Dr. Bill O' Gorman, from WIT, speaking about this site on WLR

Monday, July 20, 2009

Caverns of the Earth to the crators of the moon

Extract written by David Coffey, from the Centre of Enterprise Development and Regional Economy (CEDRE), at Waterford Institute of Technology

On the 20th July, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped tentatively down onto the surface of the moon. The small step he took on that historic day is arguably the greatest technological achievement in human history. Most would attribute this triumph to the sterling work of NASA scientists and the bravery of those first space explorers. However, getting Apollo 11 to the moon and back was a shared achievement, one of which all of mankind can be proud. Armstrong’s trek on the moon that day was only possible because of the millions of other pioneering, innovative and enterprising men and women who came before him.

A key milestone along the human race’s journey from the caverns of the earth to the craters of the moon was the invention of the aeroplane in 1903. This was one of the greatest innovations of all time and changed the face of transportation forever. Remarkably, the Wright Brothers first flight lasted just 12 seconds and took place only sixty-six years before Armstrong’s eight day voyage to the moon and back. When the Wright Flyer became the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled flight, it provided a crucial step along the innovation chain that placed the first man on the moon. The South East, though, can also claim to be part of the innovation chain which led to the Wright’s first flight and, subsequently, Armstrong’s famous first step.

Pioneers of transportation

In the age preceding powered flight, the steam liner era, the South East was hugely influential and successful. Shipbuilding was a major industry in Waterford in the 19th century, employing over 1,000 people at its peak. The wealthy Quaker families of Penrose, White and Malcolmson all had large shipyards, and Waterford became the centre of a highly specialised shipbuilding industry with a well organised and skilled labour force. The owners of the Neptune Shipyard, the Malcolmson family, built and operated the largest fleet of iron steamers in the world between the mid-1850s and the late-1860s, including five trans-atlantic passenger liners.

The Neptune Shipyard was driven and managed by John Horn, an outstanding master shipbuilder from Clyde. He had been trained by Robert Napier, one of the greatest marine engineers and shipbuilders of the era. Horn became renowned for his innovativeness as well as his knowledge of advanced construction techniques. Part of the Neptune’s success was due to the fact that in the late 1840s they started to build steam ships with propellers rather than paddles, which were more common at the time.

When the Wright Brothers attempted to construct their first aeroplane in 1903, they faced many obstacles. The greatest of these was the invention of a propeller system that could achieve controlled and powered flight. To solve this, the Wright’s turned to the teachings of great shipbuilding innovators of the past. No doubt the brothers consulted the many innovations of John Horn and his pioneering work at the Neptune.

On March 23, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright had solved their propeller problems and they filed a patent application for a ‘Flying Machine’. From this point on remarkable progress was made in the development of powered flight, culminating in Apollo 11’s seemingly impossible journey from the earth to the moon and back again. It is somewhat ironic then, that the very propellers developed at innovative shipyards, such as the Neptune, would go on to provide an essential part for the world’s first aeroplane. In doing so, a new form of transport was born, one which would eventually succeed the steam liner as the most popular choice for medium-long distance travel around the globe.

The enterprising people of the South East

Even before the invention of the aeroplane the South East shipbuilding industry was in decline. However, the dawn of powered flight sealed the faith of the rich shipbuilding tradition in the region and also marked the start of a worldwide transition from steam liners to airliners. However, during its heyday, the Neptune Shipyard produced some of the finest ships in the world and the innovations of its designers helped progress transportation as we know it.

The shipbuilding industry is just one of the many remarkable success stories of the South East’s past. The region has produced some truly enterprising and innovative people, who made an enormous contribution to all walks of life. Many of these made a huge difference to the world around them; however, unlike Armstrong and the Wright’s, their contributions have not nearly been highlighted enough. As such, the aim of this column is to bring to light the many Stories and Tales of an Enterprising Place – the South-East, and show appreciation and admiration for those who stepped up and made a difference.

Every journey begins with the first step

It is important to remember these enterprising and innovative people of the past, and even great historical achievements, such as the moon landing, can often be taken for granted. Forty years ago, for example, people across the globe gathered around televisions and radios as Neil Armstrong stepped down onto the surface of the moon. I’m sure those who lived through this historic event will never forget the awe and wonderment they experienced on that day. However, for those of us born since 1969 the moon landing is often taken as a given, one which we never stop to consider in amazement. Certainly, we rarely contemplate the astounding journey that led to that first step.

The fact that we, the human race, managed to place a man in a space suit on the surface of the planetary satellite which we had been staring at in wonder for tens of thousands of years is truly inspiring. However, what is even more satisfying is the fact that at some point along the innovative chain that led to this great achievement the enterprising people of the South East made a contribution. It is thus fitting that today, on the forty year anniversary of the moon landing, we celebrate and remember some of the most innovative people of the South East, who made a huge contribution to the global shipbuilding industry and also helped advance transportation as we know it.

The giant leap achieved by the human race on the 20th July 1969 was only made possible by the many smaller steps which preceded it. The South East, and the rich shipbuilding history of Waterford, can thus claim a proud place among thousands of years of transportation innovation that led up to that giant leap.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You should do sumthing on the malcolmson's in Portlaw. They had a large cotton factory there.