Hindsight Perspectives for a Safer World Project

Local knowledge, global change: a study of Lloyd’s Register surveyors 1834-1860

Hindsight for a Safer World Report I

The first report in the Hindsight for a Safer World project will be published soon, and deals with "the human factor" - power brokering and relationships during a critical period of technological change, the sail-to-steam transition.

The early nineteenth century saw the rise of steam and other new technologies in shipping and marked the beginning of 100 years of profound transition. But how did contemporary shipping professionals and surveyors track and inspect the fast-paced new inventions to promote safe sailing as far as possible, and how were Lloyd's Register's operations affected? Technological change put strains on corporate governance and local relationships, as explored in a new report to be published in September 2022 written by Dr Elin Jones, Lecturer in Maritime History at the University of Exeter, the first in the Hindsight for a Safer World series managed by History & Policy at King’s College London. Jones uses materials from the Lloyd’s Register Foundation Heritage and Education Centre (HEC) archives to explore how Lloyd’s Register deployed its surveyors to manage risk during the transition, a maritime revolution comparable to the profound technological change happening today as the shipping industry grapples with decarbonisation.

All the Hindsight project reports will seek to draw connections between contemporary challenges and how related developments were managed in the past. The themes in this report, the importance of relationships, how to negotiate realities on the ground, and strategies for developing and implementing corporate governance and regulation will resonate with anyone working on decarbonisation, green corridors and port infrastructure development for example, as well as fuel innovation, AI and other vessel-based technological advances.

The original maritime revolution

Jones notes that when many people think of the Industrial Revolution in Britain they do not typically picture shipping innovation:

This is a story as yet untold in histories of the Industrial Revolution. Historians have often focused on railways and factories to pinpoint the moment at which Britain became an ‘industrial nation’, meaning the story of Britain’s maritime industrialisation has remained comparatively obscure in public historical imagining. From the 1760s onwards however, just as James Watt’s engine was being installed on land, those living along the coasts and waterways of Britain were also tinkering, creating and engineering new industrial technologies. These were men such as David Elder, who spent his life working on the Clyde for the shipbuilder Robert Napier, designing engines and boilers which would support transoceanic steam navigation, something which was a mere dream when he began his work in the middle of the 1830s, but had become a reality a decade later.

Indeed, what is remarkable about the first half of the nineteenth century is the rapidity with which steam power was accepted and applied to a range of maritime shipping applications.

All this led to profound change in how vessels were sailed, how the industry passed on its skills, and how the bodies involved in regulating, classifying and fostering these innovations acted. Again, all this might sound familiar to modern professionals. This period when maritime industrialisation was at the heart of a wider technological epochal shift is one model for the Getting to Zero coalition’s ambition for a future in which “international shipping’s decarbonisation catalyses the broader energy transition”.

A shift in safety thinking

Accidents involving large losses of life in the early days of steam were far from unknown – and profoundly shocking to public sensibility when they did occur. Public and political pressure acted on Lloyd’s Register and on the industry as a whole to mitigate risk and standardise procedures for assessing new technologies. How best to make this work on the ground when the pace of technological change and experimentation was so fast? The report relates how in the earlier part of the period many Lloyd’s Register surveyors were explicitly appointed on the basis of their local knowledge and standing in the local shipping community.

Lloyd’s Register employees may have been the agents of standardisation and bureaucratisation, but they were also living parts of the port communities which they had to assess. This form of work required them to be at once distant and deeply involved, and an examination of surveyors provides a reminder for historians and policy makers alike of the importance of understanding the importance and role of locality in shaping global technological change.

A notable shift had occurred by the end of the report’s period, as a new generation of surveyors were relocated to different ports throughout their careers and financially rewarded for maintaining the required distance from the localities. This was seen as key to their incorruptibility, and hence to the maintenance of high safety standards.

Through the evolution of both these strategies, we can see Lloyd’s Register as one key source of governance in the maritime space trying to flex around the problems brought by profound technological change, and working out how to use its people to manage change on the ground. As the industry now stands on the brink of the next “maritime revolution”, with implications for safety standards around the world and at far removes from sources of governance, industry and policy makers will have to think both “global governance” and “local reality”, and track the effect their actions have on the relationship between the two.

A shorter version of this post appears in Dispatch, the magazine of the Lloyd's Register Foundation Heritage and Education Centre.


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