To take a break from writing the last in the series of pieces about the growth of distinctive national styles of dinghy in the period from about 1900 to 1950, I chanced to buy Professor David Edgerton’s The Shock of the Old; Technology and Global History since 1900. It’s a fascinating book, and to my surprise I realised that it has a lot of relevance to the story of dinghy development.
One of Edgerton’s basic thrusts is (to quote Edward Tenner, author of “Why Things Bite Back; another of my favourite books on technology) is to issue “a call for a new way of thinking about technological change, not as a sequence of revolutionary discoveries, but as a complex and often paradoxical interaction between old and new: ‘technology in use’ as opposed to an ‘innovation-centred’ history.” As Edgerton points out, we often get caught up in overstating the rise of the latest innovations, leading us to ignore the fact that what is more important is the more popular older technology. Edgerton’s point fits in well with SailCraft’s pieces on what we are sailing today, which underline that for all the fuss and hype, the
overwhelming majority of sailors still sail medium-speed boats, just as they always have and just as they may always do.
“The Shock of the Old” also points out that history and hype concentrate too much on the invention of technological devices, rather than when (and if) they became widely used through society. It’s a very valid point that also applies to dinghy development. While it’s interesting, in a nerdy way, to find out that the “flatties” of Lake Connewarre were probably pioneering the planing hull in 1880, it’s more important to note that the planing dinghy as we know it may have been inspired by Thames sailing canoes and largely developed and promoted for popular consumption by Uffa Fox.
But for me one of the most interesting things about The Shock of the Old was that it may explain the end of the first era of internationalism in design and the long inter-war period when national styles evolved. It turns out that this was not just restricted to sailing, but across technological development and trade as a whole. As Edgerton explains, there have been significant periods when international exchanges of technological innovations have slumped, often around the same time that international trade in general has slowed.
After reading Edgerton I started poking about the internet looking at patterns of international trade – something I had not considered when I identified the mysterious slump in internationalism in dinghy sailing that started in the 1890s and ended about 1950. I soon came across charts of international trade and migration in an article by economists Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser, which shows a strong correlation between the level of international trade and the patterns of internationalism in dinghy development. They show a fall in internationalism in the 1890s and early 1890s, followed by an even stronger slump through the inter-war period.
It’s still too early to see how well and widely internationalism in dinghy development parallels international trade. It wasn’t that international communication between sailors ceased. People from the US and Australia were still quite aware of Uffa Fox’s designs in the 1930s, for example; they just didn’t make many of them. There were also two classes that spread widely in this period, the 12 Square Metre Sharpie and the Snipe. Both were cheap chine one designs, ideally suited to the Depression era. The information about international design flowed freely, and two specific designs were adopted across the globe; it’s just that the wider trends of dinghy design turned inwards in almost every major sailing nation for decades on end during the same era.
While it’s a bit hard to see a causal connection, given the complexity of the factors that underlie the development and popularity of a sport, the strong correlation between international trade and internationalism in design seems too interesting to ignore, and I’ll explore the area more in the future.
Edgerton’s book, like works in the field of Social Construction of Technology, shows once again how our assessment of the state and future of our sport has to concentrate on many more areas than the simplistic chase for newer ways to go faster. The pity of it is that sailing, a sport which is often said to require more intellect than any other, seems to shun research and deep thinking of its past, present and future. But that’s a disturbing topic for another time.