Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Container Traffic

There's an argument over at antipope about whether the container trade could have been introduced any earlier, and I'd add to the discussion something George Shaw wrote in his introduction to The Apple Cart  in 1928;

And now a word about Breakages, Limited. The title Breakages, Limited, was suggested to me by the fate of that remarkable genius, the late Alfred Warwick Gattie…. I consented to investigate the alleged great invention in person on Gattie's promising to behave like a reasonable being during the process, a promise which he redeemed with the greatest dignity, remaining silent whilst an engineer explained his miracles to me, and contenting himself with the reading of a brief statement shewing that the adoption of his plan would release from industry enough men to utterly overwhelm the Central Empires with whom we were then at war.  I approached the investigation very sceptically.  Our friend spoke of "the works."  I could not believe that Gattie had any works, except in his fervid imagination.  He mentioned "the company." That was more credible: anyone may form a company; but that it had any resources seemed to me doubtful.  However, I suffered myself to be taken to Battersea; and there, sure enough, I found a workshop, duly labelled as the premises of The New Transport Company, Limited, and spacious enough to accommodate a double railway line with a platform.  The affair was unquestionably real, so far.  The platform was not provided with a station: its sole equipment was a table with a row of buttons on it for making electrical contacts. Each line of railway had on it a truck with a steel lid.  The practical part of the proceedings began by placing an armchair on the lid of one of the trucks and seating me in it.  A brimming glass of water was then set at my feet.  I could not imagine what I was expected to do with the water or what was going to happen; and there was a suggestion of electrocution about the chair which made me nervous.  Gattie then sat down majestically at the table on the platform with his hand hovering over the buttons.  Intimating that the miracle would take place when my truck passed the other truck, he asked me to choose whether it should occur at the first passage or later, and to dictate the order in which it should be repeated. I was by that time incapable of choosing; so I said the sooner the better; and the two trucks started.  When the other truck had passed mine I found myself magically sitting on it, chair and all, with the glass of water unspilled at my feet.  The rest of the story is a tragi-comedy.  When I said to Gattie apologetically (I felt deeply guilty of having underrated him) that I had never known that he was an engineer, and had taken him to be the usual amateur inventor with no professional training, he told me that this was exactly what he was: just like Sir Christopher Wren.  He had been concerned in an electric lighting business, and had been revolted by the prodigious number of breakages of glass bulbs involved by the handling of the crates in which they were packed for transport by rail and road.  What was needed was a method of transferring the crates from truck to truck, and from truck to road lorry, and from road lorry to warehouse lift without shock, friction, or handling.  Gattie, being, I suppose, by natural genius an inventor though by mistaken vocation a playwright, solved the mechanical problem without apparent difficulty, and offered his nation the means of effecting an enormous saving of labor and smash.  But instead of being received with open arms as a social benefactor he found himself up against Breakages, Limited.  The glass blowers whose employment was threatened, the exploiters of the great industry of repairing our railway trucks (every time a goods train is stopped a series of 150 violent collisions is propagated from end to end of the train, as those who live within earshot know to their cost), and the railway porters who dump the crates from truck to platform and then hurl them into other trucks, shattering bulbs, battering cans, and too often rupturing themselves in the process, saw in Gattie an enemy of the human race, a wrecker of homes and a starver of innocent babes.  He fought them undauntedly; but they were too strong for him; and in due time his patents expired and he died almost unrecognized, whilst Unknown Soldiers were being canonized throughout the world. … The last time I saw him he called on me to unfold a new scheme of much greater importance, as he declared, than his trucks.  He was very interesting on that occasion.  He began by giving me a vivid account of the pirates who used to infest the Thames below London Bridge before the docks were built.  He described how the docks had come into existence not as wharves for loading and unloading but as strongholds in which ships and their cargoes could be secure from piracy.  They are now, he declared, a waste of fabulously valuable ground; and their work should be done in quite another way.  He then produced plans of a pier to be built in the middle of the river, communicating directly by rail and road with the shore and the great main lines.  The ships would come alongside the pier; and by a simple system of hoists the contents of their holds would be lifted out and transferred (like myself in the armchair) to railway trucks or motor lorries without being touched by a human hand and therefore without risk of breakage.  ….Gattie was not content to improve the luggage arrangements of our railways: he would not listen to you if your mind was not large enough to grasp the immediate necessity for a new central clearing house in Farringdon Market, connected with the existing railways by a system of new tubes.  He was of course right; and we have already lost by sticking to our old ways more than the gigantic sum his scheme would have cost.  But neither the money nor the enterprise was available just then, with the war on our hands.  The Clearing House, like the Thames pier, remains on paper; and Gattie is in his grave. 

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