Sailing has widely been associated with a romantic view of the sea and of seamanship and is commonly considered a very traditional industry, in which old enrooted technologies persist and in which innovation is often frowned upon.
There is an apparent truth in it: The wind’s proprieties remain unchanged, headwind sailing is still not possible, the sea – even if dirtier nowadays – still carries its majestic and mysterious aura and a superficial comparison of a catboat in the 1870s and a current Finn-Dinghy may unveil little differences.
However, this might be one of the biggest understatements of the sailing industry, an industry which has constantly been of pivotal importance for human kind and has experienced tremendous changes in the last millenniums and is still in constant evolution.
It would be unfeasible to create a comprehensive study of the technological advancement in the sailing industry in a short article. The following chapters, will hence try to retrace only some of the fundamental innovations occurred in the past that had a huge impact on the sailing industry and this will be done through the study of patents, which are publicly available and systematically archived.
A “Patent” is a right granted to an inventor who discloses to the public his new and inventive idea and the patentee can hinder anybody, nowadays for a maximum of 20 years, from using, making, selling the invention, under the precondition that the patentee discloses “the invention in a manner sufficiently clear and complete for it to be carried out by a person skilled in the art” (cf. Art. 83 of the European Patent Convention).
In this way a patented invention should benefit the patentee, granting him exclusive rights for a limited period of time but, also benefit the public, which is confronted with the disclosure and is in contact with the newest technologies for carrying out further developments and advancements.
This short article will focus mostly on sailing technologies; however, the use of many of these inventions were often not limited by sailing and have intertwined with motorboat technology and/or the maritime transport industry.
1. (15th century) – Brunelleschi: a great architect but not a great naval architect.
In 1421, one of the first ever “patent” was issued by the city of Florence to the famous architect of the Florentine Duomo, Filippo Brunelleschi, for an innovative ship for transportation of Marble. The Patent gave Brunelleschi a 3 years exclusive right to manufacture and use his on Florentine waters.
Unfortunately, this innovative and new vessel “Il Badalone” is said to have sank on the river Arno near Empoli during its maiden trip, along with all the marble it was transporting. Some historians claim that this caused quite a financial bourdon on Brunelleschi (it is said that he even bought big quantity of ropes afterwards to try to lift up the lost marble, but never succeeded) and that this might have been the end of the Florentine “patent” right.
Nevertheless In 1474, only nearly 50 years after, in Venice, the mercantile hotspot of the Mediterranean, the Venetian Patent Statue was introduced, which is vastly considered as being the first modern version of a regulated and open patent system.
2. (start 19th century) – John Wade of Boston invents the historic version of a “roller furling”
The first, currently available US-patent containing the word “Sail”, was filed and published in 1836 by John Wade and described a “method of making and furling in sails for ships” (US 000101).
At the start of the 19th century square rigs connected to extending yards were still vastly used in ships. In order to set or drop the sails, the crew had to climb aloft and spread out along the yards and while holding onto the yard set or stow the sail around it through the aid of gaskets.There was a degree of danger involved for the crew having to go aloft (even though according to some sources not a too widespread reason of death at that time) and an easier and safer way to handle the sail was clearly needed.
US’101 discloses a method in which the square rig is winded around the yard, by causing the yard to have a revolving motion. This appears to be very much a predecessor of the modern roller furling and according to the patent, there was no need for the crew to climb onto the yard as the sail could be rolled up from deck (see Figure). Unfortunately, no source can be found if the invention became successful or not, because as can be learned by the story of Brunelleschi’s story: a granted patent does not necessarily mean a working technology.
3. (early 20th century) – The unfortunate timing of the Echosounder
On the night of the 14th of April, 1912, one of the most infamous disasters occurred in the north Atlantic Ocean; on its maiden voyage the RMS Titanic crashed at 11:40 pm (ships time) against an iceberg and sank; more than 1500 people died of an estimated 2224 passengers and crew members.
At that time, icebergs were not considered dangerous for ships and the captain of the Titanic himself, Edward Smith, stated in 1907 that he “could not imagine any condition which could cause a ship to founder. Modern Shipbuilding has gone beyond that”. Unfortunately, he was wrong.
On the 20th of April 1912, just 6 days after the tragic disaster, Lewis Fry Richardson filed a British patent application with the title “Apparatus for Warning a ship of its approach to large Objects in a Fog” (GB191209423) , which in combination with his further patent application, filed on the 10th May 1912, “Apparatus for Warning a Ship at sea of its Nearness to large Objects wholly or partly under water” (GB 191211125) are widely considered the first disclosure of an Echosounder.
A year later the German Alexander Behm, filed a German patent application (DE 282009) for an “Improvement in or relating to a Method of and apparatus for Measuring Distances under Water by means of Reflected Sound waves” . In the granted patent, Alexander Behm measured the strength of the sound wave instead of determining the time between the sending of an acoustic signal and the arrival of the echo, greatly improving the preciseness of the Echosounder (see figure).
These two new technologies would have been crucial for the Titanic and could have maybe saved the Titanic and its passenger from their destiny. If Richards Fry invention was correlated with the tragic incident of the Titanic is not sure but imaginable; in any case, the Echosounder became a crucial safety instrument on ships and sailboats. Nowadays it is used especially by fisher boats to detect fish underwater.
4. (WWI-WWII) – The World Wars, a period of despair but a period of innovations
As in many other fields, it was war that brought many innovations. Countries fighting each other understood that new (war) technologies could decide the outcome of the war. So, while many men were fighting on the fronts, scientist back in their home countries were constantly trying to invent new technologies that might end up having a fundamental weight in the balance of forces during the World Wars.
Clearly, in that period the leisure marine industry was not striving and sailing as a leisure activity was rather unimaginable. However, many new and patented technologies discovered during the World Wars, turned out to be of crucial benefit later on in non-warfare related applications. Here two of the technologies that are currently still important in leisure sailing:
4.1 The Lifejacket
Technically speaking, lifejackets (or better: personal flotation devices) were not invented during the Second World War, as already in ancient times, inflated bladders, animal skins, or hollow sealed gourds, were used for support when crossing deep streams and rivers. Later on, lifejackets made out of cork were used, which fulfilled their purpose of floating, but were not handy to use and very bulky to store.
The first modern life jacket is widely attributed to Captain Ward, an inspector of the royal national Lifeboat institution in the mid 19th century.
But it was on July 15, 1927 that the inventor Peter Markus revolutionized the field of personal flotation devices. He filed a patent application for an “Inflatable life preserver” for “which the wearer, even if under water, can inflate within a few seconds by simply puncturing a cartridge of compressed air” (US 1,694,714).
Further patent applications perfectionating the lifejacket were soon filed by Peter, such as enabling an automatic inflation when the lifejacket was submersed in water.
This new lifejacket became vastly used by soldiers on water and on air during the Second World War and was soon denominated the “Mae West” because of its resemblance to the homonymic famous actress’ chest region, when worn by the soldiers.
It became the predecessor of the current lifejackets and is nowadays a mandatory security measure on board of all types of boats, probably saving thousands of lives since its introduction.
4.2 The Radar
“I think we can say that the Battle of Britain might never have been won… if it were not for the radar chain“~Sir William Sholto Douglas (Officer).
Saying that radar technology helped the allies win the war is an understatement. The possibility of not only recognizing if an object was in near range (a technology already invented and patented by the German inventor Christian Hülsmeyer in 1904 (DE 165546) but also measuring the distance of the object became crucial in the allies’ air force defence.
Sir Robert Watson Watt – descendent of the more famous James Watt, inventor of the steam engine – is attributed by many as having filed the patent which first discloses the radar as we currently know it (GB 426,328).
His patent was based on many earlier patents both from him and other scientist around the world and contemporaneously, the Germans, were also studying and developing different types of “radars”, none of them, however, being as effective as Watt’s his.
After the War this technology was further developed in numerous other non-bellicose applications and it is still of pivotal importance both on water and in air. The use of Radars for large ships is probably indispensable, however also in sailing it is widely recommended to have a radar system on board, even though nowadays AIS has become of comparable importance both on cargo ships and leisure (sail-)boats
5. (Post WWII) – Time for leisure sailing
With the end of the World War, came the advent of leisure sailing. A number of important inventions, disclosing technologies that changed sailing and which nowadays have become the standard, were patented in the afterwar period.
5.1 Polyester Sails
Imagine having a sail made of linen, washing out the salt from the sail with fresh water after each ride and waiting it to dry for hours. Suppose now the sail is not a small 7 sqm Laser Standard sail but an enormous Masthead Code ‘O’ sail with ca. 300 sqm surface.
It sounds as cumbersome as it probably was until the 1950’s when sailcloth was mostly linen, hemp or cotton. The cloths had poor resistance to UV light, rotted easily and had a very high-water absorption rate, making their use not ideal.
This changed in 1941, when the British chemists John Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dickson, working for Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), filed the first patent application for what is now commonly referred to as PET (polyethylene terephthalate).
This invention was the start of many further developments made by Whinfield and colleagues, under the firm DuPont (which acquired ICI and its patent portfolio), up to the discovery of polyester in 1950’s, which is still commonly referred to as DACRON™.
Polyester revolutionised numerous aspects of human life and also sailcloth started being made out of a mix of Dacron and Nylon (also discovered by duPont and patented). This cloth is still a very wide spread material in sail making and has proven to be very convenient in many ways as well as ameliorating the disadvantages of the earlier cloth.
5.2 Holding on: evolutions in anchors
Anchors have always been subject to change and technological improvements. The well-known anchor design having a stem and pointed arms attached to one end (think of Popeyes tattoo) was already used by the Romans and was made of wood and later iron.
In the mid 19th century variations of the roman anchor started appearing like the Admiralty anchor and the Rodgers anchor. Both had novel features like rounded arms or arms made of a single piece pivoted to the stem. Further anchor improvements were still based on versions of the Admiralty anchor (or the Roman anchor) with its traditional form still maintained. These anchors were especially suited for large ships, but less adapted for smaller boats.
In the 20th century, anchors for smaller boats, like leisure sail boats were being developed, with the CQR plough anchor, the Danforth anchor and the claw-type Bruce anchor being the most notable. These anchors departed from the traditional Admiralty anchor design and were often based on resemblance to other working tools (e.g. the agricultural plough for the Plough anchor).
In 1996 the French Poiraud Alain received a patent (EP 0 840 691 B1) for a “Spearhead Anchor” which departed significantly from all the anchors designs known until then.
In fact, this anchor is said to be the first anchor having a concave fluke and had optimal anchor properties apart from being small but very efficient. This anchor is still vastly used on sailing boats and has proven to be a reliable anchor in many situations.
6. (21th century) – A not so new type of sailing
One cannot discuss innovation in sailing without touching the subject of foils. Many sailors have seen an enormous rise in foiled boats, windsurfs, kitesurfs and similar and the first images of the AC72 Catamaran of Emirates team New Zealand graciously “flying” over water level on the waters of Auckland’s Harbour, probably went down in history. For many this is considered the start of the foil racing and since then many new boats with foils have been developed.
What is less known is that foiling has been around for many years (and not only in motorboats). While some sources state that Emmanuel Denis Farcot attached some foils to a rowing boat already in 1869, it appears widely accepted that one of the first modern foil boats was invented by the Italian inventor Forlanini, for which he filed a patent on the 6th of April 1905 (granted nearly 9 years later on the 29th September 1914, (US 1,112,405).
Innovations in hydrofoils, both on sailboats and motorboats were still advancing, especially after the second world war, however their popularity did not increase until the last couple of years. In fact, the last 20 years saw a number of innovations and further developments avalanching upon the sailing community.
This can especially be seen by the number of filed patents since the year 2000, surpassing 700 patent application containing the term “hydrofoil”.
One recent example is the patented “Hydrofoil system for mono-hull sail” by the company Dynamic Stability Systems (EP 2004479 B1) (often referred to as DSS-Foil), created by America’s cup designer Hugh Welbourn. The patent disclosed retractable foils, which are now no longer used exclusively in competitive sailing, but have been and are being implemented more and more on cruise yachting boats as well. Another example are the “insect boats”, like the funny to watch and very quick foil Moth and its derivates like the WASZP (left figure – Design: D707146) and the Laser Dinghy with foil (even though it has no insect name).
Of course, foiling technology is still vastly used in the world biggest ad hardest races like the Vendee Globe and will be implemented in the IMOCA 65 in the next “The Ocean Race”, a part, of course, being still used in the America’s Cup AC 75.
This list represents only a minuscule percentage of innovations and new technologies that have slowly but steadily changed the way we sail and the way we live on a sail boat. Many innovations did not have an impact only on the marine industry but have been used in many widespread areas (e.g. the Radar or polyester).
Putting a side, the economic aspects of a patents and their utility for business, what can be seen is that Patents are by definition a mirror image of innovation and therefore a valid and useful resource in studying the history of technological developments.
The sailing industry should maintain its tradition, however be conscious that continuous development is in act and that each new idea, brings the sailing community further. As a slightly changed quote of Newton may recite: – If sailing has seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.
Riccardo is a passionate sailor and an European Patent Attorney.