Some twenty-five years ago two ocean steamships came into collision off the coast of Newfoundland; one sank with all on board, the other was saved in consequence of having the hull divided by iron bulkheads into water-tight compartments. Though the bottom was crushed in the water, it would only fill the compartment where the break was, and so the steamship came safely to port. This then novel improvement in the art of ship-building was brought into such conspicuous notice by that occurrence, and its merits were so palpable, that from that time steamships have been almost universally built with water-tight bulkheads.
Like most other supposed "modern" inventions, this was known to the ancient Hindus; and in quoting what follows from the narrative of the famous – now respected and credited – Venetian traveller of the thirteenth century, Ser Marco Polo, 1 we express the hope that this may serve as one more inducement to young India to respect their ancestors according to their deserts:
"Some ships of the larger class have, besides (the cabins), to the number of thirteen bulkheads or divisions in the hold, formed of thick planks let into each other (incastrati, mortised or rabbeted). The object of these is to guard against accidents which may occasion the vessel to spring a leak, such as striking on a rock or receiving a stroke from a whale, a circumstance that not unfrequently occurs; for, when sailing at night, the motion through the waves causes a white foam that attracts the notice of the hungry animal. In expectation of meeting with food, it rushes violently to the spot, strikes the ship, and often forces in some part of the bottom. The water, running in at the place where the injury has been sustained, makes its way to the well which is always kept clear. The crew, upon discovering the situation of the leak, immediately remove the goods from the division affected by the water, which, in consequence of the boards being so well fitted, cannot pass from one division to another. They then repair the damage, and return the goods to the place in the hold from whence they had been taken. The ships are all double-planked; that is, they have a course of sheathing-boards laid over the planking in every part. These are caulked with oakum both withinside and without, and are fastened with iron nails. They are not coated with pitch, as the country does not produce that article, but the bottoms are smeared over with the following preparations: – The people take quick-lime and hemp, which latter they cut small, and with these, when pounded together, they mix oil procured from a certain tree, making of the whole a kind of unguent, which retains its viscous property more firmly, and is a better material than pitch."
The Theosophist, November, 1881
H. P. Blavatsky
1 The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian. Edited by Thomas Wright, Esq., M.A., F.S.A., etc., Corresponding Member of the Institute of France. London, 1854.
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