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Two Specialized Technologies

The picture above shows the Valkyrie III, the UK challenger in the 1895 America’s Cup races, in dry dock at the Erie Basin in Brooklyn, on August 24, 1895. And that sentence is a summary of a lot of information.

First, the America’s Cup: it’s race between sailing yachts, conducted at irregular intervals since 1851. The US won all of the cup challenges for a long time; in recent years the cup has been won by the US, by Australia, by Switzerland, and by New Zealand. The design of the boats has gone from a free-for-all to very tightly controlled specifications, gradually changing the emphasis from a combination of boat design and seamanship to being mostly about seamanship.

Because the cup was won repeatedly for so long by the New York Yacht Club, and the defending champion chooses where the next set of races will be held, the races were held in and around New York Harbor and Newport, Rhode Island for over 100 years. Valkyrie was in Brooklyn in late August 1895 for the races that were held near New York on September 7, 10, and 12 of that year. I can think of two reasons why the boat was in dry dock, and of course there may be others. First, the boat’s owner and crew may have wanted to inspect the hull for damage after the transatlantic crossing. Second, there were specific rules about the permissible geometry of the hull, and the people officiating the race may have wanted to measure for themselves, which would be much easier to do in dry dock than afloat. In either of these cases, or if there was some other reason, we’re seeing a state-of-the-art boat – Valkyrie had a wood-sheathed hull with a steel frame – being examined before it was put to a severe test. Valkyrie lost the race, was used for some experiments for the next cup’s contender, and was destroyed in 1901.

The Erie Basin is a piece of the harbor protected and enclosed by a jetty that nearly encloses it, at the south end of Red Hook. It was built for transshipment for cargos coming into New York from the Erie Canal or headed to the canal. It was a heavy-working part of the harbor, with little in common with something as frivolous as yacht racing, but it had a number of dry docks. Those docks were serious enough to get a multi-page illustrated write up:

If you compare the left side of figure 2 to the photo at the top, that may well be the same dry dock or one built on the same plan.

You know the way people obsess now about things like autonomous cars or new generations of airplane? Here’s the same spirit, 127 years ago.