Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Doc, My Eye Hurts

I don't think anyone in their right mind would say the sailor's life was easy. Everything conspired to make you either a tough as nails, muscle bound superhero or a gelatinous wimp who eventually oozed off the deck of the ship to join Davey Jones in what may have looked like a watery form of heaven at that point. The navy and merchant services were particularly grueling, as we've discussed before, and turning pirate was the best option in many cases. At least you could always walk away. I mean, if you could walk.

But what about the "officer" class? Not everything was roses around the door up there on the quarterdeck and today's handy invention is a good example of why.

Obviously, navigation is necessary to all ships at sea. Being out in the open ocean is as disorienting as being up in a plane. With only miles of water and sky all around, good tools and the knowledge to use them were the difference between getting where you wanted to go and never - ever - seeing home again. From the earliest days of sail, mariners learned to navigate by the position of celestial objects. The sun, the moon, the planets and various stars such as Polaris and Sirius became the unwritten language by which a man could find his course and stay on it. Knowing dates and times was essential too, especially when dealing with moving bodies like the sun and moon. I'm pretty sure sailors had as much to do with inventing calendars as women did.

As the art of sailing progressed so did the tools and while this was good from a knowing where you are standpoint it didn't always help your health. For centuries, sailors used an instrument called a cross-staff to calculate latitude while at sea. Use of a cross-staff involved standing on a heaving deck (isn't that a great term?), positioning the instrument at your eye and staring up at the sun. The sun! How many times have you been warned about staring into the sun? Don't lie; I'm a mom.

The navigator would need to keep the sun aligned with the top of the crossbar while he stood there on deck, his toes curling painfully to try to keep him steady. Then he would need to slide the crossbar down until the horizon touched its other end. All while staring at the sun. OK, so if you don't get pterygiums from the salt air, now you're in for early cataracts from staring at the sun. In all fairness, by the age of Napoleon cataract surgery was being done but it was no picnic and no guarantee you wouldn't lose your eye - or your life.

Enter John Davis who, in 1595, introduced the backstaff (a fine example of which is shown above). With this instrument a man could turn his back to the sun and calculate latitude by measuring its shadow with the backstaff. Of course, you still might end up with Doc Fumbles ripping out your cataract down the line, but at least you could read the stinking charts when you got done with you calculations.

Its like I tell my kids: the 20th century didn't invent technological advancement and here's a good example of what I mean. Have a great Tuesday, Brethren!


Timmy! said...

Don't stare into the sun! Important safety tip... Thanks, Pauline! For those like me who have already had cataract surgery, I don't even want to think about "Dr. Fumbles" coming at my eyes with a sharp instrument... Sounds like a bad horror movie to me.

WasABuc said...

Where the hell do you get all this information? I thought you were raising kids & directing your husband to clean up the back yard & shovel the snow? MAN you've been busy. This stuff is really interesting. The white-on-black text is killing my eyes though :) Love you sis! You're a freakin' genius. I forgot what kinda' beer I had last night & you blog this tuff every day.

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy! Ahoy WasABuc! How cheeful to get your notes this morning! Brightens up a rainy day, I'll tell ya!

Timmy! said...

She has been busy WasABuc... And still is: constantly reading and researching this stuff while writing this blog, writing for other blogs (that actually pay her a little bit, anyway) and writing (and re-writing) her series of novels... pretty impressive if you ask me. I just wish she got a little more recognition for all her hard work... Let alone she does it all while raising a couple of awesome kids... Thanks, Pauline!