BOOK REVIEW – Ships and Shipbuilders: Pioneers of Design and Construction

Fred M. Walker. Ships and Shipbuilders: Pioneers of Design and Construction. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010. 237 pp, index.

Review by Timothy G. Lynch
SUNY Maritime College

Published to coincide with the sesquicentennial of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects, Ships and Shipbuilders is a reference book that offers a fresh look at giants in the field of ship design and construction, while introducing new subjects for discussion. The work is arranged chronologically, ranging from Archimedes of Syracuse, continuing through the late-twentieth century, and concluding with the Australian yachtsman Ben Lexcen.  Along the way one encounters such luminaries as James Watt, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and Nathaniel Hereshoff as well as those who at first blush might seem odd choices, such as Guglielmo Marconi and Hyman Rickover. The brief characterizations are designed to trace developments in ship design and construction, seen in the context of social and economic changes which shaped the experiences of the subjects, but too often take the form of hagiographic mini-biographies. While the entries are crisply written and the subsections nicely introduced, the volume tends to focus overmuch on the last two centuries of ship design, and almost totally excludes any contributions by those not of European stock. Of the more than 130 entries, none deal with persons from Asia, South America, or Africa, scarcely any deal with Oceania, and only one discusses the contributions of a woman (Isabella Elder).

The entries range from several paragraphs to a few pages, and are concise and matter-of-fact. Unfortunately, there is little if any analysis and the source material used in compiling the information is sometimes dated and obscure. While the volume is handsomely produced and suitable for a coffee-table compendium, it lacks the rigor required of an academic tome. While Ships and Shipbuilders might appeal to the armchair avocationist, serious scholars of maritime history will find little here to reward their time.

(Return to the July 2014 Issue Table of Contents)

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