More than 350 years ago colonial factories three football fields long were turning out an indispensable and surprisingly complex component of the infant nation’s all-important maritime industry
Rope and ropemaking might seem like unpromising subjects for a historical study. While rope certainly figures in the story of ships and sail, it remains a minor character in that drama. Anv nonsoecialist asked to name a use for rope might rummage through remembered images of TV cowboys lassoing a calf or recall clotheslines and rope swings. Rope is ordinary and common stuff; even most sailors take its variety and easy availability for granted. But the evolution, history, and even romance of ropemaking is a story that begins before the Egyptian laborer dragging the stones of the pyramids and continues to the astronaut tethered to an orbiting module.
We get only glimpses of the earliest ropemaking. In the Orient shoots of bamboo and smaller grasses, or even the hairy outer covering of coconuts, provided a strong and flexible raw material. The Persians under Xerxes were able to spin huge ropes a mile long and more than two feet in circumference in order to rig an invasion bridge across the Hellespont to Greece. Ancient cordage of plant fiber and, often as not, animal hide was also used for more mundane purposes.
The development of cordage begins with a basic principle that is as elegant as it is simple: Groups of individually twisted strands are themselves twisted around one another in the opposite direction. The finished product is a bundle of interlocked tensions, each holding the other in check and keeping the entire rope from unraveling. This was the structure of rope long before Columbus set sail.
The Santa Maria and her sister ships were rigged with a divided sail plan, carrying as many as six or seven smaller sails rather than the one or two large sails seen on earlier vessels. This enabled the crew to set or take in different combinations of sails, making it easier to vary the amount of canvas exposed to the wind. All of this was controlled by a complicated cat’scradle of ropes (or lines, as ropes are always called aboard ship).
The cordage used on these ships was twisted and plaited by hand, rough to the touch, and made from locally grown European sisal plants. Long before ropemaking became an important trade linked to the shipyards, it was a home industry, an extension of yarn making and spinning, domestic crafts that were already thousands of years old in Columbus’s time. It was only when thicker rope was needed that machinery would become central to the procss. Ropemaking was spinning writ large, and women and children both had their parts to play.
More than a hundred years after Columbus, when the Mayflower worked her way across to the New World, rope technology was essentially unchanged. A decade after the Pilgrims landed, the colonies were stirring with the beginnings of commercial and industrial activity. Though they were largely self-sufficient, the colonists did import some things from England, and the most significant import of 1630 was one John Harrison, master ropemaker, of Salisbury. Harrison was persuaded to come to America by the promise of a legal monopoly on his trade. As long as he lived, no one else was allowed to practice ropemaking in the Massachusetts colony, so he enjoyed thirty years of freedom from bothersome competitors and established two ropeworks in Boston.
In that building, long and low, With its windows all a-row, Like the portholes of a hulk, Human spiders spin and spin, Backward down their threads so thin Dropping, each a hempen bulk.
Behind the poetic image was, of course, the reality of factory work: long hours, child labor, and drearily repetitive chores, along with the gradually accelerating pace of what we now call research and development.
In colonial times ropemaking, like many other trades, relied on a system of indentureship, which bound young apprentices to a sort of limited-term paid slavery. The indenture document, once signed, bound the teen-age trainee to “well and faithfully serve [his master], his secrets to keep, his lawful commands duly to obey.” He was further forbidden to play cards and dice, frequent alehouses, marry, or commit “acts of vice or immorality.” Even with these conditions, and despite the ever-present temptation of going away to sea, enough people were willing to work at rope manufacturing that by 1794 fourteen ropewalks were humming in Boston alone, and they would soon be a fixture in almost any seaside town on the Atlantic coast.
The great enemy of the ropewalks was fire. Too long for economical stone construction, they were usually wooden structures full of dried hemp. Tar-soaked rope and the open flames of the tarring vats were first-class fire starters. Often one ropewalk would burn to the ground several times. The Rhode Island historian George Channing vividly remembered the destruction of a colonial-era ropewalk: “The smoke from the immense tar kettles and from the large amount of the same combustible in barrels, was wafted by a strong wind into every section of the town. The houses on the hill were largely impregnated with it. It happened in August 1797, one of the very hottest days, rendering the air insupportable.” Not only were the ropewalks dangerous, but they stank, too. Three fires in one year helped convince the Boston city fathers that a ropewalk located at the edge of today’s Public Garden would be better placed on the outskirts of town.
Manufacturing techniques improved by fits and starts, thanks to the understanding of the people who used rope every day. One such was a sea captain in the British East India Company, and his solution had far-reaching effects. Capt. Joseph Huddart, on a run from India to China in the 178Os, inspected the fraying and broken strands on his anchor rope and found that the outer yarns were being stressed more than the inner ones. The reason for this was that the yarns making up a strand were all the same length, so that when they were twisted together, the ones on the outside were stretched tighter than the ones on the inside.
Huddart devised a means by which yarns of gradually greater lengths were fed into the strand as its winding progressed. Rope made this way took a strain evenly from core to outer layer and was much stronger than the older type, so a smaller rope could now do the work of a larger one. The new process became standard in all ropeworks.
Like many other fledgling American industries, ropemaking in the colonies had to compete with importation from the mother country. In 1740 a Newport, Rhode Island, merchant named John Bannister ordered cordage from England rather than the locally made stuff for one of his new ships because, he wrote, English rope was “much better than what’s made here.” England saw the colonies largely as a promising source of raw materials and encouraged them to grow hemp and flax for the mother country to manufacture. The English fixed prices and offered bounties to farmers, and some New England towns appointed hemp inspectors to inspect and certify the quality of their produce.
The rock-dotted pastures of New England turned out to be better suited to raising stone walls than hemp or flax, and in time quantities of hemp would be imported from the Southern colonies. Hemp from the upper Mississippi Valley came downriver to New Orleans and then made the long journey up the coast by schooner. Russian hemp from the Baltic was also prized. It was made into baling rope for Georgia cotton planters and then ferried down South, producing steady work for the coastal shipping trade.
Tar, used to make rope smoother and more water-resistant, was also made early on in New England. A village outside Providence, Rhode Island, dubbed itself Tarkiln and rendered up vats of the sticky stuff from the knots of the pitch pine tree. Because of the demand for pine distillates to be used in lamps and beacon towers, tar for rope eventually had to be imported from the Tar Heel State, North Carolina.
Ships were the vehicles of choice for all but the most local transportation in America, and ships needed line, hundreds and thousands of feet of it. A proper ship boasted both standing and running rigging of rope, fore and main topmasts, backstays and jibstays, guys, ratlines, lanyards, wormlines, and anchor cables, to name but a few. As shipbuilding came into its own in America in the mid-1700s, ropemaking kept pace. In 1762 one Henry Flagg advertised in the Newport, Rhode Island, Mercury that at his factory “Merchants and others may be supplied with Cordage of every kind, and the best quality, and may have Hemp and Junk [i.e., crude, unfinished rope] manufactured with Dispatch and Fidelity.”
A customer of this period often brought his own hemp to the ropewalk and was careful to see that a less-than-honest ropemaker did not substitute a cheaper grade in the spinning process. There were other kinds of quality control as well: Rope made for the Royal Navy was required by law to carry “the king’s mark,” a white thread laid into all cable and cordage. This identified the rope as government property and discouraged theft. The new American Navy as well as the private merchant fleets would follow suit and adopt their own color-coding systems.
By 1770 American-made rope could compete with English cordage, in time to help equip the Revolutionary Navy. During the hardest winters of the Revolution, many ropewalks were pulled down for firewood, but with independence and peace, customers again put in large orders.
As ropemaking followed the expansion of the merchant fleet, another, even more demanding customer, the whaling industry, rose up. Whalers used much more cordage than ordinary merchant ships. Aside from all the usual equipment, a whaler out hunting for three or four years at a time needed many hundreds of fathoms of whale warp, the line connecting a harpooned whale to the boat. Coiled meticulously into a wooden tub nearly three feet wide and placed in the bow of the whaleboat, this line was the tenuous link to vast fortunes for cities like New Bedford, Massachusetts.
In Moby-Dick Herman Melville describes the dangers posed by a rope as it shoots out of its container, pulled alone by a soundine whale: “As the least tangle or kink in the coiling would, in running out, infallibly take somebody’s arm, leg, or entire body off, the utmost precaution is used in stowing the line in its tub.” As the whale is harpooned, “the same moment something went hot and hissing along every one of their wrists. It was the magical line. An instant before, Stubb had swiftly caught two additional turns with it round the loggerhead, whence, by reason of its increased rapid circlings, a hempen blue smoke now jetted up and mingled with the steady fumes from his pipe … ‘Wet the line! Wet the line!’ cried Stubb, to the tub oarsman (him seated by the tub) who, snatching off his hat, dashed the seawater into it.” With life, limb, and fortune at stake, whalemen had to be confident that their line was the most carefully manufactured cordage available.
How exactly was it made? The process had not changed much since antiquity. First a raw material was treated and combed to convert it into long hairlike fibers. Then those fibers were spun together to form yarns. The yarns, in turn, were twisted in bunches to form strands, and finally the strands were wound into rope. At each stage the twisting was performed in the opposite direction from the previous stage, making the final product strong and certain not to unravel.
The raw material, hemp, was a familiar product to European pipe smokers. The flowering top of the hemp plant— Cannabis sativa —contains a potent resin, and the tops, leaves, and resin were, then as now, popular as the narcotic known as marijuana.
Hemp delivered to the ropeworks in bales was first soaked (retted) and beaten (scutched) to clean the fibers. Sometimes it was spread on the grass for several nights to be dew-retted. The fibers were then combed out by being drawn through a series of spikes arranged like a bed of tall nails. This process, called hackling, transformed a mass of rough, treated fibers into bundles of long, straight threads and prepared them for spinning on a wheel or series of wheels into yarn.
The wheels—often as large as four feet in diameter and sometimes turned by children if waterpower was not available—drove multiple spindles, so that four or even six men could work at once. These men, known as spinners, had smoothly combed hanks of hemp fiber wrapped around their waists. They began by hooking a handful of fibers onto the spindle. As the spindle turned, the workers walked backward from it at a practiced pace of about two miles per hour, gradually releasing handfuls of hemp. (Thus a spinner would walk close to twenty miles in a ten-hour workday.) The result was ever-increasing lengths of yarn that stretched out in front of the workers as thev moved down the ropewalk away from the spindle.
The spun yarns were gathered together in loose skeins called junks, to prevent them from becoming tangled during the next step, tarring. After a thorough soak in the black preservative, the junks were squeezed out through rollers like so much wet laundry and separated into individual yarns again. The seasoned and tarred yarns were then wound onto large spools or bobbins, just as in any textile factory, and the bobbins themselves were skewered in long rows on racks known as creels.
Next the groups of yarns were twisted together into strands. For this purpose ropemakers used Captain Huddart’s invention, a “forming plate,” which was a metal disk with holes drilled in a pattern of concentric circles. As each bobbin fed its yarn through one of the holes, the plate ensured that the outer yarns in a strand would be longer than the inner ones, thus distributing the strain more evenly. A “plate man” stood ready to quickly repair any broken yarns before they fed through.
From the forming plate the yarns were pulled through a tube that acted as a compressor and smoother and then into a wheel-mounted forming machine, which both pulled the yarns and twisted them together as it rolled down the length of the ropewalk on a track. The forming machine was followed by a man known as the hauler. Responsible for quality control, he carefully watched the strand for uniformity as the yarns were twisted together. The hauler made sure that the forming machine traveled the full length of the ropewalk at a brisk but even walking pace—it had to be kept in motion for the strand to emerge strong and even.
The result of all this close-paced choreography was a strand of twisted yarns up to 750 feet in length. Six strands could be made at once, and the final products, tied at each end to prevent unraveling, were ready to be “laid up,” or twisted around one another to form a rope.
The strands were attached at one end to a “foreturn” machine, which gave each one an additional twist in the direction it had already been wound in, thus preventing the final rope from losing any integrity. The other end of each strand went on to an “afterturn” machine at the opposite end of the ropewalk. This machine twisted the strands (three or four went into a rope) around each other. In the middle they passed through a laying top—a wooden cone with grooves on the outside to guide the strands— mounted on a truck that rolled along a track. As the afterturn machine rotated, finished rope emerged from the narrow end of the cone, and tension in the strands pulled the truck under the laying top down the ropewalk.
Like the earlier steps, this had to occur at a carefully controlled rate to ensure that the rope would be smoothly and evenly laid up, with the right tightness. A brakeman walked behind the truck to monitor it and keep it from jumping ahead too quickly. When man and truck had traveled the length of the ropewalk, the rope was finished. At this point it was cut free, tied off at each end, and coiled for shipment.
Engravings from the 1763 Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot show many of these steps in elegant detail, but the French version of ropemaking looks like a ballet staged for the royal court rather than hard, dirty work.
The ropewalks were generally powered by waterwheels until steam came in in the nineteenth century. The spinning wheel was the first piece of ropewalk machinery to be steam-driven. In 1841 Moses Day adapted the spinning jenny for rope yarns, allowing the initial spinning to be done in a small area that could be heated, so women from the textile mills eventually found a place in this part of the operation. Otherwise, ropemaking remained man’s and boy’s work, sunup to sundown, six days a week, in an unheated building where work was called off only when cold made the tar too stiff to work.
By the latter half of the nineteenth century, ropemaking was changing. The whaling fleet, withering as the whale population dwindled from overhunting, was already in decline by 1861, and Confederate warships dealt it another blow. All sailing ships, military and civilian alike, were soon to be eclipsed by sail-assisted steam power, and on the newer ships, wire became the material of choice for the standing rigging that supported masts and smokestacks. Although the demand for rope in the marine trades remained strong, increased stresses on ships and new uses in other industries would call for new kinds of cordage.
American textile manufacture was one of the industries that would demand innovation in rope design. As steampowered machinery became standard in factories and mills, entire floors of looms began to be run by a single centralized power source, with the power transmitted by ropes. The material that had formed the sinews of clipper ships and whalers now helped run mills as well. Power transmission by an endless loop like a huge fan belt required new kinds of rope, durable enough to stand up to great tensions and constant flexing at high speed. Typically this rope was laid up in four strands with a lubricated three-strand heart.
Also, petroleum began to replace whale and coal oil in the nation’s lamps (see “Petroleum: What Is It Good For?,” page 56), and that industry, too, required huge amounts of rope. Oil wildcatters used rope-to-wire splices in their drilling operations. On American farms, tons of binder and baler twines tied up sheaves and hay bales. Rope was needed as well for nets, pot warps, and line for the fishing fleet.
In 1869 John Good, an Irish immigrant who had worked in ropewalks and machine shops since the age of eleven, received a patent for a hemp-fiber combing machine that within a decade made its way into every rope manufactory. Good would eventually receive more than a hundred patents for processes related to ropemaking and build plants on Long Island and in England. He was the man most responsible for mechanizing ropemaking and was so innovative that in 1888 a cartel of the four biggest manufacturers, controlling more than 80 percent of the national output, offered him $150,000 per year to refrain from producing rope or selling his machinery to competitors outside the trust.
During the nineteenth century abaca, a plant native to the Philippines (also known as Manila hemp, though it is a completely different type of plant), increasingly replaced American-grown hemp as a raw material for rope. Abaca was stronger than hemp and did not need to be soaked in tar. Its greater strength made it possible for manufacturers to fill a need for inexpensive rope with recycled cordage called twice-laid rope, fashioned from rope that had been used, unraveled, cleaned, and laid up again.
Rope had become a commodity, and in the age of monopolies the profit margin was stretched in any way possible. Dealers developed various shady practices to cheat buyers. The classic trick involved “pickling” rope—soaking it in brine. A salted spool of rope pulled moisture from the air and would weigh more at selling time.
Through the years of labor unrest and world war, research and development continued. The rope industry would find its next major step forward in a material that came out of the Du Pont laboratories in 1938. The new substance, nylon, appeared on the market first as toothbrush bristles, then in 1940 as stockings and lingerie. (See “The Nylon Drama,” by David A. Hounshell and John Kenly Smith, Jr., Invention & Technology , Fall 1988.) The fall of the Philippines to Japan in World War II eliminated a major source of abaca, and so nylon production was soon diverted to the war effort. Three-strand twisted nylon rope with an electrical wire at its core helped planes communicate with the gliders they pulled. The use of nylon quickly spread to parachutes and other military gear.
While nylon has continued to be developed and refined in the postwar years, some natural-fiber ropes are still used. Spot Cord, a cotton rope first made in 1884, is a good example. Rather than being laid up in the time-honored way, it is plaited, woven in a tight geometric pattern around a straight fiber core. It has proven to be very resistant to snags and abrasions. Spot Cord has been the ideal sash cord for windows, clotheslines, and many other domestic uses. The Samson Cordage Company, whose name is America’s oldest registered trademark, still makes Spot Cord and has pioneered braided cordage and other types of rope. Among the options that nineteenth-century sailors never dreamed of are nylon, polyester, Dacron, coated ropes, and parallay rope, in which the fibers are parallel to the main axis of the rope. In the mid-1980s high-modulusfiber rope, pound-for-pound ten times stronger than steel, was introduced. The rope derives its strength from the “solution spinning” process, which yields longer and straighter polymer chains than conventional methods of spinning artificial fibers.
The technological changes that made the modern rope possible did away, of course, with the ropewalk and the fourteen-hour day. Today a 250-foot section of a nineteenthcentury ropewalk is preserved at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut. The original equipment inside, massive and wooden, looks medieval compared with the inside of a modern rope factory, where the scream of high-speed machinery and the blur of a bobbin as it races around a braiding machine are emblematic. The specter of product liability makes strength testing and the assembling of data as unavoidable as tarring once was, and the gunshot sound of large rope stretched beyond the breaking point in the testing room is counterpoint to the silence of digital readouts measuring elongation and stress.
In the middle of all this, some traditions have survived. No machine can yet make an eye splice (the loop at the end of a rope), and splicing is still done entirely by hand, as always. Natural-fiber ropes have continued to find a place on the traditional sailing craft of the wooden-boat revival, and in a final irony, synthetic-fiber ropes that look and feel like Manila hemp are now available. The draggers and scallopers of our fishing fleet may depend on nylon, polypropylene, and steel wire, but for the classic sail enthusiast at the tiller of a wooden Whitehall boat or sailing dory, it feels like progress right back to the nineteenth century.
The authors would like to thank H. Winston Shepherd of Samson Ocean Systems, Inc., and John Darwin of Cerfil & Oliveira S. A. for their help in researching this article.