22 April 2010

The Sirius arrives in New York

It was on April 22, 1838, that the Sirius arrived in New York City, after a journey of 18 days and 10 hours, making it the first vessel ever to cross the Atlantic ocean using only steam power.

She had riggings ready, just in case she needed them, since the new technology was not considered reliable. If you follow that link you'll see what she looked like.

This is a bittersweet day, then, because that completed voyage meant that the age of tall wooden ships with great sails was coming to end. Those old tall ships weren't merely a technology for crossing the ocean, thet were an aesthetic, and they remain a touchstone.

The philosopher David Hume once said that beauty arises from utility: we prize in a horse for example those anatomical features that make it swift, and we come to regard them as beautiful. There is truth in this, but it is very incomplete. Beauty may arise from, but long survive, its utility. A horse is still beautiful to us, though none of us any longer relies upon its features for transportation.

The marks of verse, for example -- metre and rhyme -- may once have been quite useful. In a pre-literate age they may have been the reason a poem survived, passed along from the memory of one teller of the tale to that of another, while many a prosaic story, never put into this form, was lost forever. We have writing implements now, though, and many who know how to use them. If we still consider verse a thing of beauty, the reason is that beauty can outlive utility.

Speaking of both poems and ships then: the poem "Sea-Fever" first appeared in print in 1902. This lovely expression of longing for the "windy day with the white clouds flying/ And the flung spray...." was the result of the passage of more than 60 years since the voyage of the Sirius, the voyage that made the windiness of the day an irrelevance to sea travel.

No comments:

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.