Lloyds Register Foundation Forum


“Natural experiments”: archival researchers reveal insights into contemporary maritime challenges


Over the last few months of 2021, the Lloyd’s Register Foundation hosted four interns from the University of Oxford to complete mini-internships working within the Hindsight Perspectives for a Safer World project.

History & Policy has a 20-year record of bringing expert historical comment to bear on policy questions. Often historians’ interventions are of great interest to Civil Servants who may be working in a current policy area (such as taxation, the NHS, or how to manage a pandemic) with a lot of current information and data, but not much idea of what has been explored, researched and tried before, perhaps as little as twenty years ago in their own department. The Hindsight Perspectives project is the first attempt to bring those principles to an engineering and technology milieu, where what is at stake is not just policy questions, but the decisions of an industry on the brink of staggering change.

We briefed the interns to work on key topics (containerisation, supply-chain bottlenecks, self-driving vessels, and the decarbonisation of ports) and to explore the Heritage & Education Centre (HEC) archive for suitable material that might bring past lessons to bear on these current problems. The internships were only five days long and the interns arrived from various different degree programs knowing very little about the shipping industry – so we were very impressed with what they came up with.

As we explained to them, this “first look” at the archive catalogue to explore certain topics was a genuine leap into the dark for us as well as them. We had no idea how they might choose to interpret what they found, and there were no right answers. Their summarising blog posts, and literature reviews make a great starting point for any professional historian wanting to explore the archive more thoroughly.

Farheen Muhammed explored the past and future of containerisation to find inspiration for how to approach today’s demand-side shipping challenges. Before fully containerised shipping with purpose-designed vessels took off in the 1960s, for example, other vessels were sometimes retrofitted to carry containers, and the Foundation archive contains references to such vessels – might there be clues here for engineers and logisticians trying to unblock the bottlenecks today? More widely, it may be that alternative and overland modes of container transport in the mid-20th century, which were quickly outcompeted by containerised shipping, may now be relevant once more as shipping runs up against supply side and demand side capacity problems. 

Nora Cai reviewed the literature on shipping congestion and supply chain bottlenecks, with a particular view to outlining already tried solutions. In particular she highlights the effects of the closure of the Suez Canal from 1967-75 – a “natural experiment” the contemporary response to which could give the industry some pointers for today. She has a useful history of the various expansion projects on the Suez Canal and an overview of other potential solutions to congestion such as alternative routes and increasing the capacity of vessels. Do have a look at her literature review (linked at the bottom of the page) – she has found things that underline very well the point that previous thinking has been done on these problems. There is a potential treasure trove of material in HEC and other libraries and archives for analysts who may be used to working mostly with current data. 

Mina Ghosh also looked at shipping lane congestion and her literature review considers some very interesting potential inspirations – a long history of naval port blockades and how shipping responded to this might provide more “natural experiments” for analysts looking at backed up ports today. Mina became particularly interested in automation and self-driving vessels as a solution, both as a means of increasing capacity and also for making the system fit for future growth. She points to high levels of stress, exhaustion and overwork prevalent in the seafaring profession today which endanger both individuals and vessels. Removing humans from unsafe work environments, decreasing operational costs and reducing human error is a suite of benefits that the shipping and engineering industries have essentially been pursuing for their whole history – replacing traditional hand-dredging by steam-driven dredging during the industrial revolution, for example.

Sarah Ang took a look at how ports and their hinterlands have navigated profound technological change in the past – as they will have to do again as the industry moves towards decarbonisation. Port infrastructure and skills development is key to the shift away from fossil fuels, as correct development of new infrastructure is a necessary condition for new fuel technology across the world. Some of the material and examples she has found underline the point that the quality of hinterland connections away from ports can be an important factor in driving or constraining development, or indeed allowing for a new pathway in terms of technology.

We are hoping to use Sarah’s material as the basis for a project report on ports and their hinterlands – see here for our call to historians to write on this and other topics.

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