The Fruits of Civilization (23-4-2) Shipbuilding


In the late 15th century and early 16th century, Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci designed several machines that could not be built at the time for lack of proper materials and machine power. These same obstacles – of power sources, and adequate supplies of materials – frustrated greater industrial productivity.

The sophistication of waterwheels and windmills was well developed by the 17th century, but their obvious limitations limited their employment. Still, water-powered mills for spinning silk proliferated in the Po Valley in northern Italy and the Rhone Valley in eastern France. The large size and complexity of the machinery involved required factory buildings. These production facilities were precursors to modern industrial installations.


Construction of buildings underwent little technological change from medieval times; but one specialized sector in the construction industry did, especially in one country. Shipbuilding in the Dutch Netherlands underwent a profound transformation.

Thanks to flourishing Dutch commerce, in the 150 years to the mid-17th century there was a 10-fold increase in the size of the Dutch merchant fleet, and a more manifold multiplication in tonnage. The Dutch merchant fleet was 3 times that of the English, which was 2nd, and probably larger than the rest of Europe combined. That meant a huge demand for shipbuilding, considering the short life of wooden sailing ships. The Dutch responded by rationalizing their shipyards, including introducing mass production. Windmills powered mechanical saws and hoists. Interchangeable parts were produced and stored.

Merchant ships in the Atlantic trades went from 180 to 540 tonnes during the 16th century. Some warships bulked to over 1,300 tonnes.

While incremental improvements abounded, there were few radical innovations in ship design between the late 15th and 19th centuries. The most significant was the specialized cargo carrier introduced by the Dutch at the end of the 16th century, known as the vlieboot (flyboat). Its great advantage was a draft shallow enough to navigate a river estuary.

The flyboat was designed for bulky, low-value loads, such as grain and timber. It could be operated with a smaller crew complement than conventional ships.