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, a patent from 1894


Modern Fishing Gear of the World, Vol I

My book of choice this week has been Modern Fishing Gear of the World, Volume I, a collection of papers written by scientists and innovators in fisheries technology. The book came about through the FOA, as it was a conference in 1957 when all the writers met up and discussed, well, modern fishing gear. It sold out, and my (father’s) version is a third reprind from 1981.

This sizeable tome was first published in 1959 – and, as Hilmar Kristjonsson points out in his introduction, technology in the 20th century develops faster (and bigger) than all the centuries before it. So what was so new and important, that the first of 3 big books talking about fishing will be published? Hilmar goes on to talk about the 3 main technological leaps: mechanisation, echo sounding and synthetic fibres, which together have changed fishing as we know it. But it not just technology that makes the difference – the intent is also a key factor. The drive to create and try new things in a thorough and scientific way changes everything; the need to understand every aspect and variable of fishing, from fish behaviour to physics.

Like most good books, it pays off to read the introduction – Hilmar here starts off with a few facts. Fish production in in 1957 is almost 30 million metric tonnes; a “few years ago” it considered absurd that any more than 25 million metric tonnes would be possible. As of 2010, total global production was 148.5 million tonnes. Needless to say, things have changed and developed a lot more since 1957.

These books are invaluable to me because it does something important to the whole PhD concept: documentation. It’s not that I don’t have any faith in first hand accounts – rather, I am going to rely on them. But what I need is dated, pinned down fact that I can easily read, quote and reference. Which is why I have acquired my father’s copy and absconded with it over to Esbjerg. Not to worry , though. I’ll sure to bring it back – eventually!

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!

Patents… Continued

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.

Süberkrüb's 1938 patent no. GB523452

Süberkrüb's 1959 patent no. US3079720

Tthe Boilermaker, the Minister and the Gentleman

So here I am, still wading through patents – and covering two aspects of research at the same time. By focusing on the earliest patents, from 1880 to 1910, I am covering both the very early pelagic-related inventions and the vast number of ideas put to paper regarding all commercial fishing technology, thus exploring the background and lead up to what is now the commercial fishing industry. On the research side, I have now a small database with nearly 140 entries – and with only a 7 more decades to go…

And they are an interesting bunch, the earliest patent applicants; at first I was only looking at the actual inventions and their potential relevance. As I started the database (to track dates, names and nationality) I found myself adding a few new fields, some relevant, others just out of interest. Addresses – that is to say, place of residence of the applicants – revealed some obvious trends, like the high amount of applicants from Aberdeen, Hull, Grimsby and Gravesend. Osgodsby in Yorkshire had a lone representative, John Phillips, who made several patents regarding kites in the 1950’s and the The Boston Deep Sea Fishing and Ice Company Ltd of Boston, Lincolnshire made a patent in 1899 for circular (and thus rotating) trawl boards. It would be curious diversion, to find out more about them. Most applicants, however, are individuals, not companies.

In the earlier patents profession is a required field, which I also put into my database. This is less relevant but rather more interesting, such as James Pearson, resident of London, who made two patents in the late 1890’s – both for trawl nets. One of these patents, made with William Wood, is for “wing inflators”, a complex and rather odd-looking contraption than can be best described as a variation on trawl doors. the patent itself is interesting – and even more so when detailed reading tells us that James Pearson is a Minister of the Presbyterian Church of England and William Wood an Advertising Agent. These two are not alone in their seemingly irrelevant professions; Adam Scott in 1895 is stated as a Chemical Engineer, George Irvin in 1899 is simply listed as “Gentleman”, Harry Kyle in 1900 as a Doctor of Science, while the 1897 patent of Lewis Levi and George Cartwright are listed resepctively as Brass finisher and Hotel Keeper.

With these patents mentioned above I find myself trying to see whether these are real, serious applications to furthering technology, or some potentially rather odd people with too much free time on the hands and access to public transport. Given the detail, the overlap in basic ideas and principles, it unlikely that they are crackpot inventors. Nevertheless a lot more research is needed to make sure I don’t overlook a hidden historical gem just because the inventor has listed himself as simply “Manufacturer”, without elaboration as to exactly what it is he is inventing. And I do men he, of course. So far, only the men have made any patents. Not that I have any issue with that – it will just make the first female to do so a more intriguing character to investigate.

Profession on these patents isn’t just about the unusual or seemingly irrelevant; it also tells me a lot about the other applicants. Invention in the fishing industry was clearly one in which a lot of people were interested and involved in. Inventors range from Ships Captain, Smack Owner and Engineers to Naval Architect, Joiners, Blacksmiths and Fish Merchants. A good few Ships Husbands and Boat and Ship Builders crop up, along with a lone Master Mariner, Rope Maker and a Boilermaker. All of these patents are filed by so many trades in and surrounding the fishing industry of the time – but only one of these so far is content to describe himself as a Fisherman. Frederick Myroft of Grimsby patented in 1902 what I can best describe as a trawl board for the headline of a net. While many are also content to describe themselves as Owners or Captains,  towards the end of the 1910’s this becomes Steam Trawler Owner or Steam Trawler Captain – something of greater relevance to my study, as the mechanisation of ships and equipments made pelagic trawling a lot easier (to say the least).

I could waffle on for a lot more about what these patents say, not just in inventions but the people and society who made them. But I have a 7 more decades of reading to do – and the 40’s and 50’s are going to be very interesting indeed!

The Never-Ending Patents

Last week I looked at the patents for the Breidfjord and Robert Larsen’s trawls and realised that patents – and the people who made them – were going to be crucial in establishing a timeline for mid-water trawling. This, however, meant that I am now faced with a even larger pile of reading than anticipated…

A worldwide patent search brought up 60-odd entries for “otter” boards alone – with the search only extending as far as 1960. Judging by the patents so far – which I am now creating a database for – patents for trawl and trawling technology started around the 1890’s. What’s interesting is that search terms like “pelagic”, “aimed” or “mid-water” trawl(ing) throw up hits from the 1950’s onwards – but “surface” fishing/trawling has hits from 1895  onwards, especially the intriguingly named Gustav Larsen of Norway, who took out a British patent for his ‘Improved Fishing Tackle or Apparatus for Net-fishing’. This initially looks like another demersal trawl, until you get to the description: ‘A fishing tackle designed to operate at the surface or at any suitable depth of the water when towed by a ship…’. This, combined with Skrmetti’s ‘floating trawl’, patented in the USA in 1924 (Skrmetti states his nationality as Austrian on the patent form) suggests that the the idea does begin a good half-century before Robert Larsen picked up the idea and patented it himself – he didn’t file his trawl patent until 1949.

The downside of all this information is that not all of it is relevant, but in order to find that out I have to read it… Not to mention that the only way to effectively store and assess this information is to input everything into a spreadsheet to keep track of it all. And I’ve not searched for keywords like “surface”, “fishing tackle” or “trawl door”. So the next two weeks are going to be busy with searching, downloading and inputting patent information.