate here built on a foundation in rational fluid mechanics, in particular on Newton's "shock theory", which attributed fluid resistance to the shock from particles, and his idea of a solid of least resistance. These were eventually rejected in the progress towards a theory of hydrodynamics, which "was carried out by just five mathematicians: Daniel and Johann Bernoulli, Jean Le Rond D'Alembert, Alexis-Claude Clairaut, and (most important) Leonhard Euler". There was also significant empirical work, based on testing in towing tanks or in Thevendard's case a huge specially-built canal at Lorient.

Chapter four looks at work on stability and the concept of the metacenter. The development of a theory of stability built on Archimedes' work on displacement, which was not entirely accepted until the 17th century; methods for calculating displacement were connected to the problems of measuring cargo volumes and weights. Key participants included Paul Hoste, César Marie de La Croix, and of course Euler and Bouguer again. Ferreiro looks at how the theory was used by constructors in different countries, and touches on early extensions to cover heave, roll and pitch.

This theory is illustrated using reproductions from original publications, and with only occasional references to modern theory. Readers without any background in physics could read Ships and Science and just skip the technical material, but full appreciation requires a knowledge of at least basic dynamics.

This is all set in its broader context. Ferreiro introduces us to the Jesuit education system, the republic of letters, and early scientific journals. He highlights the importance of Colbert's attempts to reform the French navy, and describes the building of the Grand Canal at Versailles in order to "bring the navy to the king". And he traces the importance of sponsorship by patrons, such as the count of Maurepas, and official prizes and competitions.

The development of the theory was not driven by practical demands. For example, despite a few high-profile disasters — most notably the losses of the Lune , Mary Rose, and Vasa — that were often inaccurately attributed to stability failures, this was not actually a widespread concern, with vastly more ships lost to navigational errors.

Nor was the theory that useful. Elaborate calculations by French constructors were probably inaccurate and fruitless:

"No other navy required the calculation of the bow resistance, and this was taken by many observers (both inside and outside France) as evidence of the superiority of the French navy in using theoretical hydrodynamics to design fast ships. As will be shown later, this was an inaccurate conclusion at best; the speed of a sailing ship in that era depended less on the hull form and far more on factors such as the sail plan and material, the condition of the hull (clean or barnacle-encrusted), and, most important, the skill of the commanding officer and his crew."

Chapter five describes six of the great works of synthesis in naval architecture: Paul Hoste's Théorie de la construction des vaisseaux (1697), Pierre Bouguer's Traité du navire (1746), Leonhard Euler's Scientia navalis (1749), Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau's Élémens de l'architecture navale (1752), Jorge Juan y Santacilia's Examen marítimo (1771) and Fredrik Henrik af Chapman's Tractat om skepps-byggeriet (1775).

Chapter six traces the professionalisation of ship construction. In France, carpenters became constructors became officers — a status military engineers had achieved much earlier — became engineers. It also considers the broad changes at the end of 18th century, the disruption of the French Revolution and the transition from Scientific Revolution to Industrial Revolution: "the development of naval architecture in the nineteenth century would become dominated by economic concerns of private companies".


The obvious audience for Ships and Science will be historians of science and students of naval architecture. Apart from the occasional section devoted to theory detail, however, most of it should appeal to lay readers curious about either area. Its digressions never get out of control, but the broader background and biographical material help to make it accessible to non-specialists.

May 2010

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Related reviews:
- books about engineering
- more history of science
- more naval history + fiction
- books published by The MIT Press
%T Ships and Science
%S The Birth of Naval Architecture in the Scientific Revolution, 1600-1800
%A Ferreiro, Larrie D.
%I The MIT Press
%D 2007
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780262514156
%P 441pp