Atomic Awesome, Moments in History

100 Years of Sailing Ships



British trade routes as shown by ship logs 1750-1850. Image from Spatial Analysis

Good morning everyone.

Today I have something a bit different from my usual stultifying pontifications. I was viewing a video on YouTube, I forget what it was now, and I happened to spot a video in the right hand column entitled “100 Years of Ships”. I like ships in general, and 100 years of them might be quite a show, so I started the video, but it wasn’t at all what I expected.

What I was watching was a graphical representation of the shipping routes used during the period of 1750 to 1850, plotted month by month on a map of the world. It shows primarily routes used by the British, Dutch, and Spanish, and has an ‘other’ category that everyone else is lumped into.

It was fascinating to watch. You can see the trade routes to Africa, India, and Malaysia, and the routes to the New World, as well as some of the routes used by exploratory and military expeditions. It’s a very interesting way of looking at history.  The data used for the routes was taken from the information recorded in the logbooks from the many ships that were sailing during that period. Someone did one hell of a lot of work to create the database used for the visualization.

I was curious as to how the visualization was made, so I went to the creator’s website, Sapping Attention, to find out more.

There I found the article “Visualizing Ocean Shipping” by Ben Schmidt where he talks about how and why he created the video. It turns out that he heard about a data visualization on the website Spatial Analysis from some historians talking about it on Twitter. Intrigued now, I wandered over to Spatial Analysis, and discovered that they had found the dataset by accident, and the dataset had been put together as part of the database for the Climatological Database for the World’s Oceans 1750-1850 (CLIWOC) project that was done by the Complutense University of Madrid. A most curious chain of events indeed.

There are two videos with descriptions by Ben Schmidt:

The first one is long: it shows about 100 years of ship paths in the seas, as recorded in hundreds of ship’s log books, by hand, one or several times a day. I haven’t watched the whole thing at once, but skipping around gives a pretty good idea of the state of the database (if not world shipping) at any given moment.

[youtube width=”550″ height=”419″][/youtube]

You can watch either of these in much higher resolution by clicking around here or on YouTube–I definitely recommend 720p.

This shows mostly Spanish, Dutch, and English routes–they are surprisingly constant over the period (although some empires drop in and out of the record), but the individual voyages are fun. And there are some macro patterns–the move of British trade towards India, the effect of the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and so on.

And the second video, “A Year of Ships”:

The second has to do with seasonality: it compresses all those years onto a single span of January-December, to reveal seasonal patterns. I loop through a couple times so you can get a better sense, but the data is the same for each year.

[youtube width=”425″ height=”344″][/youtube]

If you find these data visualizations at all interesting, you should go read more over at Sapping Attention and Spatial Analysis to find out more.



Sapping Attention

Spatial Analysis


Complutense University of Madrid

  • Crap. There goes my afternoon.

    That's pretty damn cool.

    • The Professor

      That's what happened to me, too.
      I thought that you'd get a charge out of it.

  • Number_Six

    It's unbelievable how much traffic was pointed at Ellesmere Island (north of Hudson's Bay). I'm guessing that was mostly to do with whaling.

    • The Professor

      I'd say that fur trading is more likely for that location. It's right on the route to Hudson's Bay.

      • Number_Six

        Yeah, I thought about that too, I just didn't think about places like Moose Factory being that popular (or accessible).

  • Deartháir

    Well, that's my morning written off. See you in a few hours!

    Also: I'm guessing I'm not the only one with an irrational love of old sailing ships. Is that something we should be covering as part of our old technology?

    • The Professor

      Hmmm, I did quite a bit of research a few years back as preparation for building a model of HMS Victory (which I have yet to do). If I can find my notes (hah!), I can do a series on various aspects of the tech used on the ships, such as rigging, the various doodads found on deck, what the masts and sails are called, etc.
      Is that what you're thinking of?

      • Deartháir

        I don't know, I hadn't given it any thought, but it's a technology that's not just interesting in its intricacy, but downright beautiful. I did a relatively-short 20-page paper on Sir Francis Drake years ago, and that included a summary of his flagship, the Golden Hind. There was so much neat stuff they did back in the day, from rigging warships up to look like merchant vessels to deliberately setting their sails and rigging to appear that the crew was sloppy and incompetent, all designed to give them an advantage in ship-to-ship combat on the seas. Fascinating stuff, but not something I'd ever considered writing about.