Otter Trawls

The otter trawl is a well-established and reasonably well documented bit of gear – general common knowledge says its Irish in origin, originating in freshwater loughs before making its way to English shores. Adopted in the 1880’s, it wasn’t fully utilised until the 1890’s by the surely now famous Mr Scott of Granton. If he laid claim to this invention, I have yet to find a patent for it… Nevertheless, the otter trawl became widespread within a few years.

Those that would benefit were the new steam trawlers, themselves recent additions to the fishing fleet. unlike sailing smacks, they were better able to maintain the speed that trawl doors required. Once commonplace, a multitude of variations on the trawl door and trawl itself appeared, form the functional to the fabulous. According to my database, there are 77 different patents relating to trawling between 1984 and 1914 – and most of those are just for doors. these patents are just the British ones, of course – with most of the applicants being English or Scottish. Who knows how many other patents there in European databases?

So what happened to the sailing smacks? Many simply fell into disuse, a great many were sold on to other countries, like Scandinavia. The Second World War sounded the end of the sailing smack in England and Scotland, even with the loss of vessels during that time.

GB189420323

GB189420323, a patent from 1894

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Trawl Doors Before Trawl Doors

Before trawl doors there were, well, no trawl doors. History tells us that commercial fishing went kind of from the beam trawl to otter trawl. That’s not to say that all the other methods aren’t important, but my focus – being pelagic – does have trawl doors as the keystone in the whole arrangement. So trawl doors is what I have to look at. If you’ve perused some of my previous posts, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking I have trawl doors on the brain. this, of course, is my excuse for bringing you three more examples from the archive. These three represent something different, though. These three are all early attempts to keep the mouth of a trawl open without beams – and without doors.

The earliest patent is GB189730188, dating from 1897. Here, messers Lewis Levi and George Cartwright, Brass Finisher and Hotel Keeper respectively and both of Hull, clearly think otter boards are a waste of time. Their intention is to do away with both beams and otter boards, by way of a a watertight tube that runs around the mouth of the trawl. The idea is that by using “hydraulic pressure, air pressure or the like” to inflate this tube with either air or a liquid the mouth of the net stays open. What the patent doesn’t explain particularly well is how this is meant to be weighted or protected from the rigours of the seabed…

GB189730188 - the hydraulic tube mouth opener...


One patent that bemused me no end is this one: US649581, dating to 1900. An American patent, this one appears to be a rigid frame, which will hold the mouth of the net open. The inventor, John G Landman, a resident of Brooklyn, New York, states that the purpose of his invention is the “provision of a simple, cheap and effective spreading-frame”. His object, as such, is economy and simplicity.

US649581, the net-spreading frame from Brooklyn, New York

Last but not least, I find myself gazing at a British patent whose applicant hails from Japan: GB102554. Dating to 1916, this patent professes that it “relates to otter boards and the like for steam trawling apparatus of the type where the rear ends of the otter boards or the like are attached to the head and foot ropes of the trawler net….” I would quote more, but the rest of the sentence runs on for another paragraph or so. The long and the short of it is that the otter board is not a board but an arrangement of canvas covered ‘ribs’.

GB102554, the alternative otter board, comprising mainly of canvas and 'ribs' of metal.

What caught my eye was the name and nationality of the inventor – “Tsunejiro Shirato, of Misakino-machi, City of Shimonoseki, Empire of Japan, Engineer…” Certainly not the phrasing we would expect in more modern, PC-stricken documents. But it’s certainly interesting to consider what and why Shirato felt the need to patent his invention all the way in Britain, why he didn’t do so in the USA and the research/experimentation that he conducted that resulted in his belief in his invention.

Otter Boards & Little Wheels…

Well, let’s not kid around  – this PhD malarky consists of a lot of boring stuff and a decent amount of technical stuff, all interspersed with the very interesting and bloomin’ weird. and that’s just the application paperwork…

Well, I am still in patent limbo – and as a result have come to embrace it. As a result, i am going to post up some of the more interesting and bizarre of the applications I have come across. the three I am looking at right now are the earliest patents available for otter boards, picked not because of their date, but because of their specific peculiarity: wheels. Yes, they have wheels. Back in the day there are numerous and varied patents for otter boards, several of which predate these – but these are special. these have wheels.

And not just any wheels: Samuel Ling and William Robbens’ 1899 patent is wonderful in its simplicity. two small casters are attached to the bottom edge of the boards – “to facilitate the use of the boards”. these two, both smack owners from Lowestoft, also the the time to explain that the the current invention can be expanded – that four casters can be attached, “so as to support the board in an upright position”.

(Patent number GB189907260)

Another gem from this archive is also form 1899. Two residents from Hull – an engineer and a boilermaker – Henry Ramsden Mortell and Alexander Robb made their otter board that is more or less a wheel. this wheel can be fitted to the centre of an otter board, should one feel traditional, but the wheel is the story here. A lot of thought clearly went in to the design, as the primary concern is not just the spread of the trawl but also potential resistance and weight. the goal here, it states, is to prevent excess fuel consumption as well as wear and tear on engines and equipment. Their idea may have been verging on daft, but they had serious motivation and a clear goal.


(Patent number GB189915702)

The last in this series is not particularly spectacular or challenging; another 1899 patent with casters on the brain. This one, by Thomas Frederick Adamson and Edward Clarke, Ship’s Store Merchant and Engineer respectively, both of South Shields, made the simplest one I’ve seen yet. These little casters are fitted to the bottom edge of the otter board. they slot in aways and angled, so as not to impede the angle of the otter board to the boat. A simple idea, neatly expressed. Just a shame it would all never really work…


(Patent number GB189924174)

Before I scurry off to do some real work, I have a big thank you to announce to Victor and Linda Strange of TorNet, in Iceland. They have made a much appreciated contribution to my study and ongoing research!

http://www.tornet.is/