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100 years of ocean travel 1750 to 1850
April 15, 2012 9:43 PM   Subscribe

For centuries, ships navigated by the stars. Thousands of ships' logs representing hundreds of thousands of position readings were diligently recorded by sailors for a future use they never could have imagined: 100 years of ocean travel 1750 to 1850.
posted by stbalbach (42 comments total) 103 users marked this as a favorite

 
And today, with GPS, you can watch the same thing in real time.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:53 PM on April 15, 2012 [24 favorites]


This is great.
posted by anewnadir at 10:07 PM on April 15, 2012


Anyone else getting strong memories of middle-school history classes and the Triangle Trade?
posted by spitefulcrow at 10:10 PM on April 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


That is way cool, and I love the careful discussion below about the limits of the data set he's working with. Also this:

"You see a blink in the year charts...at March 1: that's because 3/4 of all the ships disappear from the seas on February 29th every year. I just left that one in, because it's interesting."
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:13 PM on April 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Fascinating. Some of these boats seemed to have gone in fairly circuitous routs, they kind of look like they're staggering around drunk or something. There were a couple that seemed to head out in one way, then zip around in a totally different direction.
posted by delmoi at 10:40 PM on April 15, 2012


[This is Good]
posted by Rumple at 10:51 PM on April 15, 2012


Fascinating. Some of these boats seemed to have gone in fairly circuitous routs, they kind of look like they're staggering around drunk or something. There were a couple that seemed to head out in one way, then zip around in a totally different direction.

Sailing ships at sea are largely at the mercy of the weather. They navigate in trade wind routes, and storms can force them long distances, not necessarily in a direction they wanted to go.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:04 PM on April 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Fascinating. </spock>
posted by mazola at 11:04 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm curious why the folks who know things in that comment thread left out American whalers, there are really good records kept of those log books, though I don't think they're digitized.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:12 PM on April 15, 2012


Also, if anyone is curious about what it's actually like to travel the world in a small-ish sailboat, Webb Chiles has free PDF versions of his books about his circumnavigations. I read the first two and found them both very interesting, even if they do illustrate the eccentricities of their author (but you wouldn't do this sort of thing if you weren't eccentric). It's not the same as colonial era commercial shipping, but does give you a pretty good idea of why a sailing ship might travel by a circuitous route, and other real world considerations of sailors.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:19 PM on April 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Fascinating. Some of these boats seemed to have gone in fairly circuitous routs, they kind of look like they're staggering around drunk or something. There were a couple that seemed to head out in one way, then zip around in a totally different direction.

It's a good visualization, communicating two important things as the century passes:

• navigation gets more accurate
• average ship speed increases

...both, presumably, resulting from general improvements to technology.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:23 PM on April 15, 2012


Yo, 51°32' N   0°5' W. Represent!
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:18 AM on April 16, 2012


Some of these boats seemed to have gone in fairly circuitous routs, they kind of look like they're staggering around drunk or something.

...unfavourable winds? storms?
posted by bonobothegreat at 1:13 AM on April 16, 2012


Drunken sailors? Unthinkable!
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:47 AM on April 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


This is fantastic; thank you so much for posting it!

There aren't many truly seasonal events, but a few stand out. There are regular summer voyages from Scotland to Hudson's Bay, and from Holland up towards Spitsbergen, for example: both these appear as huge convoys moving in sync. (What were those about?)

I'm guessing that's the herring fishery (the 'groote visserij', as the Dutch called it), which was highly seasonal. This is particularly interesting as it provides a way to visualise the economic competition between the Scots and the Dutch, which could be really useful for historians.
posted by verstegan at 3:23 AM on April 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


1) This is obviously only working with a tiny subset of available records. Notice that there isn't a single ship in the Med the entire video. Also, the Napoleonic Wars don't even really show up. So it's hard to know whether we're looking at a representative sample of all the logs available, and impossible to know whether that is a representative sample of all the ships that sailed during a period.

2) That said, this video demonstrates big of a deal the Dutch were pre-WWI. Goes double for Spain. It's easy to forget that these days.

3) Regardless, the Atlantic really was a British pond there for a bit.
posted by valkyryn at 4:14 AM on April 16, 2012


This is really good, and a really neat idea.
posted by carter at 4:14 AM on April 16, 2012


Slight derail but- going back even further, the Vikings navigated cloudy days with the use of Sunstones.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:52 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also- really sorry that France is not included
posted by IndigoJones at 5:02 AM on April 16, 2012


That was neat to look at. But also heartbreaking when I realized that I was watching slave ships crossing the Atlantic.
posted by Forktine at 5:43 AM on April 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


The more interesting ships logs are of the N/S compass magnet readings.

Earth's magnetic field is weakening in staggered steps, a new analysis of centuries-old ships logs suggests. The finding could help scientists better understand the way Earth's magnetic poles reverse.
posted by rough ashlar at 5:50 AM on April 16, 2012


GOOD START. NOW COMBINE IT WITH THE WIND VISUALIZATION MAP (but seriously, this is beautiful)
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:31 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, combine it with the perpetual ocean current map.
posted by fings at 7:12 AM on April 16, 2012


GOOD START. NOW COMBINE IT WITH THE WIND VISUALIZATION MAP


And you'll probably see that the slave trade was based on more than racial ideology. It's not like God created favorable tradewinds for no reason you know.

posted by three blind mice at 7:24 AM on April 16, 2012


This rules. Also with sailboats you have to zig and to zag to provide forward propulsion in the general direction you want to go. I am under the impression that the square rigs were mostly useful in a downwind (from behind) tack, but poor upwind or in a reach (wind on the side).

These days we sail boats with a sail plan that mostly includes the Bermudan configuration where the sail is behind the mast (or standing rigging). This provides better performance upwind and on reaches.

Does anyone know the details or history of what I just explained? I am trying to find more explanation and most importantly, the impact of sail plans throughout the ages.
posted by toastchee at 7:41 AM on April 16, 2012


Related, a static visualization of the same dataset. The breakout of Spanish vs Dutch ships is particularly nice.
posted by Nelson at 7:48 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


What's with the ships making a U-turn in the South Atlantic?
posted by HotToddy at 8:37 AM on April 16, 2012


And what's with all the trails that suddenly stop in the middle of the ocean? At first I assumed those ships had sunk for some reason, but then we wouldn't have the logs available. So...?
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:47 AM on April 16, 2012


And what's with all the trails that suddenly stop in the middle of the ocean? At first I assumed those ships had sunk for some reason, but then we wouldn't have the logs available. So...?

I think most of those are going to islands to small to see on the map. I saw some that were clearly going to the Azores for instance. There were some where I couldn't put my finger on where they were stopping, but I'm guessing it's an island.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:06 AM on April 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


IndigoJones - France is in there, just not much. I can see colony/exploration voyages to Quebec (Arcadia?) and what I'd guess is d'Entrecasteaux visiting Australia. Did the French really have much of a trade fleet in this period? By the 1760's France was pretty much done as a player in North America.

Being something of an exploration geek I started looking for specific paths in there. There are some pretty famous feats of navigation that aren't included - Cook's first voyage, Vancouver mapping the PNW, etc. and I'd think they would be well documented. Love this but the gaps in the data just leave me wanting more.
posted by N-stoff at 9:15 AM on April 16, 2012


Very cool, thanks for posting this.
posted by Outlawyr at 10:38 AM on April 16, 2012


Bulgaroktonos: There were some where I couldn't put my finger on where they were stopping, but I'm guessing it's an island.

Interesting...in that case, there should be a return trip at some point. I'll have to watch the video again, more closely this time.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:43 AM on April 16, 2012


I kind of wanted to grab the tiny people by the shoulders and shake until someone dug the Suez Canal.

But yeah, Mediterranean shipping being missing makes the whole round-the-Cape thing stand out more, now that you mention it.
posted by kostia at 11:17 AM on April 16, 2012


I knew the spice islands were important but I wasn't expecting Indonesia to be getting more traffic than India.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:25 AM on April 16, 2012


As fascinating as celestial navigation is, based on a perusal of the link and what I know about that point in history, the plotting was not done by the stars so much as the sun and the compass, as well as rough estimates of longitude (as Dava Sobel fans know, longitude was the nut to crack)
posted by hcovitz at 12:03 PM on April 16, 2012


in that case, there should be a return trip at some point. I'll have to watch the video again, more closely this time.

If the ship starts a new log at the way point and the latter log is lost you'd only see the out going trip.
posted by Mitheral at 12:04 PM on April 16, 2012


As lovely as the videos are, two choices about them that make this a firmly Eurocentric view. The source dataset is European ships only. And the projection is the Gilbert two-world perspective. As the author notes, this completely destroys any sort of mapping of the Pacific Ocean. Which is a good choice for this dataset, but does leave out half the world's oceans.

Nothing wrong with a Eurocentric view, it's fantastic data. But this visualization would look a lot different if it showed shipping traffic from China, the Arab states, Japan, Polynesia, etc. Related: Charles Mann's book 1493, although it mostly covers the era before these maps.
posted by Nelson at 12:26 PM on April 16, 2012


Was it necessary to keep ship's logs in the Mediterranean? To my understanding the primary function of a ship's log was as a navigational aid, ie a track of where we have been, which is extremely useful for helping to discover where we are and how we are doing on our journey. So in the Med, where ships mainly sailed near well-known landmarks, except right in the middle of it, and generally speaking knew where they were, there seems to be much less reason to keep a ship's log, other than on a port-by-port basis. Also, other ships are much more common so can be hailed to ask directions. For how long can you be out of sight of land in the Med, assuming you're not becalmed?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:47 PM on April 16, 2012


Totally wild..like watching the data set at the end of a real time strategy game.
posted by chronkite at 4:03 PM on April 16, 2012


Just a thought on the circuitous routes... sometimes it's not a question of UN-favorable winds as it is FAVORABLE winds. Just like it might be quicker at some times to take the interstate the long way around instead of the surface streets, it is often quicker to make use of the prevailing winds than to go straight (or as straight as you can) to your destination. Finding those routes was really a big reason why all these records were kept. It's amazing to watch those routes develop over the years. Kind of interesting to see how few ships take the East to West route around the Horn. Guess it really was a bad as all the stories say.
posted by Noon Under the Trees at 6:24 PM on April 16, 2012


Shipping and ocean cruising by sail is not like your afternoon sailboat race 'around the cans'. Great planning goes into avoiding upwind routes. It's hard on the rigging, the boat and the crew. I read a blog of a couple that needed to deliver a boat to Brazil which was mostly upwind from where they were, the decided to basically reach to almost Africa, turn and take the trade winds back to Rio. Took an extra month but sounded most pleasant. Actually you can see some of that general pattern in the video.
posted by sammyo at 6:37 PM on April 16, 2012


Just at the moment I'm obsessively reading through the 20-volume Napoleonic-era nautical adventure Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O'Brien, so this is of particular interest. I could almost believe that ship stopping off in Ceylon is the Surprise en route to protect the China Fleet's 6 million from the predations of that wily old French admiral Linois. Great post!
posted by jet_manifesto at 12:40 AM on April 18, 2012


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