What is it about?

I argue that understanding the ordinary merchant ship in the British Atlantic in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries requires understanding the risk environment to which the technology was an evolving response--and that, because the risk environment changed only incrementally in the period, the technology changed only incrementally as well. This was not technological stagnation, but rather a measured and effective response to the particular set of challenges and opportunities presented to the shipping industry in that time and place.

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Why is it important?

Thanks to the microprocessor and its incorporation into more and more of our technology, we over-generalize a rapid and rapidly-accelerating pace of technological change that obscures both the much more incremental pace of such change in our own world and in the past. By understanding technological continuity and change in pre-industrial societies, we can better understand the history of human use of technology and its place in other cultures--and, thus, more clearly apprehend our own particular use of technology and its place in our own culture. Also, improving our understanding of this particular technology will advance our understanding of the development of the British Atlantic world from early settlement through the independence movements in the Americas.


The particular focus of this essay on this topic is risk mitigation, something all transport technologies must address. Risk mitigation is the best approach I have so far found for understanding all aspects of the technology in its social, cultural, economic, and political contexts. It can, it would seem, account for both stability and innovation in specific aspects of hull and rig design and construction, manning and labor, armament and security. As research proceeds, I will continue to use risk mitigation as an umbrella paradigm for as long as it holds up.

Dr Phillip Frank Reid

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This page is a summary of: Something ventured: Dangers and risk mitigation for the ordinary British Atlantic merchant ship, 1600–1800, The Journal of Transport History, June 2017, SAGE Publications, DOI: 10.1177/0022526617715259.
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