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The Sway Of The Grand Saloon
In the sumptuous history of transatlantic passenger travel it wasn’t all mahogany panelling and ten-course meals. Consider, for instance, war and seasickness
October 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 6
The most drastic and costly measure ever taken to deal with seasickness was that by Sir Henry Bessemer, inventor of the process bearing his name by which steel is produced by the action of a blast of air forced through molten iron. On a cross-Channel trip from Calais to Dover in 1868 Sir Henry was overcome by seasickness of such an intensity that he suffered not only throughout the voyage but for the duration of the train ride up to London and into the day following his arrival home. His personal physician, alarmed, sat with him through the length of a night and eventually brought him around by administering small doses of prussic acid. The experience turned Bessemer’s inventive mind “to the causes of this painful malady,” which he—as did almost everyone else—mistakenly “attributed to the diaphragm being subjected to the sudden motions of the ship.” The upshot was that famous contribution to the catacombs of pretentious curiosities known as the Bessemer Saloon.
In conception nothing could have been simpler: to isolate a part of the passenger deck of a ship “to prevent it from partaking of the general rolling and pitching motion,” Bessemer built a model in which was installed a suspended cabin, supported on separate axes placed at right angles to each other. Pleased by the success of back-yard experiments under contrived conditions that he somehow thought were duplicates of conditions on the English Channel, he organized the Bessemer Saloon Steamboat Company and proceeded to build a pioneer vessel.
Patented in 1869, the finished product came out in 1873—a cabin of such proportion and appointments as had never before been seen on “the Silver Streak” (the English Channel). Seventy feet long and thirty feet wide, with a ceiling twenty feet from the floor, the salon de Bessemer was furnished with seats covered in morocco placed among carved oak divisions and spiral columns. Its wall panels, on which were hand-painted cartoons, were prettily touched up with gilt. It gave, said Bessemer, “an idea of luxury to the future Channel passage which all seemed to appreciate.”
But nothing worked. The saloon refused to swing in a compensating direction, or sometimes even at all. To the assaults on equilibrium made by normal rolling and pitching it added the wild disorientation of a carnival ride. The first actual opensea tests were disastrous, yet Bessemer was convinced that once he had got the bugs out so that his device could work at sea as smoothly as it had worked on land, a new era of salubrious water travel would begin. But ironically the vessel in which the saloon was contained turned out to be even more eccentric than the saloon itself, and Bessemer was robbed of his chance to prove his invention. At some crucial point in its docking maneuvers the mechanism of the Bessemer Saloon ship apparently refused to respond to orders. After banging into the pier at Calais on her first trip, the ship was repaired and made ready for a second chance. On this occasion, in May, 1873, Bessemer was himself aboard. He wrote in his diary: We had arrived very slowly, it must be admitted—at the entrance of Calais Harbour. I, knowing what had occurred on a previous occasion, held my breath while the veteran Captain Pittock gave his orders to the man at the helm. But the ship did not obey him, and crash she went along the pier sides, knocking down the huge timbers like so many ninepins! I knew what it all meant to me. That five minutes had made me a poorer man by thirty-four thousand pounds; it had deprived me of one of the greatest triumphs of a long professional life, and had wrought the loss of the dearly-cherished hope that buoyed me up and helped to carry me through my personal labours. I had fondly hoped to remove forever from thousands yet unborn the bitter pangs of the Channel passage, and thus by intercourse, and a greater appreciation of each other, to strengthen the bonds of mutual respect and esteem between two great nations. … All this had gone forever. It will be readily understood that this second catastrophe at Calais finally determined the fate of the Bessemer Saloon Steamboat Company, which had thus become hopelessly discredited.
Bessemer died believing that his invention had not failed—simply that it had never really been properly tried. Over the smirks and laughter (an oscillating ballroom had slammed into France like a battering ram!) no champion arose to prove him right, no investor was willing to let him make another try.
Except by accident, or do-it-your;elf voodoo, no one had yet been able to cure himself of seasickness. But the actual cause of it had been discerned, and some ingenious if ineffectual means of dealing with it devised as early as 1870. In that year, an unknown writer defined the trouble succinctly: The sickness is not occasioned, as is quite often supposed, by the mechanical effect of the motion of the ship on the digestive organs. The derangement of the system by the motion of the sea is primarily an affection of the brain, the affects upon the other organs being secondary and symptomatic; and the function of the brain through the disturbance of which the morbid action begins is what is called the ‘instinct of equilibrium,’—that is, the instinct by which the mind, through some hidden action of the brain, takes cognizance of the relation of the body to the perpendicular.