Today I am in lovely Bremerhaven, which has been blessed with a glimpse of sunshine and a nice breeze. I have just spent an afternoon with the also lovely Mr. Hans-Hermann Engel, of Engel Netze. As most people know, and indeed anyone who ever had an Engel net knows, this company was a leader in the development of the pelagic trawl. Luckily for me, Mr. Engel has kindly provided me with a large pile of reports, dating back to the first trials in the 1950’s. Now all I have to do, of course, is learn to read German…
It’s been a little while since I posted – largely because I have been engulfed by a pile a paperwork that I can say, without even a hint of a fib, is bigger than my head. I made the mistake of printing off an enormous pile of patents with the intention of sorting and reading them in a few days. Having severely underestimated my speed reading ability and making some sacrifices, two weeks later I am facing the last 50 or so. This coincided with another set of papers, a pile of potentially relevant reports in pelagic fisheries in Britain from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Once the patents are entered into my database and put to one side I can finally look at them! It also means that I can stop wittering on about patents to whoever will stand still long enough to listen.
For now I can use the look at the database and see more than a few obvious trends. Last time I posted about profession, but this is a limited, if intriguing window to the past. After the First World War profession is no longer stated on patent applications, being replaced, it seems, with a declaration of the applicant’s nationality. Looking instead at the addresses of those applying I can see straight away some familiar names – Grimsby, Hull, Aberdeen, Fleetwood and Milford Haven. These are by far and away the most represented, with a smattering of Edinburgh, Gravesend and the Tyne area. This is also something I will try and pursue a little further, as I would like to see if the number and concentration of applicants reflect the status and economic power of the ports and harbours they come from. But what caught my eye when I scrolled through my work so far was how few examples there are of vertical trawl doors.
Only four examples popped up. these applications were made in 1897, 1898, 1938 and 1959. That last two were made by Franz Süberkrüb, while the earlier come from very different places. The 1897 patent as made by “… Johann Cohrs of Grosse Elbestrasse, Altona-on-the-Elbe, German Empire, Fish Auctioneer…” Well, for a start ‘German Empire’ is very much a voice from the past that many would like to forget. But the patent itself is intriguing, albeit somewhat irrelevant to the overall Pelagic theme, as he puts in with his description of the ‘heavy rollers… for facilitating the passage of otter boards over the ground’. So Johann Cohrs starts off very promising, but ends up as a side note in the overall assessment of trawl doors. His contemporary, David Sherrit, and Engineer from Aberdeen, takes a completely different approach to the vertical trawl board. His is very much a door – attached in a manner above the net – and as such does not need to touch the ground. Of course, on of the things that I have to keep in mid when looking at all this, is that there might not be any documentation for something considered completely normal – so when David Sherrit also states they may be “… ordinary otter boards…”, I could be missing out something here. Ultimately, however, these two are footnotes in the progression of technology that led to the rise of the pelagic fisheries.
It is the patents by Süberkrüb that lead us back to familiar pelagic territory. First, there is Süberkrüb’s 1938 patent application for vertical, curved trawl doors. Although I have no doubt that a proper fisherman would look at the design, I found myself drawn to the individual details: firstly, that the patent is shared with two other inventors and secondly, that the application was made in 1938 – and accepted in 1940. Given that all three applicants are from the Hamburg area and declared as German citizens, it leads me to wonder what was going on in the fisheries at the outbreak of the Second World War, and the more precise events that surround this patent, at this time. It’s certainly something I mean to explore as much as possible in the next few months. His later, 1959 application is more telling in its differences. Süberkrüb makes this application alone. Like his 1938 patent, he lives in Hamburg – and I wonder what happened to his colleagues. The 1938 patent was made in Britain, the 1959 one in the USA. The design, the principles behind the two patents are largely similar, but what is striking is the change in materials. In 1938, it was wood and metal fittings, formed to make a curved panel. By 1959, the wood is gone – “… wooden otter boards are unsuitable…” – and the suggestion is for metal or even plastic. On paper it looks very sleek and modern, with a sparse two page explanation paring down the science behind it.
One of the things i am looking forward to doing with this project is looking at more than the technology and politics. I am making it very much a key part of this research to look closer, not just at the historical facts but the personal stories of the individuals of the people who made historical fact. At the very least, it’s going to be an interesting journey, regardless of absolute relevance in the end.