Today, we try to keep ships clean. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
When I was a graduate
student, years ago, I worked one summer for Albert
Einstein's son, Hans Albert. Hans Albert Einstein
was a distinguished sanitary engineer. I designed
apparatus for a flume where he was modeling the
movement of human waste.
His work was subtle, and I learned something about
contradiction from him. For he took the earthiest
of problems, turned it around, and abstracted it.
And that's not how we usually handle the essential
and perpetual problem of dealing with our own
Waste disposal loomed large as the size and range
of the old sailing vessels increased.
Anthropologist Joe Simmons writes about this
problem, which you might think would be no problem
at all -- the ocean being as large as it is. No
doubt, the earliest sailors did simply relieve
themselves over the rail.
When crews became large, that grew impractical. We
find evidence of chamber pots on board ship all the
way back to Roman times. But they too grew
impractical when ships became big wooden structures
with layers of enclosed decks.
Each of those internal decks had to be provided
with drainage toward the outside of the ship. In
the course of shipboard life, slop buckets slopped
over. The old wooden ships were never watertight,
and all kinds of effluvia leaked through successive
floors to end up with the bilge at the bottom. By
the 16th century, any ship grew increasingly foul
as you moved downward from deck to deck and finally
reached a built-in cesspool just above the keel.
That changed somewhat when Renaissance warships
sprouted castle-like battle towers on the bow and
stern. Indeed, the word fo'cs'l or forecastle
reminds us of the kinship of the new ships to the
old castles. Waste disposal in a castle was
achieved by building a privy out from the castle
wall, over the moat. And what was a ship but a
floating castle with a very large moat around it!
What happened next reflects in Simmons' title,
Those Vulgar Tubes. Since ancient times,
privileged travelers were now and then provided
with a privy structure sticking out over the water.
By the 1400s shipbuilders began equipping ships'
battle towers with privies that discharged into
rectangular tubes running down to the water. They
began building urinals along the sides. The word
"head" comes from facilities often located near the
figurehead on the bow.
Not 'til we had this century's fast-moving
steam-powered iron ships did we move beyond that
hole-in-the-deck technology. Solving the problem of
dealing with our own waste seldom attracted the
kind of subtle thinking that's needed to solve any
really hard problem.
Hans Einstein's subtle fluid mechanics and abstract
modeling were an exception, not the rule. But then,
I suppose, it's only human to want to apply our
more elegant thinking to less repellant -- if less
vital -- problems.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds