PortandTerminal.com, May 14, 2020
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – Everyone knows what rope is. Rope is a length of fibers, twisted and braided around each other, that creates a thicker strand which is capable of pulling, tying and connecting. Humans have been making and using rope for a very long time – much longer than we thought it turns out.
The earliest “ropes” in prehistoric times were naturally occurring lengths of plant fibers such as vines.
Later, as we learned more about the usefulness of rope, we made our first attempts at twisting and braiding these strands together to make our ropes stronger. In doing so we formed the first proper rope in the modern sense of the word.
How we make and use ropes today though has remained virtually unchanged except for the materials and technology that we use.
It is impossible to imagine ships existing without the invention of rope. They simply couldn’t in any meaningful sort of way.
The first proper boats or rafts were made from bundles of logs or rafts of reed bundles tied together using a primitive rope made from hemp or leather pieces. Binding the bundles together would have required huge lengths of primitive rope.
The need for large quantities of rope in shipping grew exponentially over time.
In the golden days of sail in the 19th century, a fully rigged ship could have as many as 25 sails and used literally miles and miles of rope.
When the British battleship HMS Victory was launched in 1765 it was estimated that she used 31 miles of rope for her rigging. Granted, she was one of the largest ships in her day, but even common merchant sailing vessels in the age of sail each used many miles of rope as well.
It was everywhere, used for everything. Rope controlled the ship, holding together and operating the complex system of sails which were the ship’s engine.Mike Crowe, Fisherman’s Voice – ‘Tons of Rope” (April 2010)
The common, square-rigged ship was by far the greatest consumer of rope in its day.
The complete gang of standing and running rigging alone for one 400-ton brig launched at Portland, Maine, in 1865 was 3.8 miles long. By 1850 the 1,000-ton ship was common and one launched in 1862 had a gang of standing rigging alone that was over 2 miles long, with sizes ranging up to 9-1/2 inches and over a ton of “smaller stuff,” which was various smaller lines.
Today, modern shipping still uses an unimaginable amount of rope and, unfortunately, lose tons every year as well in the form of lines, rigging and nets. This lost rope, netting and so on becomes what is called “Ghost Gear” and is a plague to marine life in the world’s oceans.
As our vessels have grown in size, so have our ropes. The lines on today’s major cargo vessels are enormous and often require several crew members simply to manipulate and move them.
The global synthetic rope market accounted for $1.3 billion in 2017 and is anticipated to reach $2.2 billion by 2025. Of course, not all rope is used in shipping but much of it is so you get the point – rope is still widely used as an essential tool in the maritime world.
John Shea, a paleoanthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York believes that cordage, or primitive rope, was probably in use as far back as half-a-million years ago. Extremely old stone tools appear to have been made to fit handles. Glue didn’t exist back then so it is likely that some primitive form of cordage was being used to secure the tools to their handles.
In April 2020 archaeologists announced that they had discovered concrete evidence that Neanderthals manufactured and used rope between 41,000 to 52,000 years ago. It was a stunning discovery.
The evidence wasn’t much to look at, just a thin three-ply cord fragment, approximately one-quarter of an inch long, found stuck to a stone tool. But it was enough to prove that Neanderthals weren’t quite as dumb as we once believed. They knew how to make rope.
Previously, the oldest known fragment of cord dated back to around 19,000 years ago from a site in Israel. Scientists had also found impressions left in clay by something that looked like woven fibers from 27,000 years ago.
But what were primitive people using rope for?
In prehistoric times, rope was used for hunting, pulling, fastening, attaching, carrying, lifting and climbing as it is to this day.
No tools though were used to manufacture primitive rope – the plant fibres were twisted by hand. But by any definition, it was rope that they were laboriously making inch by inch.
Ancient civilization and rope
Egyptian rope dates back to 4,000 to 3,500 BC and was generally made of water reed fibres (papyrus) or sometimes leather.
From securing ships to tying cattle to a post, building shelters, rope and string was a multipurpose commodity in ancient Egypt. Rope was also instrumental in helping the Egyptians to construct their colossal pyramids that still stand today.
Rope was so important in ancient Egypt that there are depictions of it being manufactured in at least 9 different tombs on and on one loose block in the Cairo Museum.
Rope making tools and technique
The ancient Egyptians were probably the first civilization to develop special tools to make rope.
Virtually all examples of rope from ancient Egypt were made employing one basic technique which involved twisting and counter twisting fibres. In the first step, yarns or cords were created from individual bundles of fibres, each yarn being twisted it the same direction. The yarns are then twisted around each other in the reverse direction. The laying of the yarns’ fibres upon each other in the opposite creates a tension that keeps them together in the final rope shape.
The actual twisting of the yarns together would be done on a handheld spindle. The device shown in the photo above is a reproduction of an ancient Egyptian rope-making tool and would have been used similar to a ratchet. One end of the strand to be twisted is threaded through the hole in the blade and fastened. The blade is rotated around the handle and the fibers are twisted firmly. The tools helped but it was still tedious work.
Rope was no less important in ancient Rome. So much so that Titus, one of its emperors has a rope maker depicted on his sarcophagus. To put that homage to rope into a modern context, it would be like a leader today having a picture of an iPhone factory worker assembling a smartphone engraved onto his tombstone.
Beginning in the Middle Ages, Europeans started making rope using an innovation called the “ropewalk” and what a breakthrough it was. So much so that ropewalks were still in use right up until the 20th century.
A ropewalk is a long straight narrow lane, or a covered pathway, where long strands of material are laid before being twisted into rope.
They have two main advantages over making rope by hand.
The first is that they mechanized the difficult work of twisting strands of plant fibers into greater thicknesses. What had once been done manually could now be accomplished by turning a crank. This made it easier to produce the growing quantities of rope that were in demand.
International trade by sailing vessels had skyrocketed in late medieval Europe and in parallel, so did the demand for more rope. Ropewalks solved the problem of increasing production of rope to meet the demand.
The second advantage of ropewalks is that they allowed thicker and longer lengths of rope to be manufactured. As the size of merchant and naval ships increased through the centuries, the need for longer, stronger ropes increased along with them.
The problem of length
With a ropewalk, the twisting of the yarns and strands had to be done in a straight line. So if larger ropes were required, one needed to increase the size of the ropewalk correspondingly – the length of the rope was set by the length of the workshop.
So as the ships grew size so did the size of the ropewalks. One ropewalk factory in Australia at the end of the 19th century was 2,500 feet long – almost half of a mile.
The largest rope walk still standing dates from 1666 and was in operation until 1867: “La Corderie Royale” in Rochefort, France. With an internal length of 1,230 feet, it was the longest brick building of the 17th century (aerial view of it above) and could produce ropes with a length of up to 807 feet.
With the advances of the industrial age, by 1850 rope factories were powered by steam. As more expensive machinery gave an advantage to the factories that possessed it, smaller rope makers fell by the wayside and the industry gradually became dominated by large, highly mechanised spinning mills.
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