Balloons and fixed wings
Although air transport seemed
a possibility in 1901, it was still the preserve of enthusiasts.
Heated air balloons had been had been used for flight as early
as 1783 and by 1901 airships based on this technology were
being developed by Count von Zeppelin among others. The future,
however, lay with fixed-wing aircraft: in 1903 the Wright
brothers made the world's first successful manned, engine-powered,
heavier-than-air flight in North Carolina.
In June 1901 the American glider pilot Octave Chanute wrote
in Cassier's: '
We may hope that successful aerial
navigation will spread civilisation, knit the nations closer
together, and perhaps so equalize the hazards of war as to abolish
it altogether, thus bringing about the predicted era of universal
peace and goodwill'.
The shipping trade
In 1901 British ships dominated the world's shipping
trade. The largest ship in the world in 1901 was British -
the White Star line's SS Celtic weighing 20,880 tons,
launched on 4 April. There was fierce competition, however,
from German and particularly American shipping. Within a year,
the White Star line had been bought by an American multinational,
the International Mercantile Marine Company (IMMC). The global
economy spread beyond national boundaries: The Times
observed that 'capital had no country [and] would gravitate
to those countries where it was most encouraged and least
Life at sea
According to the 1901 census, there were 120,412 British
and 32,614 foreign seamen, over a third of whom were Scandinavian,
on board British ships. There were also an increasing number
of 'lascars' (from India) and other Asiatic seamen serving
on British ships, rising from 27,911 in 1896 to 33,610 in
1901. Foreigners and 'lascars' could be hired at cheaper rates
- a British able seaman aboard an average cargo steamer might
draw between £3 and £4 a month, while his Indian
equivalent might be paid no more than 20 rupees, just over
14s, a month.
For most seamen, life was hard, living conditions poor and
desertion common. Henry Irwin, interviewed in 1903 for a government
enquiry into merchant shipping, described some steam ships
as 'not fit for a rat to exist in'. In 1900, 57,861 seamen
had either deserted or failed to join ships on which they
had signed on. A typical firemen might work two four-hour
shifts a day and, during each shift, would have to shovel
two tons of coal into the ship's furnaces. There was no guarantee
of continuous employment and no unemployment benefit if a
man failed to find a ship. The 1906 Merchant Shipping Act,
however, improved conditions to some extent.
Sailors who constantly changed their ships can be elusive to
trace in the records. One reason for this is that seamen resented
the continuous discharge books, which had been introduced in
1900 in an attempt to prevent desertion, because they could
be used to record 'bad character' and so hinder further employment.
An illegal trade in the sale of discharge books soon developed.