A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2014 Jan 19, 12:04 -0800
Lu, you wrote:
"Your comment about "material composition" reminded me of a friend who used to hold up an imaginary object and say "This is George Washington's original ax that he used to chop down the cherry tree! Of course, it's had six new handles and four new heads, but it's still the original ax!"
Many time in NavList messages, we've discussed topics that sound like they must be products of modern science, but then it turns out, oh yeah, Ptolemy knew about this...
This problem of original composition both in terms of restored wooden vessels and various "old axes" similarly dates back to that Classical period. Here's a line from the Wikipedia article: "Plutarch [in the 1st century] asked whether a ship which was restored by replacing each and every one of its wooden parts, remained the same ship." This question of the authecticity of a restored wooden ship dates back TWO THOUSAND YEARS. The article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship_of_theseus) goes on to discuss "George Washington's axe (sometimes "my grandfather's axe") [which] is the subject of an apocryphal story of unknown origin in which the famous artifact is "still George Washington's axe" despite having had both its head and handle replaced."
The "Ship of Theseus" and "my grandfather's axe" are both prototypes for a general philosophical paradox on the authenticity of things. The Charles W. Morgan has become, after this restoration, a LITERAL "Ship of Theseus". Is it the same old vessel after every beam and spar has been replaced? This can be framed as a question of information content. If the vessel were broken up and we had a pile of beams from the 19th century lying in our shipyard, we could point to them and say, "Those are the bones of an old ship" (they have little information content remaining but the material is still authentic). But if we replace each beam in that pile with a new beam, at some point we can't make connection anymore. The authenticity of that pile of debris depends on the age of the material itself since there is no other information content. By contrast, a living vessel is a store of information in its design and fabrication techniques. If I remove a rotten plank and replace it with a new one using the same materials (might be a problem ...if the original wood is now rare) and craft it and place it on the vessel using historical methods, then it is the same vessel. The Morgan is still the Morgan. And yet with a difference: if I place my hand on a plank, I can no longer say, as people often do, "imagine what this plank has seen". At most, that plank has seen a few decades of tourists come and go.
And why not make two from one? A complete restoration process like this is an act of "cloning". So why not make two clones, one to sail and one to display? Obviously funding is the limiting practical factor here. But setting aside financing concerns, doing so would have amounted to an obvious admission that neither vessel is "real" in some sense --that there is no "old" Charles W. Morgan. Here maritime tradition gives us an out. If you restore a vessel, no matter how extensive the changes, including replacing every stick in the keel, by maritime tradition it is the same vessel and carries the original name and legacy. Note that this is a unique feature of maritime tradition. Imagine someone trying to sell you an 18th century chair. You do some research and discover that every piece of wood has been carefully replaced with a modern copy. You could claim fraud ...and win.
There are two historic (or not!) vessels that test these issues:
--USS Niagara which is based in Erie, Pennsylvania. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Niagara_(1813)
--USS Constellation in Baltimore, Maryland. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Constellation_(1854)
It is a serious stretch of reality to claim that the brig Niagara is a historic vessel in any meaningful way except via that loophole provided by maritime tradition. The Wikipedia article barely notes this and points to the "Ship of Theseus" article as if that excuses the issue. Wikipedia articles on minor museum vessels are usually maintained by the museums themselves and tend to evade such questions. Visit the "Talk" page behind the article for more serious discussion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:USS_Niagara_(1813)
As for USS Constellation, the story is now settled. If you visit the Wikipedia article on Constellation, scroll down the section "Identity Crisis" for details.
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