Hindsight Perspectives for a Safer World Project

PUBLICATION: Local knowledge, global change - how sail-to-steam can help us frame decarbonisation

Publication next week

We are excited to provide a quick look at the new Hindsight Perspectives report, Local knowledge, global change: a study of Lloyd's Register surveyors 1834-1860 by Dr Elin Jones, Lecturer in Maritime History at the University of Exeter.

Why the first half of the nineteenth century?

Today's maritime industry is focussed on technological, engineering and governance challenges as it faces up to the dauntingly complex processes of decarbonisation. One way we can unpick and contextualise these challenges is to consider how governance bodies at all levels dealt with similar sweeping technological change in the past. As with all work that puts historical research to this kind of use, the intended outcome is not so much a list of "dos and don'ts" (although there may be some) as a way of understanding what is possible, and what should the guiding principles be.

Dr Elin Jones's report explores how standardisation and centralisation intertwined over the first half of the nineteenth century in the UK maritime industry, as steam gradually replaced sail (much more gradually than zero carbon fuels will have to be introduced).

First, the new technologies brought new dangers, and classification societies (as well as the wider public polity) had to rise to the challenge of tackling what was seen as a national embarrassment:

In 1848, an alarmed Justice of the Peace wrote to the then Home Secretary, George Grey, ‘calling your attention to the loading and management of our sea-going Steam Boats, as I felt the lives of many are daily endangered from the indiscriminate use made of passenger carrying steamers’, claiming that many he had lately seen were not fit for the purpose of carrying cargo or passengers. Indeed, the feted W.S.Lindsay, launched so proudly from Newcastle, proved unstable once at sea, and heeled over on the Downs on its maiden voyage before being towed back at the cost of £3,000.

Early steam vessels were thus far from reliable, and the Lloyd’s Register Committee, with its corporate reputation only recently intact, needed to ensure that its classifications accurately reflected the quality of new ships and guard against the possibility of association with maritime disaster. Mitigating risk through classification was the major aim of the newly reformed Lloyd’s Register in 1834, and as steamship building ventures grew in the regions beyond London, so did a sense that greater standardisation between them was needed.

At the same time as standardising the classification of dangerous new technologies, Lloyd's Register was also concerned with the impartiality of surveyors, resulting in a shift away from locally embedded employees. This was part of a wider professionalisation and development of bureaucratic process over the nineteenth century, in the maritime industry and beyond:
The Lloyd’s Register employment records tell the story of a stark change in practice from the early 1850s onwards in response to these concerns. The first generation of surveyors, as we have seen, were employed in the port communities they were originally from and remained there throughout the duration of their surveying careers. From around 1850 however, a new policy saw men offered substantial sums of money in salaries to leave their homes and to relocate, not just once, but repeatedly over the course of their career.

What are the implications for now?

The conversations, projects and governance structures being created to foster zero carbon shipping are regional and global, but much of the detailed implementational knowledge will be local:
There are lessons here to be gleaned here about the relationship between local and global governance, as well as the way companies manage technological transformation from afar. At present Lloyd’s Register, along with many other non-governmental and quasi-governmental organisations, is in the process of reimagining the world of shipping once more, leading a decarbonisation initiative which would see a global network of ports and green shipping corridors connected by investment in sustainable fuel.
Crucially, this initiative will also depend on individuals ‘on the ground’ in the localities where new fuels are stored, and where new ports are created or older ports adapted to meet the needs of green shipping worldwide. As my conversations with members of the LR Maritime Decarbonisation Hub have made clear, the creation of green corridors requires globally-minded organisations to remain attentive to the needs of local communities and regions, and to adapt to these if it is to create a successful and enduring infrastructure.


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