February 10 – Plimsoll Day

Posted on February 10, 2014

Today we celebrate another good-guy of history on his birthday. Samuel Plimsoll (1824 – 1898) had been a clerk and a manager of a brewery, but he wanted to start his own business. The business he chose, selling coal in London, ended up failing, and Plimsoll was so poor that he had to live in what we might call a “poorhouse” for a while.

He worked to get out of poverty, but good luck played a part in his escape. He felt sympathy for the poor and downtrodden and, from then on, he tried to make a real difference on behalf of others.

One problem he noticed was that many British merchant ships were unseaworthy, and the wealthy merchants risked their crews' lives by overloading these unsafe vessels.

You may wonder why merchants would risk having their very own ships sink, with their wares onboard—let alone the human working on the ships! Well, the merchants over-insured their ships, so they were worth more to them if they sank than if they reached port. The merchants win, either way.

Run down, over-insured, overloaded ships were often called “coffin ships”!

Few people in England were trying to do anything to change these unsafe practices. But Samuel Plimsoll was determined to try! He got himself elected as a Member of Parliament, and he dove into the problem, trying to get a bill passed to rein in the merchant ship owners' greed and to make shipping safer.

Unfortunately, a lot of MPs were themselves ship owners, guilty of the very same practices Plimsoll wanted to outlaw. Plimsoll had to work to inform the public and to galvanize them into complaining to their lawmakers. Finally, a Royal Commission was formed and a bill was introduced. Plimsoll thought the bill wasn't enough but better than nothing—and he was really upset when Prime Minister Disraeli announced that the bill would be dropped.

So upset that the called his fellow politicians villains, and he shook his fist in the Speaker's face.

Eventually Plimsoll apologized. Eventually Parliament passed a bill that at least gave lip-service to ensuring the safety of seamen. Eventually Parliament amended the bill to make real safety requirements.

One of the requirements is the painting of a line on the hull of the ship to show the maximum height on the hull where the water can hit, for buoyancy and therefore ship safety. Can you see that, the more stuff you load onto the ship, the lower it will sit in the water? The Plimsoll Line (as it is called) shows the legal limit to which a ship may be loaded.

Because warm water is less dense than cold water, and fresh water is less dense than seawater, some water types provide less buoyancy than other water types. That's why, on many ships, there are multiple lines marked on the hull or elsewhere.

Other names for the Plimsoll Line include the International Load Line and waterline.

By the way, other do-good projects Plimsoll worked on were improving cattle-ships (with which animals were transported in horribly overcrowded and disgusting conditions) and changing history textbooks in America to be less bitter toward England.

Experiment with water density!

Here and here are some ideas to get you started.

Also on this date:

Scientist Per Teodor Cleve's birthday 

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