News & Tall Tales. 1800s. The First Airbags
INTERESTING TO SEAMEN
A WRITER in the Mechanic's Magazine has the following singular plan for rendering vessels unsinkable: "When any part of a vessel gives way and admits the water, the usual remedy is to pump it out as quickly as possible, either by manual power, or, in the case of steamers, by steam-power, and great importance is attached to the power of steam-pumps, which, however, are often found useless in the hour of danger. Supposing a serious leak to have occurred, then follows the fight of the crew and passengers for life against the enemy. At one time the crew may gain a little, and at another the water gains a slight advantage; and, unhappily, this miserable and exhausting battle is not by any means an uncommon occurrence.
"It seems to be that the whole system of endeavoring to keep down the water by any kind of pump is radically wrong in principle, for by pumping out the water space is left for more to gorge in. The true remedy is to pump air into the vessel, whereby each gallon forced in forges a clear gain to the stability of the vessel, and leaves so much less space for the water to occupy. A very little exertion in this way would soon render a vessel of 1,000 tons perfectly safe from foundering, without reference to the size of the leak, which might increase sufficiently to let the engines and boilers fall through the bottom of the vessel, without in the slightest degree adding to the danger of the vessel's sinking.
"I, therefore, propose that all passenger vessels should be compelled to carry such a number of airtight flexible bags as, when inflated in the different parts of the ship under the decks, would by their bulk prevent the vessel from sinking, even if the water had free access. The expense would not be a very large item, and nothing in comparison with the value of the sense of security to the passengers and, therefore, of higher passage-money.
"An iron vessel without compartments, laden with stone or iron, if protected in this manner, would be just as safe from sinking by having a hole knocked into her bottom as a timber-laden ship. The bags, of (say) from twenty to fifty or more gallons, could be kept permanently filled with air in all vacant spaces of the ship not required to be visited during the voyage, and, upon the appearance of danger, other bags could be inflated in proper positions in the cabins or elsewhere, until the bulk occupied was more than sufficient to support the ship. A bump on the rocks leaving a large hole in the ship's bottom, provided the vessel did not break up her decks, would not then be of any great moment. In the case of steamers, the bags could be filled by air forced by the steam in a few minutes.
"In some experiments lately tried on the Thames in propelling a large boat with air without machinery, I forced into the water, by aid of the steam from a 1-horse power boiler, about 1,000 gallons of air in a minute, and obtained a speed of three miles an hour through the water. If the London had been properly fitted upon the above plan, the steam from the boiler of her donkey-engine would have rendered her perfectly safe from foundering in a few minutes."