The Era of the Liner

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The word “liner” comes from the term “packet-line”: a packet was a regular mail boat and the line was the “line” of vessels it comprised. In the middle of the nineteenth century propeller propulsion succeeded the paddle, which was not well-suited to open seas operation. This led to more than a hundred years of the North Atlantic liners .

Laurence Dunn (1908-2006) who produced these prints was perhaps the greatest expert on the liner era of them all and so this series of prints enabled him to indulge in his passion for line and form in these ships. As a lifelong expert on large vessels, and with this particular interest in shape and form he was employed by the Admiralty in World War II to enhance the Navy’s ship recognition capability. And so this series of prints, carefully selected by and drawn by Dunn, is all about the evolution of shape and form in North Atlantic liners during the first half of the twentieth century – the apogee of the era. They were chosen not only for their individual interest but also so that together they may cover the widest range of funnel-mast combinations that were in vogue during this most interesting period of North Atlantic liner history.

The Yankee Clipper, a Pan Am flying boat, was the first transatlantic passenger flight in 1939. In May 1952 BOAC flew the first jet passenger flight to New York in a de Havilland Comet. When Pan Am took delivery of its first Boeing 707-120 aircraft in August 1958 the death knell was sounding for the transatlantic liner, although it took another 50 years before the end finally came with the retirement of the Queen Elizabeth II.

The greatest ships plied to New York from Europe – especially from the UK and Germany in the early days. There were other intermediate vessels which carried cargo and passengers. Many passengers preferred the steadiness of these ships to the liveliness and vibration on the express ships.  They provided secondary services to New York and other ports on the East Coast.

The twentieth century marked the start of the big ship era. 1899 saw the White Star Line’s Oceanic, the world’s largest ship of over 17,000 tons. Her 1871 namesake of 3,700 tonnes had been famed for size, speed and excellent accommodation. The years between saw final emancipation from sail, the evolution of new forms of construction, improved hull shapes and better propulsion machinery that transformed the industry.

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Oceanic was soon followed by liners of over 50,000 tons. Slim-hulled ships got beamier and topped by massive superstructures. The low profile of early British ships arose from an outmoded regulation forbidding the carriage of passengers on more than two decks. In other countries more passengers were carried above the upper deck permitting better accommodation. The restriction was abolished in 1906. The Lusitania and Mauretania could now introduce a three-tier superstructure.

The later liners showed the funnel(s) and mast(s) were unimportant whilst the old liners gained their dignity, not from superstructure, but from the height and positioning of funnels and masts.

The sailing ship era had left a legacy of masts, while the lack of power from early boilers meant that a ship needed a battery of these – which meant more funnels. Improved boiler efficiency led to a reduction in the number of funnels, but these had sales appeal, so some liners carried one or more dummy stacks.

Masts were an accepted part of a ship’s profile; four was common and two liners alone boasted six each. Some were fitted for aesthetic reasons only; cargo was better handled by paired derrick posts. But these were unpopular and made as inconspicuous as possible, an attitude that persisted into the twenties. The 20,000 ton Minnetonka and Minnewaska, built by Atlantic Transport Co, were intermediate liners with a cargo capacity. They were given two masts. For handling cargo, they had an array of derrick posts. Yet taste was such that promotional artwork showed the two pole masts but no sign of the more conspicuous derrick posts.

The period covered by these prints was remarkable for the infinite variety of funnel-mast combinations. The clipper stem became a hallmark of the veteran liner.  The stern was usually of the counter type. The graceful, continuous sheer contributed to the elegance common to these old-timers. Breaks in the superstructure were ugly. They arose because cargo hatches needed to be on the weather deck. Later, they were on a higher level, accommodation being built around the upward trunking.

Before 1890 the number of lifeboats carried on British ships was governed by regulations laid down in 1855 requiring enough for about 25 percent of those aboard. In 1890 the number was increased by about 50 per cent, while a further revision was made in 1912. It was not until the Titanic disaster, that the International Conference for the Safety of Life at Sea was established. In 1914 ships were required to provide lifeboats or rafts for all. This did not meet the problem of a listing ship. It was not until the Convention of 1929 that buoyancy apparatus (lifebelts) was mandated for 25 per cent of those on board.

Prior to the First World War, davits which handled the lifeboats were usually of the radial type. The Titanic loss accelerated the adoption of the gravity type which carried the lifeboats high above deck.

The Titanic court of inquiry created new problems for the naval architect. One  was how to maintain stability, with the increased topweight from the extra lifeboats. So, in the Hamburg-America Line’s Imperator, the lifeboats were placed along the base of the superstructure.

The paired funnels of the Kaiser Wilhelm II  might suggest that those of the Mauretania were equidistant They were not. Nor were the tops of the Olympic’s funnels quite level, the second and third reaching a foot higher than the others. Having builders’ drawings and contemporary photographs has shown the inaccuracies of models of these liners. It seems the models were completed before the ships themselves and often did not reflect the final ‘as fitted’ drawings.

Some of the terms may usefully be explained: measuring ships has varied through the years, and when dealing with the older ones it is often only possible to quote with exactness those given in contemporary registers. While length overall (o.a.) is self-explanatory, a more traditional form of measurement is that between perpendiculars (b.p.). This represents the distance from the fore side of the stem (at waterline) to the after side of the sternpost, ignoring all overhang. Depth is measured at a mid-length point and represents the distance (at sides) between the upper deck and the keel (baseline). Both this and breadth are overall measurements, but the use of the qualifying word ‘moulded’ signifies that these measurements have been made over the frames and thus do not include the thickness of the hull plating. Horsepower is generally quoted as indicated horsepower (i.h.p.) or shaft horsepower (s.h.p.).

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