Creation of New Conceptual Approaches

Prince Henry's Think Tank

During the voyages of discovery in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Portuguese navigators established themselves as leaders in guiding ships to their destinations and bringing them back safely. As a result, Portuguese navigators were preferred and demanded by ship-owners, governments, and insures. The source of this superiority was an initiative undertaken by a Portuguese prince -- Prince Henry the navigator (1394-1460).

In the early fifteen century, Prince Henry established (at Sagres, Portugal) a center for marine navigation - a unique, unprecedented think tank. The facilities included an astronomical observatory, a fortress, a school for navigators, living quarters, a hospital, and a chapel. To this center Prince Henry brought cartographers, instrument makers, astronomers, mathematicians, shipwrights, and draftsmen. He also established a data bank - a depository of logs of marine voyages describing prevailing winds, ocean currents, landmarks, and so on. Lessons learned from these logs were taught to Portuguese navigators. Those same lessons learned contributed to Portuguese successes during the voyages of discovery around the coast of Africa, through the Indian Ocean, and across the Atlantic.

Mathew Maury's Navigation Charts

Mathew Maury was a U.S. Navy Lieutenant who in 1842 was assigned to the Depot of Charts and Instruments. One of the functions of the depot was custody of the logs of naval voyages - thousands of them. Each log recorded the conditions encountered by the vessel during its voyage: current speeds and depths, water depths and temperatures, wind direction and strengths. These logs had been gathering dust in the depot's archives. Maury took the initiative to organize the information and analyze it. He entered the results into navigation charts using standardized graphics ant terminology. For example, wind direction was shown by an arrow pointing downwind; the length of the arrow designated wind strength.

One of the first ships to use Maury's charts was the famous Flying Cloud. In 1851 it sailed from New York to San Francisco. The previous record was 119 days. The Flying Cloud made it in 89 days (Whipple, 1984). That record the endured for 138 years!

Gunfire at Sea

Until the late 1890s, naval gunfire was extremely inaccurate. During the Spanish-American War, 9,500 shots were fired at various close ranges, resulting in 121 hits, just over 1 percent.

A breakthrough in precision evolved in 1898. A British officer, Admiral Sir Percy Scott, had become preoccupied with efforts to improve gunnery. One day while his ship was at target practice, he observed numerous rounds be fired by various gunners. He noted that one gunner was significantly more accurate than the rest. Sir Percy also discovered why. This gunner was manipulating the elevating gear of the gun to compensate for the anticipated roll of the ship.

Sir Percy then undertook to bring all gunners up to the level of the best. He also added some essential changes in technology. None of these were Sir Perc's inventions, but he was the first to assemble them in combination. Collectively his changes made possible a so-called continuous-aim firing. It revolutionized accuracy, as shown in the following comparison of firing at a range of 1,500 meters:

                                                 1898                                1905

The increase in accuracy was about 3,000 percent (Morison, 1966)

An American naval officer, Lieut. William S. Sims, learned in 1900 all about Sir Percy's findings, from Sir Percy himself. Lieut. Sims then undertook to transfer those new methods to the U.S. Navy. He met an astonishing amount of cultural resistance. However, eight turbulent years later he was universally acclaimed as "the man who taught us how to shoot" (Morison, 1966).

Morison, Elting E. Men, Machines and Modern Times. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1966. Chapter Two, "Gunfire at Sea."

Whipple, A. B. C. "Stranded Navy Man Who Charted the World's Seas." Smithsonian, March 1984, pp. 171-86.