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Speaking Of Old Technology…

I’m going to slide in a second helping of Berenice Abbott’s “Changing New York” project this week. The picture above, taken on April 9, 1936, shows the Theoline tied up at pier 11 in the East River. Pier 11 is still around although greatly changed: it’s the hub of the new ferry service that began with the east River and is expanding to the rest of the city’s major waterways. I’m at pier 11 whenever I have to go to a project site in Williamsburg, Dumbo, or Red Hook.

But the Theoline! There is not a single piece of technology visible on that ship that would be unfamiliar to a sailor from the mid-1800s. The ropes are hemp, the blocks are wood, the hull and masts are wood, the mast hoops (that allow the sails to slide up and down the masts) are wood, and so on. The punchline is that the ship was built in 1917. Still active in 1936, although the source I’ve linked to says that the ship was literally the last cargo schooner docking in the East River.

There are several reasons that buildings with obsolete structure – like most of those that we work on – are grandfathered. It’s economically infeasible to upgrade everything each time the codes change, it’s socially disruptive to force upgrade work on buildings that are performing well, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s not clear that the marginal decreases in structural risk from such upgrades are worth the various risks from construction and disruption. Grandfathering can be applied in some form to just about any change in technology, and the construction of a wood-hulled, four-masted cargo ship in 1917 is a good example. The technology that made the Theoline function was long since obsolete before the ship was built, but it still worked. It would still work today if someone wanted to build such a ship. Build a new ship like that, outfit it with modern radar and commutations equipment, and it would function just fine. Unlike running a 1917 coal-burning ship, it would pollute less than the average modern ship; unlike running a 1917 car, it wouldn’t be wildly unsafe. It would just be old-fashioned.

Of course, tying up a ship at pier 11, at the foot of Wall Street, gives a spectacular view of 1920s-era skyscrapers in the background. They’re still there, even though much of the technology that went into their construction is now obsolete and some of it – the mechanical systems – has been upgraded multiple times in the last century.