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Keywords:

  • wire rope;
  • rigging;
  • mining;
  • bridges;
  • Industrial Revolution

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Early inventions
  4. Standing rigging
  5. Major 19th-century developments
  6. Related ship inventions
  7. Wire rope and archaeology
  8. Using wire rope for dating
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

The invention of wire rope in the early 19th century and its continuous improvement since then provide a reasonable documentary record that can be used by archaeologists to date and identify submerged and terrestrial sites. The international character of the manufacture of and trade in this product requires a global approach to its application as a research tool.

Strong and modern, wire rope symbolized to people of the 19th century the progress achieved through new technology, the result of the advanced industrial-age engineering that made possible the miracles of bridges suspended without supports and ships' rigging that allowed masts to rise high into the heavens. The enthusiasm for wire rope came to symbolize the ‘early Victorian worship of the new-found industrialism’ (Forestier-Walker, 1952: 50). Wire rope revolutionized many industries. Heavily used for ships' rigging, tiller-ropes, and mooring cables in the maritime world, wire rope was well-known for its applications with lifting and power-transmission machinery in mills, mines, and factories before it became famous for spectacular suspension bridges.

The eventual combination of high-quality steel and a self-lubricating fibre core made wire rope durable well past its point of loss or discard. In fact, a submerged or buried wire rope can remain in identifiable condition for centuries and still retain enough of its original morphology that its cross-section can be used to identify the approximate date and name of manufacture. There are many studies related to its durability in service at sea or on land, but none that relate to its long-term durability after loss or discard (Moriya et al. 2004: 1904–09).

The abandoned lengths of wire rope can serve a purpose. As Damien Sanders has argued, the rigging components found on shipwreck sites offer much useful interpretative data and, despite the challenges of recording them accurately in situ, the potential value of harvesting this data far outweighs the challenges (2010: 2–26). Yet, organic-based fibre rope is rarely preserved on shipwreck sites in quantities or in a condition that can be used to provide conclusive data: the few pieces which do survive are usually insufficient to tell much about the sail and rigging configuration with which they were originally associated (Muckelroy, 1978: 217). Furthermore, many rigging elements have changed very little over the centuries, especially compared to ships' hulls and their cargoes, making them less distinctive as diagnostic objects and less attractive to researchers. Perhaps as a consequence, the study and publication of rigging finds from archaeological excavations is often less than thorough. However, their scarcity is precisely what makes documenting and cataloguing all such items so important; only once a reasonable amount of data on rigging and its context is accumulated will the study and interpretation of such elements become more productive (Polzer, 2008: 226).

The potential use of durable wire rope with its well-documented changes could offer new perspectives on historic underwater and terrestrial sites. This article summarizes the development of wire rope, using patent and advertising drawings and descriptions to show how a cross-section of wire rope can potentially be used to date and identify historic shipwreck or terrestrial sites with accuracy. As Sanders indicates, other interpretive data may be drawn from rigging remnants, but that discussion is beyond the scope of the present article.

Early inventions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Early inventions
  4. Standing rigging
  5. Major 19th-century developments
  6. Related ship inventions
  7. Wire rope and archaeology
  8. Using wire rope for dating
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

During the 19th century there were multiple attempts to replace or reduce the use of rope on board ships. Line used in maritime applications was made of natural fibres, most commonly flax, hemp, jute, or manila, that were susceptible to excessive stretching, wear, weathering, and breakage (Shelley, 1862: 170; Peacock, 1873: 1–3). Of greatest concern was the standing rigging that held ships' masts in place, supporting the spars that stretched the sails. The standing rigging transferred stress to the hull while maintaining enough flexibility to allow the masts to accept wind-load without failing. The need to regularly tighten the fibre-based standing rigging to remove unwelcome and dangerous slack was a significantly labour-intensive activity that, if ignored, could lead to loss of the masts, and possibly the ship (Martin, 1992: 105–06). A more durable, less stretchable alternative was sought from the Middle Ages onward.

Although Hipkins (1896: 8–9) indicates that the earliest wire rope comes from excavations of Pompeii (destroyed AD 79), during which a 4.5-m-long sample of bronze wire rope composed of three twisted strands, each strand composed of 15 wires was found, the exact provenance of the artefact was not established and it is possible that the rope was of more modern vintage. However, the concept of wire rope can be traced back at least to Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), whose sketches include apparatus for drawing iron or copper wire and twisting it into rope (Bahke, 1985: 149; Verret, 2002: 4–7). Like many of Da Vinci's concepts, a practical design for wire rope was not achieved for centuries, but by the 1780s a crude wire rope was being used in a variety of capacities in England, Germany and elsewhere (Bahke, 1985: 149). Inventors experimented with products that would combine a strong, durable method of lifting, hauling, and holding in environments where a high level of humidity caused natural fibre ropes to deteriorate quickly.

Experiments with alternatives for marine use in the first decades of the 19th century included the development of solid bar-iron and iron chains as lower standing rigging (Brown, 1809: 2–93; Trevithick, 1818: 213). Chain replaced rope in European mines as early as 1570, but it was not widely accepted in maritime circles (Weber, 1974: 288). There is evidence to indicate that chains were considered for use on shipboard as early as 1634, but Samuel Brown first fitted out an English ship with experimental chains for mooring and standing rigging in 1808 (Peacock, 1873: 3–5). As early as 1827 some American vessels were being rigged with yard-length iron bars, using wooden battens for ratlines, served with rope (Martin, 1992: 106–7).

Wire was applied for use in bridges, but at first it was not considered reliable. Early wire bridges in America and Scotland were temporarily displaced by bar-iron in the 1820s because the design and manufacturing had not resulted in a twisted wire rope of sufficient durability (Mende, 1993: 79; Harper and Day, 2010: 21–2). Bar-iron chain found a more ready market in the construction of suspension bridges in Europe. At least six were built between 1820 and 1833 using linked iron rods for the main cable and either linked rods or light girders to support the deck (Day, 1985: 154–5.; Harper and Day, 2010: 21).

Experimentation with wire rope continued because the use of iron bars or chains proved less than satisfactory, the strands being only as strong as the weakest link. Wire rope had the potential to be significantly more reliable because the use of many wires twisted into strands offered safety from flaws. ‘Wire’ refers to the long string-like metal components that are the primary parts of wire rope. A wire is drawn from an iron or steel cylindrical rod that is pulled through metal draw plates that have holes (normally round, but potentially of any shape) that gradually diminish in size. These progressively smaller holes reduce the diameter until the desired thickness of wire is achieved (Babbage, 1827: 30). Two or more wires placed together as a unit create a ‘strand’. Wires are usually ‘twisted’ together to create strands and wire rope is made most often by ‘laying’ or twisting strands together around a central core (Fig. 1). There are five primary types of ‘lays’. In right regular lay rope, the wires in the strands are laid to the left and each strand is laid to the right (Fig. 2a). Similarly, in left regular lay the strands are laid to the right and each strand is laid to the left (Fig. 2b). The result in both right and left regular lay is that the individual wires in each strand align along the longitudinal axis of the overall wire. The primary feature of lang lay (also known as Albert lay) is that both the wires in each strand and the strand itself are twisted the same direction. In right lang lay both the wires and the wires in the strand and the strands in the rope are laid to the right (Fig. 2c). Conversely, in left lang lay, both the wires in the strand and the strands in the rope are laid to the left (Fig. 2d). In lang lay the individual wires align at a diagonal to the longitudinal axis of the wire. In some cases, an alternate or reverse lay is used where alternating right- and left-laid strands are incorporated into either a right- or left-laid rope. The wires in each strand alternate in alignment between aligning with or aligning at a diagonal to the axis of the rope (Fig. 2e) (Wire Rope, 1947: 7).

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Figure 1. Terms for wire rope components. (After Wire and Fiber Rope and Rigging, 1999: 613–1)

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Figure 2. a) Right regular lay; b) Left regular lay; c) Right lang lay; d) Left lang lay; e) alternative or reverse lay. (After Wire Rope, 1947: 7)

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Unlike chain that was ruined by the failure of just one link, the parting of one wire within a wire rope weakened, but did not cause complete failure of the mechanism. Instead the strain was transferred to the rest of the intertwined wires. In an age where the quality of production was uncertain at best, this was a great advantage that inventors sought to capitalize on in industries where strength and durability were most necessary. Mining was one of those industries. Between 1780 and 1830 English, German, Austrian, and French experimentation with the use of wire for lifting in mines continued (Bahke, 1985: 149). The most notable pioneer was George Wright Binks, a foreman of rope-makers at the Woolwich Dockyard, who first experimented with forming a rope from twisted iron wire c.1830 (Forestier-Walker, 1952: 15, 22). There is evidence that the French navy was considering use of wire rope on its ships as early as 1833 (Niles Weekly Register, 8 June 1833: 235). News accounts of these French efforts elicited some scepticism from the seafaring community, as represented by the editorial commentary in the Gloucester Telegraph:

Will iron ropes render through the blocks? Can iron wire be so wrought as to belay at cleats? Will iron wire rope stand the operations of salt water? Or will the hands of the seamen stand the wear and tear of such running rigging? (Gloucester Telegraph, 8 June 1833)

Standing rigging

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Early inventions
  4. Standing rigging
  5. Major 19th-century developments
  6. Related ship inventions
  7. Wire rope and archaeology
  8. Using wire rope for dating
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

Despite these fears, by 1844 the migration toward use of wire rope for standing rigging was described thus:

It has now been in use about eight years, and many vessels, both in her majesty's navy, and the merchant service, have had their standing rigging constructed of this material for nearly that period, and, in every case, it has proved its superior durability, lightness, and economy, when compared with other descriptions of rope—requiring no change, or repairs, for ten, or twelve, years, which the patentee is ready to guarantee—being less than half the weight and size of hemp rope of the same strength, and 20 per cent. cheaper on first cost. (Journal of the Franklin Institute, 8 August 1844: 86)

Wire rope was considered an important technological advancement over fibre rope. In addition to the benefits of durability, weight, size and economy, advocates claimed that the lesser weight and wind resistance of wire rope made ships lighter, less likely to make leeway, faster on the wind, more likely to stand up under a full spread of canvas, and less likely to require ballast (National Gazette, 10 December 1840, ‘Patent Wire Rope’; Salem Register, 19 July 1841, ‘Iron Wire Rigging’). By 1857 three-quarters of all ships fitted out in Liverpool were rigged with wire rope (Martin, 1992: 108), and James Lees wrote in 1862 that aboard most British ships:

Wire-ropes are now used for the standing rigging of ships, instead of hemp or chain rigging. The improved wire-rope is patented, and the patentees are Messrs Newall & Co, Gateshead-on-Tyne, and North Dock, Sunderland … The superior durability of wire-rope has now been tested by upwards of thirteen years' experience of ropes, ‘running’ and ‘standing’, in all varieties of circumstances. (Lees, 1862: 359)

American and Canadian ships were not long behind as North American production quickly caught up with that in Europe (Martin, 1992: 107–14). But the high capital necessary for acquiring and operating machinery appropriate to large-scale production slowed direct competition with European manufacturers of long, large-diameter wire ropes for a time and as late as 1873 Americans complained of the amount of imported British wire rope:

There are extensive manufactories in Glasgow, Scotland, on the Tyne, in Birmingham, and in London, England. Bound in coils of convenient size, weighing from one to three tons each, carefully wrapped to prevent chafing, hundreds of tons of wire ropes have been landed on Cleveland docks in less than a month from the time of their leaving the original works. The English, being the first to perfect the machinery for the production of wire ropes, have never been excelled in its manufacture. (Cleveland Morning Daily Herald, 17 May 1873)

During the 1870s wire-rope cables came into common use as part of the tow-barge system developed on the Great Lakes and used worldwide, through which a steam-powered vessel was used to tow sailing or unpowered vessels over long distances (Martin, 1995: 45–8).

By 1880 most large ships were built or fitted with wire rope, at least for the standing rigging (Forestier-Walker, 1952: 40).

Major 19th-century developments

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Early inventions
  4. Standing rigging
  5. Major 19th-century developments
  6. Related ship inventions
  7. Wire rope and archaeology
  8. Using wire rope for dating
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

Selvagee

The most detailed description of the processes and evolution of 19th-century wire rope manufacture is found in Charles Shelley's ‘On the Manufacture of Hemp and Wire Rope’ published in the Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (1862). Shelley described one type of early (1835) wire rope as ‘Selvagee’, composed of an unspecified number of 12–16-gauge unannealed (not heat treated) wires stretched parallel and then spiral bound with ‘fine wire of about 20 wire gauge or 0.036 inch diameter’ (Fig. 3). This core was then parcelled (spirally wrapped) with ‘woollen list’ (a durable woollen cloth) wound round in the direction opposite to the spiral binding and overlapping to provide complete coverage. A top layer was composed of ‘tarred yarn wound in the contrary direction to the list’ (Shelley, 1862: 188). This wire rope was made by stretching the wires

at a uniform tension over two hooks set at the distance of the length of rope required to be made, passing the wires backwards and forwards over the hooks as many times as was necessary to make up the size required. A solution of india-rubber boiled down in linseed oil with a mixture of resin and tar was rubbed carefully into the body of the rope, previous to binding up; and after the binding wire had been wound on, the solution was again applied to the exterior wires to prevent oxidation, the process of galvanizing being unknown or not practised at the time. The ‘parceling’ of list was also saturated with the solution, the yarn being tarred as usual. The binding and parcelling was always done by hand, before the rope was taken off the hooks; but the service of yarn was usually laid on by a machine for that purpose, though occasionally by hand. (Shelley, 1862: 189)

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Figure 3. The essential developments in wire rope 1835–1862 as documented by Shelley. The Freiburg Suspension Bridge Cable, 1835 (fig. 24) was essentially bar-iron; ‘Salvagee’ wire rope (figs 25–26); ‘Formed’ wire rope, 1837 (figs 27–28); the ‘First Flat’ wire rope, 1836 (figs 29–30) was composed of 8–12 alternately right and left handed slightly twisted strands held together with interwoven yarn; the ‘second flat’ wire rope, 1837 (figs 31–32) included a zigzag outer binding of wires that resisted the separation that those bound with yarn were subject to; ‘Laid’ wire rope, 1838 (figs 33–34) was composed of strands usually composed of no more than six twisted wires. Six strands were twisted around a core of fibre or wire. (Shelley, 1862: Plate 57)

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Shelley also provides a detailed description of how fittings were attached during the manufacturing process due to the difficulties of splicing this type of rope made with no ‘lay’ or twist:

The method of attaching the fittings, such as shackles, thimbles, and dead eyes, was either by forming an eye during the process of warping to receive them, or by inserting the end of the rope stripped to the wires into a conical socket attached to the shackle, and turning back the ends of the wires so as to prevent the rope being drawn out. But more generally the fittings were ‘turned in’, that is the end of the rope was doubled round and ‘seized’ or bound to the standing part. (Shelley, 1862: 189)

Wire rope manufactured in this way was ‘exceedingly rigid and non-elastic’, but better than the previous alternatives. The protective covering added to the weight and diameter of this wire rope, often suffering excessive wear. Together, these issues ‘acted somewhat prejudicially against the introduction of this first form of wire rope on an extensive scale’ (Shelley, 1862: 189).

Laid wire rope

The first wire rope of modern configuration was created in 1834 for the mining industry by German Wilhelm Augustus Julius Albert. The product consisted of three strands of four iron wires each, twisted together to achieve an overall diameter of 18 mm (Albert, 1835: 418–28; Bahke, 1985: 148–50; Verret, 2002: 4–7) (Fig. 3). The resulting wire rope was coated with ‘ductile grease which remains supple when cold so that the rope is protected from moisture’ and deprived of oxygen (Weber, 1974: 291; Forestier-Walker, 1952: 20). This is acknowledged as the first tested iron wire rope placed in industrial service. The product became known as Albert Rope and was praised for its durability in wet environments where lightness and high tensile strength was required (Albert, 1835: 418–28; Bahke, 1985: 148–150; Verret, 2002: 4–7).

The durability and practicality of Albert Rope for hauling heavy loads and lifting spurred even more experimentation and the proliferation of multiple designs in Europe as technological advances allowed long continuous wires to become feasible. Shelley reported the progression of early wire with the most important of these designs being a laid wire rope (Fig. 3) which he describes as ‘formed’, composed of 36 annealed wires, giving it a round cross-section and a flexibility that ‘proved most practical in use’ (Shelley, 1862: 193–194).

Large-scale deployment of chain was rapidly dropped as the reliability of wire rope was illustrated in mine, factory, and shipyard (Bahke, 1985: 150). In 1838 American John Roebling saw the potential use of wire for hauling canal boats up inclined portages and by 1840 was America's first manufacturer of the product (Mumford, 1921: 22; Sneddon, 1998: 302). By 1838 British ships, naval and merchant, were using wire-rope standing rigging (Forestier-Walker, 1952: 23; Martin, 1992: 107–10). Wire rope was reportedly ‘in extensive use’ on steamboats on inland rivers in North America by 1839 (The Cultivator, May 1839: 6). In fact there were several manufacturers in competition. For example, a Mr Wheeler was producing a wire tiller-rope for use on steamships consisting of a ‘string of three wires twisted together. But Mr McCords is a rope three-eighths of an inch in size, composed of three cords of wire, each cord containing half a hundred or more fine wires. The entire rope is smooth, of compact twist, and easy pliability’ (Cincinnati Daily Gazette, 27 November 1838, ‘The Wire Rope’).

Cores and lubrication

By 1838 Shelley reports that ‘laid’ wire rope was already made wrapped around a fibre (usually hemp) core which provided cushioning, improving durability and flexibility (Fig. 2). He also notes that laid wire strands and wire ropes were originally made on the ‘ordinary machinery used on rope grounds for laying or closing hemp ropes’ (Shelley, 1862: 193–194). An important advancement came in 1844 when Andrew Smith patented a version of George Binks' wire rope with the first manila core to provide both flexibility and cushioning of the strands when under tension (Forestier-Walker, 1952: 24). This product featured seven wires twisted into each of six strands around an oiled manila core (Fig. 4). The result was a wire rope with a rounder cross-section that ran through the blocks smoothly and wore more evenly than the earlier Albert Rope. The oiled core provided lubrication internally to the wire rope, reducing internal friction as wires worked against each.

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Figure 4. Smith's improved patent wire rope with oiled manila core in 1844 (left) was a significant improvement over Albert Rope (right). (Mining Journal 14, 7 December 1844)

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As wire-drawing technology improved, wire rope had the additional advantage of production in nearly limitless lengths and diameters. In 1844 R. S. Newall & Co. at Gateshead, near Newcastle upon Tyne, made a continuous wire rope 6000 yards (5486 m) long, breaking the previous world record by 1000 yards (John Bull, 22 Jan. 1844: 46). Newall's wire rope also had a hemp core (Forestier-Walker, 1952: 33). Smith and Newall duelled with each other and with other emerging manufacturers over patent rights for their versions of fibre-core wire rope and specialized manufacturing machinery for years (Forestier-Walker, 1952: 28–35).

By 1862 documents record that nearly all metal ‘formed’ or twisted wire rope had been superseded by a design that used an oiled hemp rope core around which were laid strands of wire. The oiled rope provided lubrication and preservation, maintaining both flexibility and strength for years. Later, wire ropes made of thinner strands but with greater overall tensile strength were twisted around an oiled or tarred hemp or steel core (Shelley, 1862: 192; Cleveland Morning Daily Herald, 10 May 1873; Martin, 1992: 101–03). By the 1970s plastic had replaced the hemp in most wire rope (Chiappetta et al., 1978: 1).

Wire rope worldwide

The superior qualities of wire rope also made it ideal for suspension bridges, mining cables, cable-car railroads, elevator cables, crane- and winch-cables, dredge-cable, and stone-cutting, as well as mooring-lines, telegraph-cables, and an almost endless variety of applications (Chicago Daily Inter Ocean, 8 Aug. 1891: 11; Martin, 1992: 101–20). In 1856 the newly formed Atlantic Telegraph Company ordered 2500 nautical miles of special insulated wire rope to be used in the first trans-Atlantic cable. The cable was built in halves, one set by R. S. Newall & Co. and the other by Glass, Elliot & Co., both British firms. The insulation of this first submarine cable was faulty, and led to its failure (Forestier-Walker, 1952: 50–51). Future attempts would be successful, proving that the new technology offered maximum durability and flexibility for all kinds of applications.

Articles lauding wire rope, or advertisements selling it for maritime, mining, or engineering use first appeared in the Sydney Herald (1841), the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle (1844), the San Francisco Daily Bulletin (1858), and the Hawaiian Gazette (1872), indicating a worldwide familiarity with the product by the middle of the 19th century.

Steel

The shift from wrought iron to carbon steel produced by the invention of the Bessemer process (patented 1854), later improved by the open-hearth method (1865), not only produced a stronger product, but also significantly reduced impurities that created flaws in wires. These innovations created greater efficiency in production and reduced the price of steel, making the wire made with it even more desirable. British steel production dominated the world market until the growing efficiency of German and American producers brought the cost of steel from these countries into direct competition in the late 1890s (Allen, 1979: 913, 918).

The falling prices of steel made the advantages of wire or fibre even clearer. Hemp rope of 12-inch (0.3 m) diameter weighed 28 lbs (12.7 kg) to the fathom, while comparable, yet stronger, ‘charcoal wire rope’ (another name for early steel wire) weighed 13.75 lbs (6.24 kg) and even stronger steel wire rope only 8.5 lbs (3.86 kg). Ten to 15 years of longevity in marine service could be expected from the wire of either type (Cleveland Morning Daily Herald, 10 May 1873; Kipping, 1893: 140). The tensile strength of iron and steel wire rope was ‘about 40,000 lbs (18,144 kg) per inch area of Iron Rope, and 80,000 lbs (36,287 kg) per inch of Crucible Steel Rope’ (Mechanical Miners' Guide, 1882: 13). Especially with the switch from iron to steel wire, the benefits of using wire rope for rigging were well stated by the California Wire Works in 1882:

Galvanized iron wire rope for ship's standing rigging possesses many advantages over Hemp, requiring no stripping or refitting, as Hemp Rope must have every few years; and being once set up, it obviates the attention and trouble caused by stretching and shrinking of Hemp, and by its extreme lightness, being but two-thirds the weight of Hemp, increases the ship's capacity for cargo. And the advantage derived from the smaller surface opposed to the wind, (Wire Rope being one-half the size of Hemp) especially in beating to windward, needs no comment—while for the jib and flying jib stays, its smallness and smoothness permit the hanks to travel on it much more freely. (Mechanical Miners' Guide, 1882: 13)

Innovative cross-sections

The introduction of crucible steel created an environment that fostered innovation. By 1884 parallel strand wire rope had been invented by Tom Seale, constructed with a small-diameter strand core wrapped by two layers of progressively larger-diameter wire strands (Fig. 6), and a steady flow of upgrades, type changes, and equipment developments followed. A direct competitor was James Stone who, in 1889, developed the filler-strand type, which used smaller wires to fill gaps in the parallel strands (Fig. 6). This process came into standard use by John Roebling and others in the improvement of the suspension bridge (Verret, 2002: 4–7). By 1891 innovations in manufacture of steel wire rope had significantly reduced the market price and led to an exponential expansion in applications and consumption (Chicago Daily Inter Ocean, 1 Jan. 1891: 24, ‘Wire Rope’).

The lay of the wire rope became the primary preoccupation of most inventors: the way the strands came in contact and were twisted together, which contributed to wear, evenness of strain, and breakage of individual wires or strands over time. By finding new ways to lay the strands, designers were able to extend the life of wire rope. As a result, a great variety of configurations were produced (Shelley, 1862: 180; Bahke, 1985: 150–51). Wire rope came in increasingly more complex designs, each inventor and manufacturer promising, and in most cases delivering, greater strength and durability. The cushioning provided by the core and the lubricants applied to the wire rope received even greater attention (Fig. 5).

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Figure 5. In 1934 Hodson's ‘lubricated wire rope’ incorporated a ‘plastic viscous lubricant’ or grease that maintained lubrication within the wire longer. The patent included the formula for the grease. (Hodson, 1934: 1)

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Figure 6. In 1885 Seale (left) patented ‘parallel strand’ wire rope. In 1889 Stone (right) patented ‘filler-strand’ wire. (Seale, 1885; Stone, 1889)

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Related ship inventions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Early inventions
  4. Standing rigging
  5. Major 19th-century developments
  6. Related ship inventions
  7. Wire rope and archaeology
  8. Using wire rope for dating
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

Likewise, the continuing progression of the technology led to an explosion of related inventions used to work, splice, repair and adjust wire rope, or to offset new problems posed by the product. This could be the subject of an article in its own right, as many items were invented specifically for shipboard use, as is reflected in patent records, advertisements, and catalogues with dozens of rigging windlasses, turnbuckles, and spring links (Codmus, 1865; Shock, 1869; Liardet, 1872). For example, in his 1869 patent for an ‘Improved Device for Releasing Standing Rigging,’ Frederick Wittram stated that:

My invention relates to securing shrouds, backstays, and other standing rigging, to the plates or to the sides of the vessel, in such a manner and by such devices that two or more may be disengaged or ‘let go’ simultaneously, or nearly so. It is peculiarly adapted to wire rigging, or to that composed in whole or in part of rods or chains, not easily cut by an axe, or other ordinary means. (Wittram, 1869) (Fig. 7)

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Figure 7. This 1869 patent for gear to simultaneously release all the standing rigging on one side of a mast was specifically designed to deal with new circumstances caused by the introduction of wire rope in ships rigging. In other words, to replace the axe traditionally used to sever fibrous standing rigging in time of emergency. (Wittram, 1869)

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Similarly, William Shock's ‘elastic coupling’ was intended to simplify the adjustment of tension on wire rigging (Fig. 8).

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Figure 8. An adjustable turnbuckle was an essential component of Shock's 1869 elastic coupling for wire rigging. (Shock, 1869)

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Still, the development of certain techniques evolved slowly. Splicing laid wire rope at first used methods similar to splices for fibre rope. As the designs of wire rope became more complex, splicing techniques specific to wire rope were developed. In 1879 William Healey patented a method to speed the cumbersome splicing method by limiting the number of stands that were tucked in favour of pouring molten lead over the splice to strengthen, secure, and protect it (Fig. 9).

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Figure 9. Healey's 1879 patent for a new method of splicing wire rope avoided the complicated tucking of end strands among those further back on the wire by tucking only two strands, trimming the rest, and using lead poured into a mold to enter the gaps and surround the splice. (Healey, 1879)

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World navies began to use wire-rope netting as torpedo protection nets for surface ships, for harbour defence against submarines and for minesweeping gear (Koerner, 1886; Forestier-Walker, 1952: 38–40). The first uses of each new invention were usually commented on in the press and trade journals, creating yet other routes to identify sites, determine their historic significance, or draw interpretive relationships.

Wire rope and archaeology

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Early inventions
  4. Standing rigging
  5. Major 19th-century developments
  6. Related ship inventions
  7. Wire rope and archaeology
  8. Using wire rope for dating
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

There are four primary advantages of using wire rope to date or identify historic submerged and terrestrial archaeological sites. First, the patent records for wire rope are extensive, with even small changes well documented. Hence wire rope retrieved from an archaeological site can easily be compared in cross-section to historic patent illustrations. Second, wire rope is likely to survive even in harsh environments because its core is generally oiled and the outside painted, oiled, or tarred, the petroleum products typically providing lubrication and preservation when the product was in service and beyond. Third, manufacturers traditionally differentiated their product using wire-rope cross-sections in their advertisements, trade journals, pocket reference books, and other marketing material, providing further detail to assist the archaeologist (Fig. 10). Even the literature on the variety of lubricants used in and on wire rope is extensive. A modern example of the continuing search for the perfect lubricant for wire rope may be found in Grease is the Word (2007: 220). Fourth, the sales records for shipping companies and even specific ships are available in surviving ship chandlery records. The author used these records for Cleveland, Ohio's Upson and Walton Company to track the growth in use of wire ropes on the Great Lakes of the United States and Canada during the 19th century (Martin, 1992: 114–19).

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Figure 10. A typical manufacturer's product catalogue or field guide provided a cross-sectional view of the wire-rope designs offered, creating a resource that can be useful in identifying historical product today. (Roebling, 1940, 12–13)

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Examples of wire rigging from several 19th-century Great Lakes shipwrecks have been observed to be in good condition, sometime with the fibrous core still intact after a century or more under water. From personal observation, two Great Lakes shipwreck sites that illustrate this point include the scow schooner Rockaway (1866–1891) and schooner Alva Bradley (1870–1894), both wooden vessels lost in Lake Michigan. Although they were of considerably different hull designs, it is interesting to note that both vessels were about the same age when lost and that their original wire rigging was still in service.

Multiple investigations of the longevity of wire rope have been undertaken. Studies on wire used in suspension bridges predominate because of the obvious safety concerns about ageing infrastructure. An excellent example of the types of studies that relate to historic wire rope include Wei-Xin et al., (2004: 110–18) and Sluszka (1989: 272–8). The wide use of wire rope globally implies that many submerged and terrestrial sites around the world have this type of artefact present.

Simply comparing the cross-sectional configuration of a strand of recovered wire rope to illustrations in patent records, advertising brochures, catalogues, and other sources will probably hold the most promise for many archaeologists. However, because the search for the perfect wire-rope design for individual applications has continued to inspire a steady stream of patents, there are many other avenues of analysis that could prove productive. Many laboratories today have facilities and expertise in testing metallurgy, as well as the chemical composition of wire-rope cores and the lubricants and preservatives used to prolong product life. There is a significant volume of engineering data from manufacturers and post-installation studies which may also be useful to the scholar.

Using wire rope for dating

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Early inventions
  4. Standing rigging
  5. Major 19th-century developments
  6. Related ship inventions
  7. Wire rope and archaeology
  8. Using wire rope for dating
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

There are some issues to keep in mind when using wire rope for dating sites. Wire rope was as expensive as it was durable, which made salvage and re-use both desirable and cost-effective. Hence, an older outfit of wire rigging was, like early steam engines, sometimes removed from a worn-out ship and placed in a newer ship. Much of the early wire rope used in the United States and Canada was imported from Great Britain, and this is probably true for other places worldwide, so searching patent records in multiple countries can be time-consuming (Martin, 1992: 107, 109–10). To ease this process, the author has begun to amass a collection of records from primary sources worldwide that can be compiled into a historical catalogue of wire-rope designs, ancillary devices, and manufacturers.

The abandoned strands of wire rope that once stood to support the work of mariners, miners, bridge builders, and industrialists can still serve scholars today. The theory of using cross-sections of wire rope for dating, identifying, and perhaps interpreting archaeological sites need only be tested in the field.

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Early inventions
  4. Standing rigging
  5. Major 19th-century developments
  6. Related ship inventions
  7. Wire rope and archaeology
  8. Using wire rope for dating
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Cynthia Engerson in the production of this article.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Early inventions
  4. Standing rigging
  5. Major 19th-century developments
  6. Related ship inventions
  7. Wire rope and archaeology
  8. Using wire rope for dating
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References
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