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Research Note – General -


Mechanical Windlasses

John Harland


Regretfully, when researching Capstans and Windlasses: An Illustrated History of their use at Sea, I really should have pursued the aspect of the windlass story, and tried to date the introduction of the pump-brake windlasses. I regret the failure to do so, and sadly cannot give an precise answer to this question, other than to say this type of windlass was introduced sometime around 1850. English patents dated 1859, issued to W H Harfield (No 2860) and to J H Johnson on behalf of Louis David (No 2677) feature windlasses of the pump-brake type, but I am sure the device was in use before 1859.

The traditional way of rotating the 18th Century windlass was to insert handspikes in square mortises in the barrel, and pull them vigorously down and back. Not only did this require a fair degree of skill and co-ordination of the efforts of the men handling the handspikes, but the job could be dangerous if the anchor was being weighed in any sort of sea. In the early examples of this type of windlass, the pawl engaged every eighth of a turn, and should the bow rise violently to a sea, and the pawl failed to engage, there was danger of the men being hurled forward over the windlass and being injured. The introduction of multiple iron pawls greatly reduced the danger, but in addition three different means were devised, which made weighing anchor safer by stationing the men to the sides of the windlass rather than immediately abaft it.

In 1794, William Hutchinson suggested using long fore-and-aft bars or levers which operated outside the cheeks of the windlass, and turned ratcheted wheels.

Another method was to fit crank handles much like those used in the Bentinck-Coles Chain-Pump, between the cheeks of the windlass and the bulwarks. {This type of windlass was fitted in Darwin's BEAGLE in 1829. See Karl-Heinz Marquardt: HMS BEAGLE: Survey Ship Extraordinary (Anatomy of the Ship Series). The Rijks Museum, Amsterdam, possess a model showing this arrangement, which dates 1836. (Catalog # MC210).

Three windlass models in the same museum are dated 1850 (Catalog # MC207, MC208 and MC209), and have ratchets fitted at the side of the windlass, operated by a short fore-and-aft lever. These may be considered variations of Hutchinson's method.

The Rijksmuseum have two models of windlasses featuring the athwartship pump-handle (pump-brake) arrangement (Catalog # MC211 and 212). These particular models are dated 1852, but my guess is that the scheme had been invented well before then. (For illustrations, see Pages 58-9 of Capstans and Windlasses.)

Click for larger image.
Illustration from Röding's Allgemeines Wörterbuch der Marine. c. 1794.

{John Harland}


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