No. 4, Signs of Their Times
Oil on canvas, Sloop Electric Light
In this day of brand names and dot-com website addresses plastered in graphic prominence on the hulls and sails of ocean racing yachts, we may chuckle at the quaint name of this jaunty sloop.
Of course, when she was launched at Bristol, Maine in 1881, into an era of lamps fueled by kerosene or natural gas, electric light was pretty darn up-to-date, sparking, and sexy. So why not christen a vessel for the Coming Thing?
What name would be so exciting to use today? It's just that with the speed of technological succession today, this can be fraught with peril.
"Atomic " ? Anything so dated is too retro, and "Nanotube" is pretty arcane. There must be something in between. "Global Positioning System" ??
Any bright ideas? (Did a bright light bulb just go on?)
Sign, "Joes Famous Reverse Gears", ca. 1940
Did you know that before Joe ran a diner, he manufactured marine reversing gears, and claimed they were famous, no less ?
The ability to conveniently reverse the direction of direct drive marine engines without having to slow down and stop the engine to reverse, was a challenge that saw numerous attempted improvements as engine horsepower increased. Certainly Snow & Petrelli's solution, which has become known as a Joes Reversing Gear, proved successful through the 1930s.
The company appears not to have benefited from the demand created by the Navy during WWII; a more versatile clutch/reversing gear design by Fawick Airflex was selected for installation in hundreds of landing craft, tugs, and other war service ships.
The Joes brand seems to have been unable to land such a multi-million dollar contract. Being humble, down-to-earth, and affordable sells cups of coffee, but may not have seemed dynamic enough to a tense nation struggling to re-arm its navy after Pearl Harbor.
Instruction plate, ca. 1850
The origin and intent of this aged cast brass plate are not known, but, despite the modest decoration, its terse wording seems rather sinister. Whatever it is that needs to be unlocked (sawmill carriage? sluice gate? boiler vent? lifeboat tackle? main drive-shaft clutch?), don't shilly-shally; put some weight on that lever, and maybe shout for some help. One does not "bear down" lightly.
These days, this situation would probably have safety-orange arrows and a little black stick-figure in some terrible difficulty. Words would be by-passed entirely, stumbling blocks before a demanded action.
But the 19th-century mind was moulded by words, receptive to verbiage, and respectful of its authority. The 19th-century world was black and white, on or off, right or wrong, locked or unlocked. There were no shades of meaning, no bright colors and picto-grams, no half-lives.
And if you polish up this brass so carefully, not only will you be the ruler of the Queen's Navy, you might also learn which way to throw the lever.
Let me know if you stopped by down here!
Chris Hall , Registrar