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A Two-Part Invention

"Jack," said Stephen abruptly, "I have a thought – an improvement in naval architecture; a clear boon to all who sail."

"Why, brother, this is new in you," said Jack, hiding a smile with his violin-scroll. "So how goes your discovery?"

"Well, Jack, it begins with the – What do you call that thing that projects downwards from the bottom of the ship? Like the avian sternum," he added helpfully.

Jack's blank look in fact betokened that he could not believe his ears. "The keel," he said at last. "You mean the keel, Stephen."

"The keel, so it is. And my thought is this: instead of one keel you should have two, pointing sideways, one on each side. You see, my dear, the wider the ship is, the more stable; is that not so? With these lateral keels you have all the benefit of greater breadth; they resist the impulsion of the waters from below, so that the ship cannot turn over, cannot broach to, and she repels that uneasy motion that provokes nausea; and yet, because they are still mere narrow blades, they do not hinder her passage; there is no loss of celerity. What say you, Jack?"

"Why, that point about resistance is very sound, very sound indeed. But I grieve to say, Stephen, that it don't answer. With anything of a wind abeam, she would roll her masts out."

"How so, tell?"

This was not so easy. Jack tried to enlighten his friend on the delicate balance of breaking-strains and the perils of an over-stiff hull, but Stephen's ignorance of mathematics rendered him impregnable on that side. Then came inspiration.

"Just light along that broken A string of yours, will you, Stephen? Thankee . . . Now my fiddle stands for the hull, d'ye see? and I step my bow in the sound-hole to make a mast, so; and here" – he lashed the length of gut around the stick, passed it under the back of the instrument and made the ends fast – "are your shrouds. Now, she is sailing large – with the wind coming over the side." He rocked his improvised model to left and right. "As you see, she moves all of a piece; hull and mast and standing-rigging share all share the strain. But now imagine your hull held level by its flat keels. The motion is more like this." He slid the violin to and fro on the table, keeping it upright. "The mast is bearing the force of the wind all alone, with no give in the hull; and so, sooner or later – " Perfectly on cue, the brittle string snapped again, and Jack dexterously caught the bow as it went by the board. "So there you are, Stephen!"

Stephen still hung his lip. "Come, brother," said Jack, "you are only ahead of your time. When ships can sail without masts, your notion will have its day, to be sure. In any case I shall put it to Seppings, and if I am wrong, why you may just call me – "

"A purple owl?" said Stephen, and they both laughed.

© 2004 Oliver Mundy