Poling, Paddling, Oarlock, Oar, the Galley, Sail, Square-Rig, Lateen-Rig and the Carrack

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 14th, 2013

Technology 101

(Originally published January 11th, 2012)

The Modern Container Ship is Powered by Diesel Engines making Ocean Crossings Safe, Reliable and Efficient

Trade required a way to move heavy things in large quantities.  Railroads do a pretty good job of this.  Ever get stopped by a mile long train with double-stack containers?  These are the hot-shot freights.  They get the right-of-way.  Other trains pull aside for them.  And they get the best go-power.  They lash up the newest locomotives to these long freights.  Carrying containers full of expensive treasures like plasma televisions, smartphones, computers, clothing, perfume, cameras, etc.  Unloaded from great container ships days earlier.  And hustled out of these great container seaports to cities across the U.S.

These goods came into the country the way goods have for millennium.  On a ship.  Because when it comes to transporting large cargoes there is no more cost efficient way than by ship.  It’s slow.  Unlike a train.  But it can carry a lot.  Which really reduces the cost of shipping per unit shipped.  Keeping sale prices low.  And profits high.

Diesel engines power the modern container ship.  That either turn a propeller directly.  Or by turning an electric generator.  Which in turn powers an electric motor that turns a propeller.  Makes crossing the oceans pretty much a sure thing these days.  And timely.  Day or night.  Wind or no wind.  With the current.  Or against the current.  But travel on water was not always this safe.  Reliable.  Or efficient.

Galleys were Fast and Maneuverable but Decks full of Rowers left Little Room for Cargo

Earliest means of marine propulsion was a man using a pole.  Standing in a boat with his cargo, he would stick the pole through the water and into the riverbed.  And push.  The riverbed wouldn’t move.  So he would.  And the boat he was standing in.  A man kneeling in a canoe could propel the canoe forward with a paddle.  By reaching forward, dipping the paddle into the water and pulling.  By these strokes he would propel himself forward.  And the canoe he was kneeling in.  We transfer the force of both poling and paddling to the vessel via the man-vessel connection.  The feet.  The knees.  Or, if sitting, the butt.  A useful means of propulsion.  But limited by the strength of the man poling/paddling.

The oarlock changed that.  By adding leverage.  Which was a way to amplify a man’s strength.  An oar differs from a paddle because we attach it to the boat.  In an oarlock.  A pivot point.  An oar is similar to a paddle but longer.  It attaches to the oarlock so that a short length of it extends into the boat while a longer length extends outside of the boat.  The rower then rows.  Facing backwards to the boat’s direction.  His short stroke inside the boat transfers into a longer stroke outside of the boat (the leverage).  And the attachment point allows the rower to use both hands, arms and legs.  He pulls with his arms and pushes with his legs.  The force is transferred through the oarlock and pushes the boat forward.  So a single stroke from an oar pulled a boat much harder than a single stroke of a paddle.  And allowed more rowers to be added.  We call these multiple-oared boats galleys.  Such as the Viking longship.  With up to 10 oars on a side.  Or the Phoenician bireme which had two decks of rowers.  Or the Greek trireme which had three decks of rowers.  Or the Carthaginian/Roman quinquereme which had five decks of rowers.

Of course, decks full of rowers left little room for cargo.  Which is why these ships tended to be warships.  Because they could maneuver fast.  Another means of propulsion was available, though.  Wind.  It had drawbacks.  It didn’t have the quick maneuverability as a galley.  And you couldn’t just go where you want.  The prevailing winds had a large say in where you were sailing to.  But without rowers you had a lot more room for cargo.  And that was the name of the game when it came to international trade.

The Carrack opened the Spice Trade to the European Powers and Kicked Off the Age of Discovery

Our first civilizations used sailing ships.  The Sumerians.  And the Egyptians.  The Egyptians used a combination of sail and oars on the Nile.  Where the winds and current were pretty much constant.  They used wind-power to sail upstream.  And oared downstream.  Both the Egyptians and Sumerians used sail to reach India.  The Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans used sail to ply the Mediterranean.  Typically a single square sail on a single mast perpendicular to the keel.  Then later the triangular lateen parallel to the keel.  A square-rig square sail worked well when the wind was behind you.  While the lateen-rig could sail across the wind. And closer into the wind.

The wind blew a square-rig forward.  Whereas the wind pushed and pulled a lateen-rig forward by redirecting the wind.  The lateen sail split the airstream.  The sail redirects the wind towards the stern, pushing the boat forward.  The wind going over the outside of the sail curved around the surface of the sail.  Creating lift.  Like an airplane wing.  Pulling the boat forward.

It was about this time that Europeans were venturing farther out into the oceans.  And they did this by building ships that combined these sails.  The square rigging allowed them to catch the prevailing winds of the oceans.  And lateen rigging allowed them to sail across the wind.  One of the first ships to combine these types of sails was the carrack.  The Portuguese first put the carrack to sea.  The Spanish soon followed.  Christopher Columbus discovered The Bahamas in a carrack.  Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa and on to India in a carrack.  And Ferdinand Magellan first sailed around the world in a carrack (though Magellan and his other four ships didn’t survive the journey).  It was the carrack that opened the spice trade to the European powers.  Beginning the age of discovery.  And European colonialism.

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Celestial Navigation, Insurance and the Joint Stock Company

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 10th, 2013

Technology 101

(Originally published November 30th, 2011)

Despite Precise Celestial Navigation a lot of Ships and Valuable Cargoes still got Lost at Sea

Open sea navigation was once very perilous.  It took a long time before ships ventured from sight of the shoreline.  And a lot of technology.  Boats used to go the long way across the Mediterranean Sea.  Because being in open water at night without any visible landmarks was very dangerous.  So they hugged the coastline.  Adding days to every voyage.  And more danger.  Because the longer at sea the greater the risk there was of sinking.  Especially when you were skirting the rock-infested shallows of the shoreline.

The Sumerians charted the stars.  The Greeks continued this work, producing charts that could tell you what latitude (north/south position) you were at by looking at the stars and planets.  By measuring the angle of the stars and planets above the horizon.  The Arabs created one of the first tools to measure these angles.  The kamal.  Knowing this angle you could do a little math and look at a pre-calculated table of values.  And get your latitude.  Better instruments followed.  The cross-staff.  The astrolabe.   And then the sextant.  The gold standard of angle measuring until the advent of Global Positioning Satellites (GPS).  Calculating longitude (east/west position) was a bit more complicated.  Because the earth rotated.  Which required some more skillful measuring and more calculations.  And/or a reliable and accurate clock.  To adjust your results by the time of day.  As the time as well as the stars moved from east to west as the planet rotated.

The Chinese developed the magnetic compass.  A helmsman steered his ship by the compass.  The navigator checked the angles of celestial bodies (sun, moon, stars and planets), checked time and the ship’s speed to fix the ship’s position.  By determining latitude and longitude.  The navigator fed course headings and course corrections to the helmsman.  Armed with these skills, tools, celestial charts and tables, the navigator could do a little math and navigate a ship across a vast ocean day or night to any port in the world.  Transporting valuable cargoes safely and timely across the globe.  Pretty impressive for the time.  But despite this precise celestial navigation, a lot of ships still got lost at sea.  As well as their valuable cargoes.

The Joint-Stock Company and Insurance Reduced the High Risks of Transoceanic Shipping

No matter how well a navigator could fix a ship’s position there were some things he just couldn’t do.  Such as avoid an uncharted reef.  Prevent a mutiny.  Fend off pirates.  Fend off enemy warships.  Make storms go away.  Or even see through dense fog.  Simply put being on a small wooden ship in the middle of an ocean was very dangerous.  Which poised quite the problem for early global trade.

It was a huge investment to put a ship to sea.  It took another huge investment to fill a ship with valuable cargo.  And if that ship didn’t make it back to sell that cargo it was very bad news for the investor.  A lost ship could financially ruin them.  So not only could you get rich in this new global trade you could become impoverished.  Which made rich people reluctant to finance this early trade.  Because it was so risky.  Two things helped to reduce this risk to manageable levels.  Insurance.  And the joint-stock company.

A group of investors could buy stock into a company that was going to make numerous voyages on various ships.  In exchange for a share of the profits from this trade each investor paid a share of its cost.  Thus the joint-stock company spread the risk to multiple investors, reducing the risk to any one person.  So one lost ship would not cause financial ruin to any one investor.  Thus encouraging investment into this lucrative new trade of transoceanic shipping.  And with the advent of insurance, shippers could insure each voyage for a small affordable fee.  By collecting this small fee on every voyage the insurer could pay for the few ships and cargoes lost at sea.  Not the investors.  Thus further encouraging investment into this very risky endeavor.

Celestial Navigation, Insurance and the Joint-Stock Company made Transoceanic Shipping Possible

The smartphone you can’t live without today most likely came to you via a large container ship from a port across some ocean.  It made a long and perilous voyage to get to you.  Which wouldn’t have been possible without celestial navigation, insurance and the joint-stock company.  The things that made transoceanic shipping possible.  Most of which are still in use today.  As they were when brave mariners took to the open seas in those small wooden ships of yesteryear.

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Marine Insurance, General Average, Mesopotamia, Genoa, Middle Class, Capitalism, London Coffeehouses and Lloyd’s of London

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 3rd, 2012

History 101

It was in Genoa that Marine Insurance became a Standalone Industry

Risk management dates back to the dawn of civilization.  Perhaps the earliest device we used was fire.  Fire lit up the caves we moved into.  And scared the predators out.  As we transitioned from hunting and gathering to farming we gathered and stored food surpluses to help us through less bountiful times.  To avoid famine.  As artisans rose up and created a prosperous middle class we also created defensive military forces.  To protect that prosperous middle class from outsiders looking to plunder it.

As we put valuable cargoes on ships and sent them long distances over the water we encountered a new kind of risk.  The risk that these cargoes wouldn’t make it to their destinations.  So we created marine insurance.  Including something called ‘general average’.  An agreement where the several shippers shared the cost of any loss of cargo.  If they had to jettison some cargo overboard to save the rest of the cargo or to save the ship.  Some of the proceeds from the cargo they delivered paid for the cargo they didn’t deliver.  Some merchants who borrowed money to finance a shipment paid a little extra.  A risk ‘premium’.  Should the shipment not reach its destination the lender would forgive the loan.

So how long has marine insurance been around?  A long time.  Some of these practices were noted in the Code of Hammurabi (circa 1755 B.C.).  For ancient Mesopotamia was a trading civilization.  That shipped on the Tigris and Euphrates and their tributaries.  Out into the Arabian sea.  And beyond.  Following the coasts until advances in navigation and sail power took them farther from land.  The Greeks and Romans insured their valuable cargoes, too.  As did the Italian city-states that followed them.  Who ruled Mediterranean trade.  And it was in Genoa that marine insurance became a standalone industry.  No longer bundled with other contracts for an additional fee.

As the British Maritime Industry took off so did Lloyd’s of London

But the cargoes got larger.  And the voyages went farther.  Until they were crossing the great oceans.  Increasing the chances that this cargo wasn’t going to make it to its destination.  And when they didn’t the financial losses were larger than ever before.  Because the ships were larger than ever before.  So as the center of shipping moved from the Mediterranean to the ocean trade routes plied by the Europeans (Portugal, Spain, France, the Netherlands and England) the insurance industry followed.  And took the concept of risk management to new levels.

With trade came a prosperous middle class.  Where wealth was no longer the privilege of landholders.  Capitalism transferred that wealth to manufacturers, bankers, merchants, ship owners and, of course, insurers.  You didn’t have to own land anymore to be rich.  All you needed was skill, ability and drive.  It was a brave new world.  And these new capitalists gathered together in London coffeehouses to discuss business.  Including one owned by Edward Lloyd.  On Tower Street.  Where those particularly interested in shipping came to learn the latest in this industry.  And it was where shippers and merchants came to find underwriters to insure their ships and cargoes.

This was the birth of Lloyd’s of London.  And as the British maritime industry took off so did Lloyd’s of London.  As the British Empire spread across the globe international trade grew to new heights.  The Royal Navy protected the sea lanes for that trade.  The British Army protected their far-flung empire.  And Lloyd’s of London insured that valuable cargo.  It was a very symbiotic relationship.  All together they made the British Empire rich.  To show their appreciation of the Royal Navy making this possible Lloyd’s set up a fund to provide for those wounded in the service of their county following Lord Nelson’s victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar.  They continue to provide support for veterans today.  In short, Lloyd’s of London was the place to go to meet your global insurance needs.  From marine insurance they branched into providing ‘inland marine’ insurance needs.  Providing risk management to property beyond ships plying the world’s oceans. 

The Purpose of Insurance is to Let Life Go On after Unexpected and Catastrophic Events

Cuthbert Heath led Lloyd’s in the development of the non-marine insurance business.  Underwriting policies for among other things earthquake and hurricane insurance coverage.   And Lloyd’s helped to rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.  With Heath ordering that they pay all of their policies in full irrespective of their policy terms.  They could do that because they were profitable.  Which is a good thing.  Insurers need to be profitable to pay these large claims without being forced out of business.  Which is why when the Titanic sunk in 1912 they were able to pay all policies in full.  And to continue on insuring the shippers and merchants that followed Titanic.  To allow life to proceed after these great tragedies.  And they would do it time and again.  Following 9/11.  And Hurricane Katrina.

This is the purpose of insurance.  Risk management.  So unexpected and catastrophic events don’t end life as we know it.  But, instead, it allows us to carry on.  Even after some of the worst disasters.  Because life must go on.  And that’s what insurance does.  Even people who rely on a particular body part for their livelihood have gone to Lloyd’s to buy insurance.  Perhaps the most famous being Betty Grable.  Who insured her legs for $1 million in 1940.  Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Polamalu has a lucrative endorsement with a shampoo company.  And insured his long hair for $1 million.  Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards insured his hands for $1.6 million.  America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) has an endorsement deal with a toothpaste company.  And they insured her smile for $10 million.  Even ‘the Boss’ Bruce Springsteen insured his voice for $6 million. 

People hate insurance companies.  Because they don’t understand how insurance works.  For they only know that they pay a lot in premiums and never receive anything in return.  But this is the way risk management is supposed to work.  And we need risk management.  We need insurance companies.  And we need insurance companies to be profitable.  Meaning that most of us will never see anything in return for all of our premium payments.  So these companies can pay for the large losses of the few who sadly do see something in return for all of their payments.  For insurance companies protect our wealth.  And earning potential.  So life can go on.  Whether we’re raising a family and planning for our children’s future.  Or taking precautions for some unforeseen accident to one of our body parts that may limit our future earning potential.

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Poling, Paddling, Oarlock, Oar, the Galley, Sail, Square-Rig, Lateen-Rig and the Carrack

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 11th, 2012

Technology 101

The Modern Container Ship is Powered by Diesel Engines making Ocean Crossings Safe, Reliable and Efficient

Trade required a way to move heavy things in large quantities.  Railroads do a pretty good job of this.  Ever get stopped by a mile long train with double-stack containers?  These are the hot-shot freights.  They get the right-of-way.  Other trains pull aside for them.  And they get the best go-power.  They lash up the newest locomotives to these long freights.  Carrying containers full of expensive treasures like plasma televisions, smartphones, computers, clothing, perfume, cameras, etc.  Unloaded from great container ships days earlier.  And hustled out of these great container seaports to cities across the U.S.

These goods came into the country the way goods have for millennium.  On a ship.  Because when it comes to transporting large cargoes there is no more cost efficient way than by ship.  It’s slow.  Unlike a train.  But it can carry a lot.  Which really reduces the cost of shipping per unit shipped.  Keeping sale prices low.  And profits high.

Diesel engines power the modern container ship.  That either turn a propeller directly.  Or by turning an electric generator.  Which in turn powers an electric motor that turns a propeller.  Makes crossing the oceans pretty much a sure thing these days.  And timely.  Day or night.  Wind or no wind.  With the current.  Or against the current.  But travel on water was not always this safe.  Reliable.  Or efficient.

Galleys were Fast and Maneuverable but Decks full of Rowers left Little Room for Cargo

Earliest means of marine propulsion was a man using a pole.  Standing in a boat with his cargo, he would stick the pole through the water and into the riverbed.  And push.  The riverbed wouldn’t move.  So he would.  And the boat he was standing in.  A man kneeling in a canoe could propel the canoe forward with a paddle.  By reaching forward, dipping the paddle into the water and pulling.  By these strokes he would propel himself forward.  And the canoe he was kneeling in.  We transfer the force of both poling and paddling to the vessel via the man-vessel connection.  The feet.  The knees.  Or, if sitting, the butt.  A useful means of propulsion.  But limited by the strength of the man poling/paddling.

The oarlock changed that.  By adding leverage.  Which was a way to amplify a man’s strength.  An oar differs from a paddle because we attach it to the boat.  In an oarlock.  A pivot point.  An oar is similar to a paddle but longer.  It attaches to the oarlock so that a short length of it extends into the boat while a longer length extends outside of the boat.  The rower then rows.  Facing backwards to the boat’s direction.  His short stroke inside the boat transfers into a longer stroke outside of the boat (the leverage).  And the attachment point allows the rower to use both hands, arms and legs.  He pulls with his arms and pushes with his legs.  The force is transferred through the oarlock and pushes the boat forward.  So a single stroke from an oar pulled a boat much harder than a single stroke of a paddle.  And allowed more rowers to be added.  We call these multiple-oared boats galleys.  Such as the Viking longship.  With up to 10 oars on a side.  Or the Phoenician bireme which had two decks of rowers.  Or the Greek trireme which had three decks of rowers.  Or the Carthaginian/Roman quinquereme which had five decks of rowers.

Of course, decks full of rowers left little room for cargo.  Which is why these ships tended to be warships.  Because they could maneuver fast.  Another means of propulsion was available, though.  Wind.  It had drawbacks.  It didn’t have the quick maneuverability as a galley.  And you couldn’t just go where you want.  The prevailing winds had a large say in where you were sailing to.  But without rowers you had a lot more room for cargo.  And that was the name of the game when it came to international trade.

The Carrack opened the Spice Trade to the European Powers and Kicked Off the Age of Discovery

Our first civilizations used sailing ships.  The Sumerians.  And the Egyptians.  The Egyptians used a combination of sail and oars on the Nile.  Where the winds and current were pretty much constant.  They used wind-power to sail upstream.  And oared downstream.  Both the Egyptians and Sumerians used sail to reach India.  The Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans used sail to ply the Mediterranean.  Typically a single square sail on a single mast perpendicular to the keel.  Then later the triangular lateen parallel to the keel.  A square-rig square sail worked well when the wind was behind you.  While the lateen-rig could sail across the wind. And closer into the wind.

The wind blew a square-rig forward.  Whereas the wind pushed and pulled a lateen-rig forward by redirecting the wind.  The lateen sail split the airstream.  The sail redirects the wind towards the stern, pushing the boat forward.  The wind going over the outside of the sail curved around the surface of the sail.  Creating lift.  Like an airplane wing.  Pulling the boat forward.

It was about this time that Europeans were venturing farther out into the oceans.  And they did this by building ships that combined these sails.  The square rigging allowed them to catch the prevailing winds of the oceans.  And lateen rigging allowed them to sail across the wind.  One of the first ships to combine these types of sails was the carrack.  The Portuguese first put the carrack to sea.  The Spanish soon followed.  Christopher Columbus discovered The Bahamas in a carrack.  Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa and on to India in a carrack.  And Ferdinand Magellan first sailed around the world in a carrack (though Magellan and his other four ships didn’t survive the journey).  It was the carrack that opened the spice trade to the European powers.  Beginning the age of discovery.  And European colonialism.

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Money, Gold Standard, Banknotes, Bills of Exchange, Checks, Credit and Debit Cards, ATMs and Online Banking

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 4th, 2012

Technology 101

People storing their Gold in the Goldsmith’s Safe was a Precursor to the Gold Standard

Money is a temporary storage of wealth.  It improved on the barter system.  Instead of having to find people to trade our wealth-creating talents for the wealth-creating talents of other people we just stored the wealth we created in money.  If you built a plow and wanted a sack of wheat you didn’t have to find someone who had a sack of wheat who wanted a plow.  You could just go to the city market and sell your plow for money.  And use your money to buy the wheat.

Money took many forms.  Animals.  Grain.  Tobacco.  Alcohol.  And other commodities.  All of which had drawbacks.  Grain can become cumbersome to carry to market.  And it can be difficult making change with animals.  The precious metals gold and silver solved these problems.  Easier to carry.  Easy to exchange for goods.  You just weighed out whatever amount needed.  Durable.  Not easy to get so it would hold its value.  It was uniform.  Gold was gold.  Silver was silver.  Not so with animals.  They can be big or small.  Old or young.  One breed or another.  Making the value of animals non-uniform.  On top of not being very divisible in making change.

So gold and silver became the money of choice.  As it gained universality it became even more valuable.  And a bit dangerous to carry around on you.  Or leave at your home in your sock drawer.  Because other people wanted it, too.  And not the kind looking to trade with you.  The kind of people who just want to take your gold.  Se we needed a safe place to store it.  And few places were safer than a safe.  And who had a safe?  Goldsmiths.  So people took their gold to the local goldsmith.  Who placed their gold into his safe.  And the goldsmith gave the person a note stating the value of gold stored in his safe.  A precursor to the gold standard.

Merchant Banks Specialized in International Trade and Foreign Currency Exchange

And the banknote was born.  A promise to exchange that note for the amount of gold or silver specified on the note.  These notes were much easier to carry around than the heavier metal itself.  So the metal stayed in the safe and people started using the notes for currency instead.

And there were other notes that held value.  Such as a bill of exchange.  Popular with international trade.  Because ships rarely travel empty.  Which means at each port they are unloading one cargo (the import) and loading one new cargo (the export).   The people who do this importing and exporting are merchants.  They buy and sell.  That is, they pay money for one cargo and then collect money for another.  A good portion of these payments and collections equal each other.  So instead of paying money for one import cargo only to get most of that money back on a subsequent export cargo, they used bills of exchange.  And the merchants added the sum of payments and the sum of collections for each account (import/export company).  And carry any amount remaining owed or due on a ledger.  Or the company owning would send money to the company with the outstanding balance due to clear the difference.   Merchant banks carried out these transactions.  Who specialized in international trade and foreign currency exchange and acted as a clearing house for these bills of exchange.  The bill of exchange was a very valuable temporary storage of value.  And sometimes used as money.  One could even take it to a bank and exchange it for money for a small discount fee.

Buying and selling without exchanging money turned out to be very convenient.  And it spread.  Instead of taking cash to a utility we could mail a check.  Instead of mailing cash to a mail order company we could mail a check.  And we do.  We write checks from our bank.  That others deposit into other banks.  We write a lot of checks.  The volume is so great that massive computerized clearing houses process these checks.  Where computers read the magnetic ink on these checks and post payments and receipts to the individual bank accounts.  Where most payments and receipts cancel each other out.  Much like those bills of exchange at the merchant banks.

The Economy took off because of Banking and International Trade

As technology advanced we found other ways to pay without using money.  Credit cards were very popular.  Until people realize they have to pay the bank back.  Which led to debit cards.  Which is like writing a check at the point of purchase.  The merchant processes your debit card and your bank transfers money from your bank account to the merchant’s account.  Very convenient.  And no growing credit card balances.  Just declining bank balances.  Then came the Internet.  Which has taken the cashless economy to new heights.  And for those who still need cash while out and about you can always visit a convenient ATM.  One swipe of your debit card and the machine gives you cash.  And the ATM’s bank networks with your bank to transfer money from your bank account to theirs.  Automated by computers operating 24/7.  Spending money has never been more convenient.

Today most of our money is just numbers on some ledger.  Inside some computer.  Many of our employers even pay us electronically.  From our ‘pay check’ to the economic activity we engage in there is a whirlwind of banking activity behind the scenes.  As the banking community settles these accounts.  They do it quickly.  And efficiently.  Allowing ever greater economic activity.  And mobility.  Wherever you are you can log into some computer network (credit/debit card, ATM or Internet) to access your money and engage in economic activity.

People may not like banks.  But one thing for sure.  None of this would be possible without banks.  The economy took off because of banking.  Starting with those great Italian city-states of the 14th century.  And their international trade.  Their great merchant bankers leading the way.  Giving the world modern finance.  A modern economy.  And the way to a higher standard of living.

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Celestial Navigation, Insurance and the Joint Stock Company

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 30th, 2011

Technology 101

Despite Precise Celestial Navigation a lot of Ships and Valuable Cargoes still got Lost at Sea

Open sea navigation was once very perilous.  It took a long time before ships ventured from sight of the shoreline.  And a lot of technology.  Boats used to go the long way across the Mediterranean Sea.  Because being in open water at night without any visible landmarks was very dangerous.  So they hugged the coastline.  Adding days to every voyage.  And more danger.  Because the longer at sea the greater the risk there was of sinking.  Especially when you were skirting the rock-infested shallows of the shoreline.

The Sumerians charted the stars.  The Greeks continued this work, producing charts that could tell you what latitude (north/south position) you were at by looking at the stars and planets.  By measuring the angle of the stars and planets above the horizon.  The Arabs created one of the first tools to measure these angles.  The kamal.  Knowing this angle you could do a little math and look at a pre-calculated table of values.  And get your latitude.  Better instruments followed.  The cross-staff.  The astrolabe.   And then the sextant.  The gold standard of angle measuring until the advent of Global Positioning Satellites (GPS).  Calculating longitude (east/west position) was a bit more complicated.  Because the earth rotated.  Which required some more skillful measuring and more calculations.  And/or a reliable and accurate clock.  To adjust your results by the time of day.  As the time as well as the stars moved from east to west as the planet rotated.

The Chinese developed the magnetic compass.  A helmsman steered his ship by the compass.  The navigator checked the angles of celestial bodies (sun, moon, stars and planets), checked time and the ship’s speed to fix the ship’s position.  By determining latitude and longitude.  The navigator fed course headings and course corrections to the helmsman.  Armed with these skills, tools, celestial charts and tables, the navigator could do a little math and navigate a ship across a vast ocean day or night to any port in the world.  Transporting valuable cargoes safely and timely across the globe.  Pretty impressive for the time.  But despite this precise celestial navigation, a lot of ships still got lost at sea.  As well as their valuable cargoes.

The Joint-Stock Company and Insurance Reduced the High Risks of Transoceanic Shipping

No matter how well a navigator could fix a ship’s position there were some things he just couldn’t do.  Such as avoid an uncharted reef.  Prevent a mutiny.  Fend off pirates.  Fend off enemy warships.  Make storms go away.  Or even see through dense fog.  Simply put being on a small wooden ship in the middle of an ocean was very dangerous.  Which poised quite the problem for early global trade.

It was a huge investment to put a ship to sea.  It took another huge investment to fill a ship with valuable cargo.  And if that ship didn’t make it back to sell that cargo it was very bad news for the investor.  A lost ship could financially ruin them.  So not only could you get rich in this new global trade you could become impoverished.  Which made rich people reluctant to finance this early trade.  Because it was so risky.  Two things helped to reduce this risk to manageable levels.  Insurance.  And the joint-stock company.

A group of investors could buy stock into a company that was going to make numerous voyages on various ships.  In exchange for a share of the profits from this trade each investor paid a share of its cost.  Thus the joint-stock company spread the risk to multiple investors, reducing the risk to any one person.  So one lost ship would not cause financial ruin to any one investor.  Thus encouraging investment into this lucrative new trade of transoceanic shipping.  And with the advent of insurance, shippers could insure each voyage for a small affordable fee.  By collecting this small fee on every voyage the insurer could pay for the few ships and cargoes lost at sea.  Not the investors.  Thus further encouraging investment into this very risky endeavor.

Celestial Navigation, Insurance and the Joint-Stock Company made Transoceanic Shipping Possible

The smartphone you can’t live without today most likely came to you via a large container ship from a port across some ocean.  It made a long and perilous voyage to get to you.  Which wouldn’t have been possible without celestial navigation, insurance and the joint-stock company.  The things that made transoceanic shipping possible.  Most of which are still in use today.  As they were when brave mariners took to the open seas in those small wooden ships of yesteryear.

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