LX: The Bessemer Saloon

Motion sickness is a phenomenon to which all of us can relate (unless you’re one of the lucky 5% of the population whose bodies don’t object to being tossed wildly through space), and it probably has more cures — traditional and otherwise — than any other medial condition. Motion sickness, also called kinetosis, occurs when there is a conflict between the ear and the eye with regard to whether or not the whole body is moving. When sicking in a car or boat or airplane, the eye can see that the body is surrounded by fixed points. Instead of recognizing that the vehicle is moving with the body, the eye assumes that the body and the vehicle are both stationary. The inner ear is filled with fluid that moves when the body moves, so it knows that despite what the eye is saying, the body is in fact moving. This conflict between the inner ear and the eye occurs in the brain’s area postrema, which is responsible for visual input, audio input, and vomiting to clear the body of toxins. The confused input from the eyes and ears leads the area postrema to assume that the individual is hallucinating, and rather than trying to understand the subtle nuances of vehicular travel, it does what it does best and induces vomiting.

Naturally, people don’t particularly enjoy vomiting, so they have come up with ridiculously wide range of creative and bizarre solutions to motion sickness. From ginger to acupressure to scopolamine patches, there are a thousand different methods to make your kinetosis disappear. One particular unfortunate sufferer of severe seasickness was British inventor Sir Henry Bessemer. Born in 1813, he was more hands-on than most other inventors of the time, and he managed to make a decent profit off of some of his inventions. His creation of the Bessemer Process of steel manufacture revolutionized the industry, but not all his inventions were so successful.

In 1868, Bessemer had suffered a particularly dreadful bout of seasickness and decided he needed to invent something to prevent that from ever happening again. Naturally, he decided to build a boat. It was not just any boat, however. The SS Bessemer was built in two pieces: the ship itself and a separate passenger saloon. He mounted the saloon onto the ship using gimbals and hydraulics, which allowed it to move independently of the ship. The luxurious cabin was furnished with hand-painted murals mounted on hand-carved gilt panels, spiral columns of carved oak, and seats upholstered in rich Morocco-leather. Bessemer hoped that the independent movement of the saloon would provide a smoother ride and therefore less seasickness. Tests in his backyard had proved very promising. How he managed to test an entire steamship in his backyard, I have no idea. Bessemer also apparently had a fundamental misunderstanding of seasickness, because his saloon had exactly zero windows.

It didn’t really matter though, because the construction of the SS Bessemer kept it from making really any gains as an effective seasickness solution. The massive extra weight of the saloon, combined with its ability to move independently of the ship, made it extremely difficult to pilot. The ship was so heavy and unstable that even in the hands of a highly experienced captain, it ended its maiden voyage from Dover to Calais by crashing into the pier and destroying it. After extensive repairs, the ship launched again a month later, this time with a crucial difference: to prevent the saloon from unbalancing the ship, Bessemer secured it firmly to the ship so the saloon could no longer move, which defeats the entire purpose of the invention.

With the same excellent captain at the helm for SS Bessemer Round 2, the ship again sailed from Dover to Calais. It made two failed attempts to enter the harbor, each time rolling dangerously and failing to respond to the helm at low speeds. On the third attempt, the ship entered the harbor, but once again, it smashed directly in the Calais pier, this time destroying it entirely. This apparently was huge surprise to all the people of Calais who had thought that standing on the pier to watch the same boat that had crashed into the pier last month piloted by the same guy who had crashed it into the pier last month was a great idea.

Needless to say, the investors panicked and withdrew their funding. I’d say this doomed the SS Bessemer, but I think it was pretty doomed to begin with.


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