Life at Sea p1 banner

In September, 1773, Samuel Johnson wrote, “A man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company” than a sailor (Boswell, Life of Johnson 112).

Insofar as shipboard food (and drink) are concerned, the most important impact of up-time knowledge in the long term is that we will be able to substantially reduce passage times.  The shorter the passage, the less food and drink need be stowed, and the less likely it is that vitamin deficiencies will develop during the course of the passage.  However, Grantville literature will reveal the causes and remedies of vitamin deficiencies, improved methods of preserving and storing foods, and the practicality of obtaining fresh water by distillation while at sea.

Here, we’ll look at provisioning in the old time line (distinguishing where possible between pre- and post-1631 practice) and also speculate on what can be done in the new time line.



According to the Institute of Medicine and the World Health Organization, an average (70 kg) healthy, adult male needs to drink a minimum of about 3 liters of fluid a day in a temperate climate and in a tropical one, 4-6 liters (Mayo Clinic, Grandjean, Gleick). Exercise also increases the water requirement. As we will see, the food served was frequently salted to preserve it, which would have increased demand.

The drinking water is to replenish fluid lost by sweating (possibly elevated by fever), urination, and, in case of sickness, vomiting and diarrhea. Thirst occurs when net fluid loss reaches 1% of body weight, and reduced work capacity occurs at 4%.  Collapse can occur at 7% (Grandjean).

In the Spanish navy in 1568, the daily ration included a liter of water and a liter of wine (Perez-Mallaina 141). The sailors had to weigh whether to drink their wine, a source of additional calories and some solace from hardships or save it for sale in America.  The French likewise took their liquor ration as wine (rouge, s’il vous plaît) (Spalding 70).

In 1636, the Amsterdam Admiralty declared that for each month at sea, a ship carrying 100 men had to carry 35 barrels of beer in winter and 42 in summer.

The British have a daily ration of one “gallon” (Childs 87; at least by the eighteenth century, measured as 14 fluid ounces because the remainder was the purser’s profit) of beer (or occasionally ale or cider).  Or, if they are in the benighted Mediterranean, one pint of wine.  The capture of Jamaica in 1655 meant that rum became the beverage of choice.  Not only was it cheap, it was more potent than beer and thus kept for long periods in wooden barrels.  Up until 1740, the sailor could drink it straight (if the captain permitted), but after that the Admiralty required it be mixed with water, creating the famous ‘grog’; the men received two quarts of grog each day (Swinburne, 309-10; Pope 150, 153;  After 1810, lemon or lime juice was routinely added to the grog (Spalding 70).

LaS-p1-drnkOne advantage of beer over water is that the boiling during the brewing process rendered it free of bacteria.  Wine, of course, was not boiled, but its greater alcohol content itself inhibited bacterial growth. Brandy or rum of course would be even more potent (affecting both bacteria and sailors) and would have been initially sterilized by the distillation process.

But alcoholic beverages were more expensive than water, and over-indulgence could impair crew performance or discipline.

And rum, at least, presented a fire hazard; in 1779, on the Glasgow, the purser’s steward, while stealing rum from the aft hold, accidentally dropped a light into the cask and started a fire—a bad thing to do on any ship, but the Glasgow was shipping gunpowder to Jamaica . . . .(Sugden 139)

Tea and cocoa were sometimes issued in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British navy, but they were considered substitutes for cheese (Macdonald 43).

In any event, the water required for a warship on an extended voyage was considerable; “a sloop with a crew of 135 usually carried about forty tons of fresh water and expected it to last three months, using it at a rate of about half a ton a day” (Pope 171). (The Royal Navy used the 28-day lunar month, Macdonald 78.)  The rate of usage would vary, depending on the air temperature, and of course attrition due to combat, disease, and desertion.

Water Storage. In the 1630s, water is stowed in wooden casks.  Such casks may leak or become fouled by bacteria and algae.  Or worse; on the nineteenth century Boston-based sailing ship Regulus, there was an infestation of rats, which chewed holes in the water casks and then fell in (not exactly improving the taste) (Schultz 95).  And in the tropics, open water barrels served as breeding ground for the larvae of the Aedes aegyptii mosquito.

There were a variety of countermeasures for fouling.  Pre-RoF these might have included charring and painting of the inside surface prior to use, and sulfurization.  The latter practice is better known in its application to wine barrels; sulfur would be burnt inside the barrels to generate sulfur dioxide, which kills bacteria.  Beginning in 1800, efforts were made (on some ships) to filter the water, or to deodorize it with charcoal and powdered lime (Goethe 8).  Various substances, even gunpowder, were also added as preservatives (Wagner 62).

Casks were of a roughly cylindrical shape with a bulge at the middle.  This shape made it easy to roll them and also to change the direction of the roll. They were formed of wood (typically oak) staves bound with iron hoops.  They can be divided into wet casks for liquids and dry casks for solids, the former being made to narrower tolerances and therefore being more expensive.   The seven standard English liquid (originally, wine) cask sizes, and their relationships, were as follows:

1 tun = 2 butts (pipes) = 3 puncheons = 4 hogsheads (quarters) = 6 tierces = 8 barrels = 14 rundlets.

In the 1630s the tun is 252 wine gallons, and a tun full of wine weighs about one long ton (2240 pounds) (Wikipedia; Knight 62).

The price of oak staves climbed from 105 pounds per thousand in 1793 to 156 in 1805, leading to the substitution of beech and white oak for dry casks.

Typically, a ship would carry an assortment of water casks of different capacity. The 74 gun USS Franklin, in 1821, carried 10 casks each of 250, 200 and 50gallon capacity, 130 of 100, 30 each of 40, 20 and 15 gallons, and 70 of 8 gallons—a total of 33,860 gallons (Williams 308). Most of the water barrels would be placed deep in the hold, serving as a form of ballast. Hence, as they were emptied, they would be refilled with seawater for the sake of stability.

The wooden barrels used to store water were not necessarily pristine. During the nineteenth-century Atlantic migrations, drinking “water was stored in old sugar hogsheads, in oil casks which had never been cleaned, in vinegar, molasses and turpentine barrels.” (Wagner 62).

Square wooden water tanks were apparently used in ships built at Surat in the eighteenth century, and that shape would have avoided the waste of deck space by the interstices of the casks laid against each other (Layman).  In fact, fixed wooden water tanks (fintas) were still being used on the Arabian Gulf in the twentieth century (Agua 142).

Metal water tanks were less prone to leakage and fouling, but of course were heavier and more expensive.  In addition, since they were larger, it was harder to shift them around in order to adjust the trim of the ship as supplies were consumed and cargo loaded or unloaded.  (Being able to pump water from one tank to another would help; I’ll talk about pumping in a later part.)

The tank being larger, if it were only partially full, it would create a greater “free surface effect.” In essence, when the ship heels over, the center of gravity of the water inside shifts, reducing the vessel’s stability.  The effect can be reduced by 75% by dividing the tank into two parts by means of a watertight bulkhead.  (The effect was small in the old barrels because they were so small.)

The 600-ton British sloops-of-war Arrow and Dart, built by Sir Samuel Bentham in 1795-7, had eight tinned copper water tanks, each holding forty tons of water, which proved successful in preserving the sweetness of the water, and had double the capacity of casks taking up the same amount of deck space.  (Chalmers, Bentham 238, Macdonald 85) Reportedly, they were too thin-walled to stand without support, and therefore were placed in wood casings (MM 39).  There was also apparently some problem with leakage, as there is an 1804 letter from Nelson saying, “if the tanks cannot be repaired, water casks must be substituted in their room.” (Macdonald 85).

Despite the widespread the use of copper pots for cooking on shipboard, copper tanks didn’t catch on.  I suspect that copper was used for cooking because its higher heat conductivity justified its use despite a higher density and cost than iron, but iron was better for cold water storage.  Still, the Leonora (lost 1874) had “several copper-clad wooden water tanks” (Lenihan 164).

Richard Trevithick proposed use of iron tanks in an 1808 patent application, which pointed out that iron walls could be thinner than wooden ones (Trevithick 1:285).  The next year, his company approached the British Victualling Board, pointing out that the iron tanks were cheaper than their wooden equivalents of the same capacity.  The Admiralty had the tanks fitted into five vessels and after five years’ experience, concluded that the tanks were superior (Macdonald BNVB 102).

Their introduction in the new timeline will no doubt be more rapid, but bear in mind that the demand for iron is going to skyrocket, and it is not clear how soon the supply will catch up.

The adoption of tanks will be facilitated by pump development. In the old timeline, Truscott’s pump was officially adopted in 1812, and it could be used to pump water from the water tanks directly to the cooking coppers via leather tubes (Macdonald 85).

The iron tanks, typically of rectangular or square plan, could be close-fitted and overall occupied half the space of an equal capacity of casks.  However, a danger in close fitting is that water can leak if the tank is overfilled and, draining down through the cracks in-between the tanks, cause rusting of the tanks and rotting of the wood underneath (Stevens 864).  In 1871, Admiralty tanks ranged from 100 to 600 gallons (17-101 cubic feet) capacity and weighed 364-1190 pounds empty (Stevens 31).  Note that large tanks are more weight-efficient than small ones. The actual water weighs 8.34 pounds per US liquid gallon (3.785 L, almost the same as the wine gallon of 3.79 L).

While it is certainly possible to fill or empty a large iron tank (too large or heavy to move) a bucket at a time, preferably water can be pumped in or out with a hose.  I will talk about pumping in a later part.

It should be noted that iron water tanks should be placed well away from the ship’s compass, if possible, or the deviation caused by the tank noted for future reference. Commander Walker reported that in 1818, he set a WNW compass course, but found that the ship, equipped with new iron water tanks, actually bore NNE, and, after sailing 21 miles, was at least eight leagues further south than it should have been (Walker 84).

Reviewing a draft of this manuscript, Jack Carroll suggested that it may be advantageous to apply a thin copper coating to the inside of an iron water tank in order to inhibit rust, and that in the new time line this can be practically achieved by electrodeposition of a very thin metallic coating on plates, and the plates then shaped and riveted together.

While copper by definition cannot rust (i.e., form iron oxide), it is corroded (tarnished) by fresh water (although being lower than iron in the galvanic series, it is corroded more slowly). The corrosion rate is dependent on pH, dissolved oxygen and carbon dioxide, and hardness (Rossum).

Another advantage of copper is inhibition of microorganisms (oligodynamic effect, discovered 1893). However, if the water were used to reconstitute a vitamin C-rich juice concentrate, the copper ions would catalyze oxidation of the vitamin C (see below).

Watering a Ship. Transferring water to a ship had its own difficulties.  In this period, water is likely to be in casks, either carried by boats or rafted over.  Rafting was necessary on a coast with a surf, as a heavily laden boat could otherwise be swamped.  The casks could be towed broadside on, in single file, or end on, in pairs.

Later, canvas or leather bags were supplied to boats, and they would be filled by hoses from a shore pump. Typically, the bag had two halves that saddled the boat (Henderson 183).

Seawater.  If you run out of the stored beverage, you’re in trouble, because drinking seawater in significant quantities leads ultimately to dehydration.  Seawater is 3% salt, and the kidney can’t make urine from water saltier than 2%, so it take the water it needs from the tissues (  This is obviously self-defeating. As Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner put it, “Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.”

Shore collection.  If a ship was near shore, it might send a landing party to look for fresh water, hoping to find a spring or stream.  There was of course the danger of encountering hostile inhabitants or merely of unwittingly collecting water from a contaminated source.

Rainwater Harvesting.  One method of catching rain was simply to plug the scuppers and collect the water from the main deck.  Of course, the water is likely to pick up all sorts of nasty stuff that was on the deck.  In a similar way, you could catch it from the roof of the superstructure, assuming you could improvise a wall so it wouldn’t just run off the roof. You could set out buckets, or spread canvas horizontally, attaching it to the mast and rigging, and empty the harvested rain into a cask.

There were two problems.  First, whether it would rain or not was unpredictable.  Second, the collection methods were likely to lose water if the ship were rocking (and rain tends to be associated with rough water).  Finally, how much rain could be collected would depend on how much surface area could be presented to the skies above, and on a ship, space was at a premium.

Melted Ice. Ships traveling in high latitudes in winter may encounter icebergs, sea ice and snow.  New sea ice (formed by freezing of seawater) is actually very salty, but as ice ages the brine is expelled by various mechanisms. Icebergs are made of freshwater ice.

Melting ice or snow requires much less heat than boiling seawater. Icebergs thus provide opportunity as well as risk: on January 9, 1773, the second lieutenant of the Adventure, James Burney wrote, “being very fine Weather we brought too by an Island of Ice & hoisted our Boats out to pick up the loose pieces to water the Ship—we got 6 Boat Loads which when melted in the Coppers gave us 7 Tons of Excellent fresh water” (  This expedient was apparently resorted to at least as early as 1671 (Goethe).  I suspect this is a reference to a whaling expedition to Spitzbergen, memorialized by Friderich Martens in 1675.

Fish. While you do not want to eat high-protein food when you are thirsty and short of water, you can drink the aqueous fluid from the eyes and spine bones, which is almost free of salt (Soule).

Desalinated Seawater. The separation of salt from water goes back to ancient times; but generally it was the salt, not the water, that was sought.  Salt production of course was simpler. the sea would rush over a dam at high tide; some of the seawater would remain behind when the tide receded; and the confined seawater would be heated and evaporated by the sun, leaving the salt behind.

A thirsty mariner, however, does not want the water vapor to escape, but rather to trap it and allow it to cool and condense.

Desalination with a “Fire Still”.  There was both classical and ecclesiastical authority for desalination by distillation.  Aristotle (Meteorology lib. ii. ch. ii.) proclaimed, “Sea-water can be rendered potable by distillation: wine and other liquids can be submitted to the same process. After they have been converted into humid vapors they return to liquids.”  In his fourth homily, Saint Basil said that having been shipwrecked on an island without drinking water, he and his companions heated saltwater in an iron basin and condensed the vapor on sponges, squeezing out the fresh water (Stevenson 2:569 n2).

These statements were put to the test by mariners before the RoF. Sir Richard Hawkins wrote that in his South Sea voyage of 1593, “with an invention I had in my ship, I easily drew out of the water of the sea, sufficient quantities of fresh water to sustain my people with little expense of fuel; for with four billets I distilled a hogshead of water . . . The water so distilled, we found to be wholesome and nourishing” (Hawkins 82).  In 1606, a Spanish captain, finding that he had been shorted water barrels, likewise made “sweet water” by distillation using “a copper instrument he had with him” — i.e., not an improvised device (Queiros 196).

The Dutch, notably Jan Huygen van Linschoten (d. 1611), Aegidius Snoeck (d. 1637), and Cornelius Drebbel (d. 1633), promoted shipboard distillation technology (Delyannis 6). Nonetheless, it appears that at least VOC crews were prejudiced against it for some reason (Beekman 23), and Snoeck’s 1620 device was expensive (Torck 214).

There was also, unfortunately, a strange belief that distilled water was not pure, but rather also included “a bituminous substance, and a spirit of sea salt” (Lind 332). This in turn led those experimenting with distillation to add various neutralizing substances that probably did more harm than good.  For example, in the time of Charles II it was proposed to add lime (Columb 12) and in 1753 Appleby essayed lapis infernalis and calcined bones (Lind 334). About the same time Alston promoted limestone and Hales, powdered chalk. Soon thereafter, Doctor James Lind conducted a controlled experiment, to compare the various proposed additives, and was surprised to discover that the control (distilled seawater with nothing added) was equal in quality to distilled rainwater. He published his findings in 1761, and proposed that for distilling water, the ship’s copper pots, used for boiling victuals, be fitted with “still-head covers,” and a pipe used to carry the steam from the pot to a cask of cold water (336-344).  A trial was conducted in 1768, on the Dolphin; “56 gallons of sea water were put into a still, and 42 gallons of fresh water drawn off in the space of five hours thirteen minutes, with the expense of nine pounds of wood, and of sixty-nine pounds weight of coals; this was upward of a quart of water for each man on board” (345).

Lind even described a method of improvising the still using the pot, a tea kettle (or a wooden hand pump), a musket barrel, and a cask (Ibid).  In the Dorsetshire, this kludge converted 22 quarts of seawater to 19 quarts of fresh water in four hours, expending ten pounds of wood (Clarke 130).

In the eighteenth century British navy, the ship’s kettle was divided in half by a partition, and peas and oatmeal were cooked on only one side, but with water kept on the other.  Doctor Irving showed that the spare half of the kettle could be filled with seawater and distilled by a method similar to Lind’s, while the peas or oatmeal were boiling, without any additional fuel (Falconer 428).

The 74-gun HMS Aboukir (1807) was one of at least thirty ships equipped in 1809 with the “Lamb Patent Fire-Hearth,” which had three boilers. With saltwater in one of them, it would produce eight gallons of freshwater an hour, without extra fuel being consumed.  And of course you could use all three boilers at once in an emergency to produce twenty -four gallons per hour (Naval Economy, 1811, pp. 16-22).

It’s hard to be sure, but it appears that the nineteenth-century sailing ships carrying distillation apparatus were primarily exploration vessels (Cook’s Resolution) and large warships and East Indiamen.  The development of steamships gave additional impetus to distillation technology. If seawater were used in the boiler, there was a buildup of brine and scale.  Hence, they used freshwater.  With efficient condensers, the initial charge of freshwater could be mostly recycled, but the system needed to take in additional feedwater to make up for losses.  However, note that for this water to also be useful as drinking water, the system had to be designed to avoid contaminating it with lubricants.  The fuel consumption necessitated by the evaporator could be minimized if the heat source was the exhaust from the main engines, but unfortunately it varied in heat value depending on the operating condition of the engines (USN).

It’s evident that at least the basic Lind distiller doesn’t require anything beyond the pre-RoF technological infrastructure and thus could be adopted as soon as someone thinks to do so.

It has been suggested that the thermal efficiency of the still could be improved by a cross-flow heat exchanger to exchange heat between the distillate and the feedwater.  Actually cross-flow heat exchangers (hot fluid flow perpendicular to cold fluid flow) are not as efficient as counter flow models (hot and cold fluid flows are parallel but in opposite directions) but more efficient than parallel flow (same direction).

If the seawater were taken up manually, by the bucket, it could be poured into the intake for a concentric condenser jacket, and then passed through the jacket and ultimately into the boiler of the still.  If the feedwater moved by gravity flow, then this would in effect be a parallel flow heat exchanger because the condenser would be arranged so the condensate would flow by gravity away from the boiler.  However, one could pump the feedwater upward to make it a counterflow device.  Or instead of using a concentric jacket, the feedwater could pass by gravity through a tube that spiraled around the vapor tube, resulting in cross-flow heat transfer.

All of these improvements in heat efficiency come with the disadvantages of increased space requirements and cost and are unlikely to be adopted unless fuel costs are high.


            There is a possibility that early seventeenth-century Japanese mariners, like Hawkins, resorted to distillation of seawater in emergencies.  That they did so in the nineteenth century is well established.

LaS-p1-rmbkWhen the Japanese merchant ship Tokuju-Maru was left adrift in 1813 as a result of a storm, they had plenty of soybeans but little drinking water.   So Captain Jukichi rigged a makeshift still: “seawater is boiled in a big kettle. A pipe is poked through a hole in the bottom of a big pot which is then placed on top of the kettle. As the steam passes through the pipe and cools, it forms into drops of water, which are then collected in the pot for drinking water.  By using this ranbiki they were able to make about 7 or 8 shi [about 14 liters] of water per day . . . .” (Torck 221; Plummer 80).

A study of nineteenth-century Japanese castaways identified seven incidents, Jukichi’s included, in which seawater was desalinated by distillation.  Five of them claimed to have either designed the device themselves or to have been inspired by a dream (Jukichi included).  But the frequency of adoption of this expedient suggests that “it was common knowledge among both maritime communities and alcohol distilleries” (Wood 110).

Jukichi’s device was a makeshift ranbiki; the purpose-built one, used by Japanese apothecaries, was more elaborate.  It was made of ceramic or copper, and had three chambers: one holding a liquid, to be heated by a charcoal fire; a top chamber to receive the evaporate; and a middle chamber that could be filled with herbs from which the steam could extract herbal oils. The evaporate condensed in the top chamber and the condensate descended through a side pipe, dripping into a receptacle.  The top chamber was equipped with an annular cooling tube (Michel).

Some think the Portuguese introduced the ranbiki (the name is thought to come from “alembic”) to Japanese medical practice   If that is correct, then it occurred before 1639, when the Portuguese were evicted.  On the other hand, it is possible that it was part of the “Dutch Learning,” and if so might have come later; a distillery for essential oil extraction was established by the Dutch on Deshima in 1671 (Michel).

It may even have come from the Ryukyu Islands rather than from the Europeans. There, on Okinawa, they drank awamori, made by distilling alcohol from fermented rice.  It is sometimes called “island sake;” but sake is not distilled—the Japanese equivalent is shochu.  Awamori was sent as tribute to China at least as early as the fifteenth century (Wikipedia), and so the Okinawans were practicing distillation back then.  And distillation was learned from the Siamese.

In view of this history, I assumed that some Japanese mariners in the seventeenth century have knowledge of distillation and might think of it in a water crisis. In 1636: Seas of Fortune, the Japanese expedition to Vancouver Island encounters a Japanese castaway who recounts a tragedy similar to Captain Jukichi’s, but his is set in 1624.  And he, like Jukichi, rigs a distillation apparatus.

My only technical criticism of Jukichi’s device is that since the connecting tube is vertical, the condensate might run back down into the boiler.  Perhaps it would be better for the boiler and the condenser to be side-by-side, with an upside-down U-shaped tube connecting them, thus mimicking a retort.

Desalination with a Solar Still. One of the disadvantages of the “fire still” is its demand for fuel. If the water is heated by the sun, no fuel is needed. Solar distillation of water is described by Della Porta’s Magiae Naturalis (1589) so it’s not an alien concept for the down-timers.

The up-timers are certainly aware of the possibility of constructing a “solar still,” in which heat is supplied by the sun.  Wilderness survival books will almost certainly mention the basic “pit” type in which one digs a cone-shaped hole in the ground, buries a collection cup at the center, and suspends a plastic sheet over the cup.

Probably the simplest still design suitable for shipboard is a single slope box still.  The box has a blackened sides and bottom (to better absorb solar radiation) and the seawater is placed inside.  The roof is made of glass and inclined; the lower end overhangs a collection trough outside the box.  Water vapor condenses on the relatively cold glass and runs down the inner surface, and out through a gap between the downslope side wall and the glass, and falls into the trough.  The still is pointed toward the sun (so sunlight strikes the glass as close to perpendicularly as possible).  The amount of fresh water collected is of course dependent on the amount of solar energy striking and absorbed by the seawater (which depends on latitude, time of year, time of day, cloud cover, angle of incidence, and the projected surface area) relative to the latent heat of vaporization of water.  The efficiency of this simple system can reach 60% (Suresh).

The transparent glass has several important functions: it lets visible light through, it blocks the escape of heat radiation and water vapor, and it provides a track for the condensate.

For shipboard use, the collection trough must be high-walled enough so that the water doesn’t spill out when the ship rocks.   A further concern is that a wave might crash down on deck and bring seawater into the trough.  Hence, it would be better if the trough were contained by making it a partitioned-off portion of the box, thus protecting it from wave action (and also evaporation).

Productivity is dependent on the temperature difference between the seawater and the condensing surface. We can maximize the rate of fresh water production per unit deck area by:

1) capturing additional heat energy (aiming the cover so it’s perpendicular to the sun; providing an additional heat source, such as waste heat from another process)

2) increasing the heat absorption efficiency (adding black dyes to the water or black gravel to the base of the basin)

3) minimizing heat losses (side and bottom insulation, e.g., with sawdust)

4) reducing the volume of water to be heated

5) increasing the evaporation (place sponge or wick in basin) and condensation surface areas

6) reducing the cover temperature (blowing air or run cold seawater over the top of the glass (Sathyaraj)

7) increasing the amount of solar energy captured per unit deck area (a vertical reflector can be placed above the roof ridge of the still so that sunlight that would be otherwise lost is redirected to the still cover) (Lienhard)

What about reducing the basin depth?  Since the heat input is the same and the water volume is less, you will reach boiling more quickly, but there is less water to evaporate so, if seawater were completely transparent, productivity per unit deck area would be the same. But deeper layers in fact receive less heat energy than shallower layers, so there is a slight improvement in heating efficiency.

What about using a parabolic trough (either a single curved mirror or multiple flat mirrors approximating a parabolic cross-section), inclined like the cover of the simple still, to concentrate the sun’s radiation?  The solar energy input is still determined by the area perpendicular to the sun’s rays and should therefore be the same.  What you are doing is concentrating the energy onto a smaller collection surface area, which is the projected surface of a seawater reservoir (probably tubular) at the focal line of the trough.  There will be a more rapid increase in temperature, but the seawater volume targeted would be smaller so I think that in terms of production rate per deck area, there would be no improvement.  And the structure would be far more complex and vulnerable to wave action than that of a simple still.

Ultimately, solar desalination at sea is going to be limited by deck area.  There’s only so much, and you need to work the ship.

If a ship crew is merely improvising solar stills, then there’s also probably only a limited supply of glass on board. But in fact, it may be possible to make a still of sorts without a transparent cover.  The “vaporizer” would be painted black and thus absorb heat from the sun.  It probably will not get hot enough to boil, but the vapor pressure of water increases from 12.8 mm Hg at 15oC to 55.3 at 40oC ( The rising vapor is passed through a tube to a white-painted, and possibly seawater-cooled condenser. It might be helpful to put a sponge-like material inside to increase the available condensation area.

This is similar in concept to the Incan “fog fence”— provide a cool surface for water to condense out of humid air—except we are humidifying the air first by exposing it to seawater under solar heating conditions.  However, my concern is that the process will be much less efficient than solar boiling, not only because of the lower working temperature, but also because the airflow will be slow.  And any expedients to increase airflow will make it much more complex than a conventional solar still.


            What can be gleaned about desalination methods from the libraries of Grantville?  The famous 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica article on “Spirits” quotes Aristotle. However, I found no particulars about the nineteenth century fire-hearths.

On the other hand, the “modern” (pre-RoF) EB has an article on “desalination.” It talks about distillation (at normal or reduced pressure), reverse osmosis, electrodialysis, and crystallization. It is plain that distillation is the only one of these methods that would be practical in the near-term for processing seawater on shipboard. Unfortunately, with regard to distillation, the modern EB’s emphasis is on large land-based desalination plants.  The only exception is its discussion of solar distillation: “The heat of the Sun partially vaporizes salt water under a transparent cover; on the underside of the cover, the vapour condenses and flows into a collecting trough. The principal difficulty in this process is concentrating the energy of the sunlight within a small area.”

I expect that books and magazines on “green living” and wilderness survival can be found in Grantville and that these might say something about supplying drinking water.  For example, see Halacy, “How to Build a Solar Still” (Mother Earth News, Sept-Oct 1974).

In any event, Grantville has not just supplied the down-timers with new books, it has also given them proof of the efficacy of controlled experiments.  Hopefully, they will test various ideas on how to make a still as efficient as possible.

And that is indeed what happens. In the new time line, solar distillation is used in an emergency in 1633 on board a British ship, the Hazard. Jeremy Toot, the ship’s apprentice master mate, picked up a copy of A Compilation of Useful Up-timer Knowledge Gleaned from the Encyclopedias and the Mother Earth Booklets in a bookstore in Hamburg, and it described a solar still—which he and his fellows then improved upon (Huff and Goodlett, “A Nerd at Sea”, Grantville Gazette 25).



Fresh meat.  On sixteenth-century Spanish ships, passengers took on board chickens, pigs, sheep and goats so that they could be slaughtered as desired to supplement the normal fare (Perez-Mallaina 130). While not part of the standard rations, a ship’s crew or officers could buy livestock to be consumed en route. In 1746, a British navy ship sailed with “a goat, sheep, a sow in pig, six and half dozen hens and 13 ducks on board.”  The hens of course could also supply eggs, and the nanny goat, milk. Cows were also sometimes taken on board (McKay 38).

If the ship were tied up at a jetty, the animals could be driven up an enclosed gangway. If not, they would have to be slung on board, or, in the case of the smaller animals, hoisted up in a net or carried by hand.

In Nelson’s navy, pigs were placed in a sty constructed under the forecastle until 1801 and in the waist afterward.  Sheep pens were built between the capstan and the main hatch and if there was a goat, it probably slept with the sheep.  Before 1815, poultry (chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys) were kept in moveable coops, placed on deck in the daytime and below at night.  Later, the coops were fixtures of the waist.  Cattle were tied between the guns, heads facing the ship’s side (Macdonald 86ff).

Macdonald (130) has expressed surprise that she found no record of rabbit-raising, even though they are “very efficient converters of food into meat.”  Perhaps in the new time line . . .

In keeping livestock, there was a risk that the keeper, the crew, or the officers would become fond of a specimen and turn it into a pampered pet.  One such pig got so fat that she couldn’t walk, but grunted to have food brought to her (131).

It should be noted that sailors turned adversity into fortune by eating rats (“full as good as rabbits, although not so large”) (Bown 20).

LaS-p1-sltbfPreserved food.  Food can be preserved by drying, cooling, freezing, salting, sugaring, smoking, fermenting, canning, etc.  It appears that in the seventeenth-century sailing ships, the foods were preserved mostly by drying (peas) or salting (beef, pork).

The term “preserved” comes with some caveats.  The environment below decks was humid and ideal for mold growth.  Even the food that hadn’t yet putrefied was likely to be hard. If softened, it was with seawater (Bown 20).

In the 1660s, Robert Boyle demonstrated that cooked meat could be preserved in butter for over six months.   This was more or less the same concept as the confit of southern France and was later known as “potted meat” (Macdonald 29).

“Portable soups”—essentially what we would call soup mix—were introduced in the eighteenth century. In 1806, the French Navy tested Nicholas Appert’s canning methods. He sealed food in airtight glass jars and boiled to kill the bacteria inside.   Tin cans, as an alternative to glass jars, were introduced by English entrepreneurs in 1813.

In theory, even in the seventeenth century, it was possible to keep food cold for an extended period.  You needed to load ice on board just before you left port and put it in a well-insulated chamber.  We know from the experience of Frederick Tudor’s nineteenth-century ice trade that ice can be shipped a long distance if it is appropriately stored.  Of course, opening up the ice chamber to remove ice, or food if it is already stored with the ice, is going to speed the melting, but still it seems within the realm of possibility (Cooper).

Ultimately, mechanical refrigeration became possible.  I believe that shipments of refrigerated meat began in the 1870s.  For analysis of the prospects of refrigeration machinery in the new time line, see Huston.

Food Rations. In the Spanish navy, as of 1568, the staple daily food was 1.5 pounds of “biscuit” (galleta), a double-cooked unleavened bread. To eat it, it had to be soaked in water or wine. To this add, four days a week, 150 grams of menestra, a mixture of horse beans and chickpeas and one-third pound of salted fish; two days a week, one pound of salted meat and two ounces of cheese; and one day, half a pound of salt pork and one-tenth pound of mixed rice and oil.  There was also a monthly ration of one liter of oil and somewhat more than a half-liter of vinegar.  It is estimated that the caloric content of the daily meal was 3500-4200 calories (some from the wine), with a protein content of 13%.  The principal deficiency was the lack of vitamins, because of the failure to include fresh fruits and vegetables (Perez-Mallaina 141-3).

The Dutch mariner’s fare was similar: “to feed one hundred men, the ship had to carry for each month at sea; 450 pounds of cheese, five tons (cubic measure) of meat, four tons of herring, one and a quarter ton of butter, five and a half tons of dried peas, two and a half tons of dried beans, [and] half a ton of salt . . . .” (Babelier).

The earliest data I have for the French navy is from the Ordonnance of 1689; the daily ration was “one and a half pounds of biscuit, a midday meal of bacon, salt beef, fish or cheese, and a supper of dried peas or beans, prepared with oil and vinegar.  The fish might be herring or sardines.  There was a monthly ration of mustard seed (Spalding 70).

In the Tudor navy, at one point the weekly rations were 7 pounds biscuits, 8 pounds salt beef, three-quarter pounds each stock fish and cheese, and three-eighths of butter.  By 1588, there were three salt beef days (totaling 6 pounds), three fish days, and one day on which the sailor was served a pound of bacon and two pints of peas. The calorific value of the diet, including beer, was estimated at 4265-5132 calories. (Childs 87-88).   The fish day on Friday was technically a half-ration, but Childs suggests that it was the day that leftovers from earlier in the week were thrown into the stew.

Between 1677 and 1733, the fish was replaced by oatmeal (Macdonald 9). In Nelson’s navy, British sailors received just a pound of bread (weevil-enriched hard biscuit) daily.  Twice a week they were fed a pound of salt beef, twice again a pound of salt pork, four days a week a half-pint of pease, and three times a week, a pint of oatmeal, two of butter, and four of cheese.  However, these were nominal weights, because in purser weights, each pound of most items was required to weigh only fourteen ounces, butter only twelve, and cheese only nine (Pope 151-5).  The calorific value is estimated as 4888 but substitutions could change this (Macdonald 177).

There was a list of official substitutes, which included flour, raisins, currants, beef suet, and mutton for the beef and pork; navy beans, chickpeas, and lentils for pease; wheat, pot barley, and molasses for oatmeal; and rice, sugar, and oil for several standards (Macdonald 176). The practical significance was that this was what the Victualling Board would pay for and a captain who bought off the list might get in trouble if caught (and lacking justification of the absence of all official substitutes or an admiral’s order) (Macdonald 10).   Note that a purchase ordered by the captain would be charged (impressed) against the captain’s salary until the captain persuaded the Board that the purchase was appropriate (73).

That said, there were authorized (or tolerated) purchases of lemons, oranges, and various vegetables (notably cabbages, onions, leeks, pumpkins, kale, collard greens, carrots, turnips, and, rarely, potatoes) (36-8).

Officers generally brought additional food purchase at their own expense. This could be fruits and vegetables or even livestock for subsequent slaughter.  In theory, crew could bring personal supplies, too, but in practice usually couldn’t afford to (Bown 24).

When they could, this created its own problems. On the 28-gun Sibyl in 1780, at the Cape Verde Islands most of the messes (groups of 4-8 crewmen who ate together) bought “three or four pigs, as many goats and half a dozen fowls”, leading the captain to order the pigs to be killed first, as the goats made less of a mess (Macdonald 19).

There was no regulation of food and drink served in the British merchant marine until the mid-nineteenth century (Macdonald 12).

On the USS Constitution, the 1813 menu provided about 4,240 calories a day, mostly from fat. Three modern MREs (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) add up to 3,750 calories, 36% from fat (Biesty).

Food quality.  Despite Johnson’s quips, according to Macdonald (11-12), at least by the 1790s, the food issued in the British navy (as opposed to the merchant marine) was generally good as well as plentiful, and was at least comparable to what unskilled laborers on land were eating.

The British Victualling Board tried to control food quantity and quality.  Some food was purchased from outside contractors, with contracts awarded based on competitive bidding, but over time, more and more was produced at the Board’s own depots and yards (Macdonald 46, 52).  The Board issued instructions with respect to how the food was prepared, packed, transported, issued, and, if need be, condemned.  In the case of cheese and butter, if a batch didn’t last for six months, the supplier wouldn’t be paid for any of it, and the purser had to issue them within three months of receipt (31).  Documentation was needed for purchases (and the Board wanted to see originals), and ships made weekly reports of provisions on board (72ff). Inspections were made at certain points in the chain (22, 75ff), and the Board was notoriously concerned about the fate of every penny (49).

The Board had to make some difficult choices.  Fresh-baked bread tasted better than biscuit, but wouldn’t keep longer than ten days, whereas biscuit lasted for months (Macdonald 16).  Suffolk cheese (thrice skimmed of cream) had a long shelf life, but was said to be so hard as to be fit only for making wheels for wheelbarrows, or buttons for jackets.  And when old, it was infested with red worms.  In 1758, after many complaints, it was replaced with Cheshire or Gloucester cheese.  They didn’t last for long but were far more palatable (31).

Substituting food of inferior quality definitely occurred in all navies.  For example, in Spain, there was an instance in 1566 of a steward mixing two jugs of water with one of vinegar and characterizing the mixture as three jugs of wine. In Britain there were cases of collusion between Victualling Board clerks and contractors, and between contractors and pursers, to supply food in quantity or quality inferior to what was supposedly supplied (Macdonald 49).  But there were cases of adulteration and mislabeling on land, too; bakers who used alum to disguise the texture and flavor of bread made from inferior flour (16).

Even without fraud, food wholesome when delivered would deteriorate under shipboard conditions.  In the case of biscuit, there is a case of 41,440 pounds of bread powdering, over the course of ten weeks, to produce 2,420 pounds of dust.  Also, the sailors involuntarily shared their provisions with rats and insects, and frequently these vermin got to the table first.

Provisioning En Route.  The typical pattern was that the food options narrowed the longer one was at sea.  There were three ways of producing food between ports.   First, livestock could produce milk (usually from goats, not cows) and progeny.

LaS-p1-fshSecondly, the crew could fish when their duties and sea conditions permitted.  Fishing lines were among the items in Antonio Gonzalez’ sea chest in 1571 (Perez-Mallainas 150). In Nelson’s navy, all ships were supplied with fishing tackle.  Angling was not the only fishing technique practiced; I have found references to trawling. The sickbay had first dibs on what was caught (Macdonald).   It was also possible to catch seabirds (30).

Finally, there is the possibility of cultivating a vegetable garden on board.  This was in fact attempted by the Dutch, but proved impracticable because of waves (and sea spray) coming over the bulwarks (Torck 24 n54, Carpenter 23, Bown 39).

It might still be possible, however.  First, the garden should be in portable containers that can be taken below if the sea is roughening.  Second, a waterproof tarpaulin should be on hand to cover the containers quickly if there’s no time to take them below.  Third, there should be some way to secure them so they don’t get washed overboard.

A step up from that would be a Wardian case. This was essentially a glass terrarium used to bring home foreign plants from overseas.  It was used to ship tea plants from China to India and Brazilian rubber plants from Kew Gardens to Ceylon and Malaya (Wikipedia).  Wardian cases have been used to transplant small mature plants, immature plants, and even seeds permitted to germinate en route.

The Wardian case is waterproof, and will let in sunlight, but trap heat—the “greenhouse effect.”  A typical case was 40 inches long, 24 inches wide, with a base 10 inches deep and sloping sides 20 inches high. The sloping sides, that meet to form the roof, were movable to provide access to the interior.  In each end, near the top, there is a small circular hole, covered with mesh, to provide ventilation. On the inside, these holes are covered by a small box, open at the top, to catch sea spray.  (Macmillan 475) While the size mentioned is portable, a large ship might be able to justify one big enough so as to be a fixed installation, if the deck space in question can be sacrificed.

This can be taken a step further by including a heat reservoir inside or in thermal communication with the case—essentially a “thermal flywheel”—black-painted material with a high heat capacity, such as water (preferred), stone, brick, and concrete.  This would keep the plants warm even after the sun went down, but would increase the weight of the device.

But would the garden be worth the space and cost?  It is not likely that you could grow enough to meet the daily needs of the crew.  It might be advantageous, however, for growing medicinal herbs.

Provisioning on station.  The British navy ultimately developed a complex set of practices for keeping blockading or patrolling warships provisioned.  Obviously, sending the warship home was not desirable.  Rather, victualling yards were established abroad, merchant ships were hired for transport use, and purchases were made from local merchants at the nearest friendly or neutral port.  Ships sometimes traded provisions, too. Of course, if a ship were sent home for repairs or to carry messages, it likely would be expected to return with fresh food (Macdonald 59ff, 72).

Cooking.  On the Mary Rose (sunk 1545), food was cooked “in two large cauldrons supported on iron bars over a fire box.”   The cauldrons were made of a copper alloy, and were of 360 and 600 liters capacity. There were also small metal and ceramic cooking pots (Watson).

For safety, the cauldrons would have been set inside a brick fire hearth with a chimney venting to the upper deck.  The lighter iron fire hearths were introduced in 1728. The separate furnace and hearth were merged into a vented stove, the Brodie stove appearing in the 1780s, and the Lamb & Nicholson stove (with integral water distillation) in 1810 (Macdonald 105).  Copper cooking implements were tinned to avoid poisoning by verdigris (copper acetate) (133).

The Brodie stove, up to six feet square and five feet high, was made primarily of wrought iron, with cast iron fire boxes and copper ventilator and hood.  It was equipped with one or two ovens, one or two lidded boilers, and a range; a spit or pots on cranes (hinged arms with cutouts) could be swung over the latter.  The spit was turned by a chain-and-pulley.  A provision in the patent specification that you won’t see in your Sears catalogue description for a modern stove is that “there are double dish’d screwed plates to mend the boilers in case of accidents by shot . . . .”  (Brodie British Patent 1271 (1780)).   The Lamb and Nicholson stove was larger and had three boilers instead of two, but lacked the open range.  On these stoves, temperature was controlled by moving the pots closer to or further away from the heat source, rather than adjusting the fire. (133).

There was no cooking when loading powder in port, or when the ship was heeling markedly because of wind or wave. (This problem could arise even on a calm sea when in the trade winds.)  British captains did favor giving the crew a warm meal before a battle, and that could be done when they were confident that there was sufficient time before the ships closed to serve the food and then clear for action.


Food and Drink Storage

In Nelson’s navy, there were separate rooms for bread, fish and spirits (Pope 59).  The bread room was starboard aft, high enough to be free of bilge water. The fish room was also aft, but mostly used as a coal store. The spirit room was aft, under the cockpit, locked and with a marine guard.

Within these rooms, the food was kept in canvas sacks or in dry casks, but some victuallers economized on the latter.  The casks might be of overly light construction, or green wood (Pope 155), or not properly bound with iron hoops (Jones 59).  Such casks took a beating when the ship rolled and pitched, and some leaked or even collapsed. To keep biscuits dry and sweet, they need to be packed in airtight boxes, as was done by the Dutch in the seventeenth century, but not by the British (Macdonald 18).

Water (or beer in our period) and salted meat would have been kept in casks, stowed deep in the hold.  How did they get there?  I may talk about the ship’s cargo handling hardware in more detail later in this series, but for now, I note that hatches gave access to the holds, and casks could be lowered in slings connected to pulleys attached to overhanging yards or booms.  And the casks would be rolled whenever possible.

The basic British naval ration nominally weighed about 11 pounds per man per day, but Macdonald (78-9) says to allow fifteen pounds to account for the weight of brine in the meat casks and of cooking water.  Ships destined for Channel service would usually get three or four months’ provisions, and those in foreign service six months, and sometimes different terms were specified for different classes of provisions (58).  The frigate Doris in 1821 carried 141 tons of food and drink for 240 men for four months; that works out to 11.75 pounds/day (28-day month).  How is this enormous weight stowed to maintain the ship’s stability?

There are several stability considerations.  First, the ship’s center of gravity should be as low as possible, so you want to put the densest casks near the bottom of the hold, just above the ballast.  Secondly, you want to evenly distribute the provisions between port and starboard to avoid a list, and between fore and aft to maintain the ship’s trim.  Third, you may want to adjust the position of the casks relative to the centerline of the ship, because that distribution of weight affects the ship’s roll period and a short period is productive of seasickness.

And then there are other considerations. The food that spoils first should be consumed first, and therefore ideally is stowed so it is the most accessible.  Some foods were served only every other day.

But you have the further problem that the provisions are consumed.  So you want to stow them so that the effect on trim is small and averages out of the course of a few days.

Still, the consumption of provisions would progressively lighten the ship.  While the reduced draft was by itself desirable, a warship tended to be top-heavy (because of the positioning of the guns) and so this would mean that the center of gravity rose (which reduced stability).  Hence, empty casks would be filled with seawater and thus serve as temporary ballast.


Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) Deficiency (Scurvy)

In Grantville, the down-timers will discover a voluminous literature on the importance of vitamins, the natural sources of vitamins, and the effect of various cooking and food preservation methods on those vitamins.

Scurvy was the scourge of sailors, indeed it was called mal de mer.  There is a failure of collagen synthesis, leading initially to bleeding gums and loose teeth, and later to muscle pain and degeneration, fatigue, lethargy, internal hemorrhaging and consequent anemia, susceptibility to infection, and skin lesions.

The healthy human body contains a reserve of 900-1500 mg vitamin C (the ability to store it declines with age) and uses about 30-60 mg daily (Bown 42-3).

There were many theories as to the cause of scurvy and many attempted remedies.  I survey below the known pre-RoF uses of effective agents.

Unfortunately, their use was haphazard.  A potentially effective agent might be prepared or stored in an inactivating manner, discrediting it. Or given too little, too late.  Or mixed with other agents that in turn are given the lion’s share of the credit.  So there was no consensus in the seventeenth century as to what worked.

France and Spain.  It’s been asserted that the French and Spanish had a lower rate of scurvy than the English because they ate onions (13% RDA/100g) and garlic (1%) (Goethe 7).  Unfortunately, I have not been able to confirm that they were included in the standard seventeenth-century rations.

In the winter of 1535-36, the French explorer Cartier wintered by the Iroquois village near what is now Montreal, and his men developed scurvy.  The Indians successfully treated them with an extract made from a tree called annedda, and now believed to have been the spruce or hemlock.  This did not lead, however, to general adoption of the evergreen extract as an antiscorbutic, even in French Canada.  There was, for example, a scurvy outbreak at Three Rivers in 1634-5.  Moreover, it was not a sure thing; in 1743-4 at Churchill, eleven men died of scurvy despite having drunk spruce beer (Erichsen-Brown 10-1).

Netherlands.  In 1598 the Dutch East Indies fleet took lemon juice and grew horseradish and scurvy grass (Cochlearia spp., spoonwort) on board, suffering the loss of only 15 men (whereas the 1595 fleet lost 88) (McDowell). Horseradish is 6% RDA/100g.

Those were not the only Dutch anti-scorbutics. In 1564, shipwrecked sailors ate oranges (Goethe 15). There was also sauerkraut, a pickled fermented cabbage, with a vitamin C content of 18% RDA per 100g (Wikipedia).  The Dutch navy reportedly served it as early as the sixteenth century (Bloch-Dano 47).  However, another source says that sauerkraut was not supplied to Dutch ships until the end of the eighteenth century (Beekman 22).  The truth probably lies somewhere in-between.  Of course getting sailors not accustomed to it to eat sauerkraut may be another matter; the British adopted it two centuries later on the recommendation of Doctor Lind, but Captain Cook had to order his men to eat it (Carpenter 77).

Britain. The English (and others) believed that beer was a scurvy preventative.  The beer they had in mind was produced by fermenting malted barley or wheat, and flavoring the brew with hops.  I see no reason to expect that this beer contains significant vitamin C. (Warning: in some modern beers, vitamin C is added as an antioxidant.)

However, more effective agents were used prior to the RoF. In the late sixteenth century, both Francis Drake and Richard Hawkins sought out oranges and lemons at their tropical landfalls (Bown 74). In 1601, James Lancaster, in the Red Dragon, led four English ships to the East Indies. Within three-and-a-half months, when they arrived at South Africa, 80 of the 480 sailors had died of scurvy.  The Red Dragon picked up oranges and lemons at Madagascar, and Lancaster gave three spoonfuls of lemon juice to his sailors each morning, as long as it lasted.  It has long been claimed that by this means Lancaster saved many of his men, but actually, the mortality rate on the Red Dragon was only slightly less than on other three ships (33% vs. 34, 38 and 45%).  Nonetheless, Lancaster persuaded the East India Company to use lemon juice on the voyages of 1604 and 1607.

Interestingly, Sir Hugh Platt in 1607 recommended covering it with an olive oil supernatant—this reduced the loss of activity by slow oxygenation.  The idea didn’t catch until about 180 years later (Baron).

James Woodall (d. 1643), in The Surgeon’s Mate (1617), promoted the use of lemons, limes, tamarinds and oranges (Reiss 130). So, too, did John Smith in An Accidence (1626) (Baron n39).

Unfortunately, the Mayflower lost 50 out of 102 on board, mostly to scurvy, during its 56-day 1620 voyage (Baron) and by the 1630s, the East India Company had settled on tamarinds (which lack vitamin C) and oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid) as the answer to scurvy.

Sweden. In 1628, scurvy ravaged the Swedish squadron commanded by Admiral Fleming, patrolling the Polish coast, leaving only 19 out of 115 men fit for work; he obtained 200 lemons for them.  This showed that he knew the remedy even though he wasn’t willing to include lemons in daily rations as a preventative.

Asia.  I was quite concerned about scurvy when writing about the Japanese Christians crossing the Pacific in 1636: Seas of Fortune.  The passage to California could be expected to take about three months and they are more genetically susceptible to scurvy than Europeans (Delanghe).

I thought a 50% loss would have been possible without anti-scorbutics, but it has been argued that the Asian habit of eating fruits and vegetables, including those with vitamin C, helps explain the relative scarcity of references to scurvy in East Asian sources (Torck 250).  Foods in the Japanese diet with significant levels of vitamin C include Kabu (turnip) roots, komatsuna (mustard spinach) (, and of course certain seaweeds (

The vitamin content of seaweed varies by species, season, water temperature and salinity, light exposure, etc.  Red seaweeds (Palmaria, Porphyra) are rich in provitamin A and brown seaweeds (Undaria, Laminaria) in vitamin C (Taylor, 360ff).  At least one seaweed provided, in a single cup, 15% RDA when fresh and 8% when pickled.


            After the early seventeenth century, we enter the “dark age” of scurvy treatment, with scurvy attributed to a host of non-dietary causes, and numerous ineffectual or even hazardous treatments proposed.

LaS-p1-lndThe first glimmer of light was in 1747, when James Lind conducted a comparative trial of cider, vitriol, vinegar, seawater, oranges and lemons, and a medicinal paste. The oranges and lemon treatment resulted in a complete recovery, and the cider provided some relief (Bown 96ff).  But others claimed to have refutation of Lind’s findings (Bown 167).

James Cook, in his voyages, used a smorgasbord of reputed antiscorbutics, effective (rob, sauerkraut, spruce beer) and otherwise (wort of malt).  Even Blane, in the 1780s, combined citrus juice and wort of malt, most likely for political reasons. It was not until 1795 that he persuaded the Admiralty to require a daily ration of lemon juice (0.75 oz/day) (174-82).  (Or did he?  Macdonald 160ff says that the Admiralty just sent out lemon juice to the Channel Fleet, with instructions that it be issued at the discretion of the ship’s surgeon. And outbreaks of scurvy continued.)


            If lemon juice was known to be efficacious, why did the British replace lemons with limes?  The Royal Navy initially imported lemons from Spain, and later from Portugal, Malta, and Sicily.  In 1869, it switched to lime juice from the West Indies.  The cost was higher but the profits went to British plantation owners in Montserrat. Also, they thought that the greater acidity of the lime juice implied that it was more potent. (In fact, the potency of the West Indian lime was about a third that of lemon, Bown 212.)

An 1864 Times expose revealed that some “lemon” juice was manufactured in England from tartaric and other acids, and essence of lemon added to give it a lemony flavor.  Such juice would have been completely ineffectual. Nonetheless, after scurvy forced abandonment of the Nares Arctic expedition in 1877, the navy decided that “lemon” juice didn’t prevent scurvy after all (Baron).

In the twentieth century, there was and is still some dispute as to the relative potency of lemon and lime juice. A 1918 study asserted that fresh lime juice was only one-quarter the potency of fresh lemon juice, but that doesn’t jibe with modern data as to the relative ascorbic acid content; the USDA National Nutrient Database (09152, 09160) cites 38.7 mg/100 g for raw lemon juice vs. 30 mg/100 g for lime (species/variety not stated, it could be the Mediterranean lime).   Carpenter (237) says that by modern analysis, sour lime juice is 23-59 mg/100g with average of 30, and lemon juice is 31-61, with average of 45.  Carpenter notes that the “fresh lime juice” of the 1918 study was two months old when given to guinea pigs, so this may be another illustration of handling pitfalls (see below).


            NTL Vitamin C Supply.  The vitamin C concentration of oranges is generally higher than for lemons and limes, but varies depending on growing conditions (Njoku).

There are perhaps two dozen plants that are richer in vitamin C than orange, but some of these are unknown to the down-time Europeans or grow naturally only outside Europe.  Northern Europe has sea buckthorn (695 mg/100 g), rose hip(426), blackcurrant (200), redcurrant (80), Brussels sprout (80), cloudberry (60) and elderberry (60).  Parsley (130) and broccoli (90) are native to the Mediterranean region but might be accessible.  Both loganberries (80) and garden strawberries (60) are hybrids created after RoF but might be available in Grantville gardens.  (All vitamin C content from Wikipedia, and values in other sources may differ depending on handling.)

Many people in Grantville will know that the orange (53) and lemon (53) are good sources of vitamin C, but historically, English and Dutch ships had difficulty obtaining them because they were typically grown in Spanish and Spanish-allied territories (Bown 76).   I think the tangerine (30) and lime (30) would also be relatively hard to acquire. And if you were to go to that trouble, better to seek out the Acerola (1677) of the Yucatan, or the Camu Camu (2800) of Brazil. It is possible that the guava (228) and red pepper (I know that Capsicum annuum var. glabrisusculum is likely to be native; see Heilbron 10, and that species can have vitamin C content as high as 267, see Kumar 51) could be obtained in the USE’s Suriname colony (NTL 1634). Red peppers can certainly be obtained in the Caribbean islands.

Let’s arbitrarily impose a limit of 20 mg vitamin C/100g and also exclude tropical and subtropical sources. If so, then below orange, we have cauliflower, kale, garlic, raspberry, spinach, cabbage, blackberry, and potato.  While onions (7.4) and apples (6) do not make the cut, I mention them because of their occasional historical use (apples in form of cider).

I have no information at this point as to the effect of drying on the potency of these materials, or on their shelf life.


            Handling Pitfalls.  Even if one identifies a vitamin C-rich food, the manner of preparation and storage can drastically affect its potency.  Vitamin C is sensitive to oxidation and begins degrading immediately after harvest (Njoku). Vitamin C is water-soluble, and thus easily leached into water and inactivated by heat.  Thirty minutes at 60oC reduced the vitamin C content of peppers by 64.71% (Igwemmar).   Heating, followed by a month’s storage, destroys the efficacy of gooseberries and spruce beer (Bown 120).

Cabbage soup cooked in a copper pot for forty minutes loses 75% of its vitamin C; if cooked in an iron pot, only 50%.  The reason is that copper catalyzes the aerobic breakdown of the vitamin. (Reiss 130).  Lemon and lime juice were sometimes run through copper pipes or exposed to prolonged heat (Bown 212).

Dried peas and beans do not contain significant vitamin C, and dried “scurvy grass” is seriously impaired (46, 76).

Lind created a lemon juice concentrate (“rob”) by evaporating lemon juice.  The evaporation process concentrated the lemon juice ten-fold but lost about half the original vitamin C.  He nonetheless hoped it would stay potent for years; it didn’t.  After a month, it lost 87% of its activity (Bown 120).  Later Lind and Trotter proposed straining the juice rather than boiling it, and then using olive oil as an air barrier (Baron).  This worked.


            Vitamin C Assay.  Given these pitfalls, what will be needed is a method of determining the potency of ascorbic acid in preserved and stored food. The assay needs to be able to distinguish ascorbic acid from other food acids.

One relatively simple procedure (whose specificity I am not sure of) is to add starch and then iodine to a set volume or weight of the food. The iodine initially reacts with the ascorbic acid, but once that’s consumed, it reacts with the starch. We might find such a procedure in, for example, a book of science fair experiments.  The result would be expressed as the number of drops of iodine added before the color change occurs.

Note that until we can synthesize vitamin C, and can thus produce a reference solution with a known concentration, we will not have a means of quantifying the content.


Vitamin A Deficiency

Vitamin A is found in food in the form of retinol (from animals) and various carotenes (provitamins, from plants).  One of the first manifestations of vitamin A deficiency is night blindness and it can be followed by total blindness.  In the sailors’ traditional diet, the foods offering the most vitamin A are butter (76% RDA per 100 grams) , cheese (29%), and peas (4%). If there are chickens on board, note that eggs (16% RDA) are also respectable.  Overall, the richest source of vitamin A are the liver of various animals (or their oils, notably cod liver oil). Among plant sources, dandelion greens, sweet potato, carrot, broccoli leaf, kale, spinach, pumpkin and cantaloupe score high (Wikipedia).

Despite the presence of vitamin A in the sailor’s diet, vitamin A deficiency did arise if the ship were at sea long enough. One notable instance involved the French warship La Cornelie in 1862.  The first case was a topman who complained that he could no longer work at night.  A few months later, other sailors experienced the problem.  The French frigate L’Andromede, attempting a Pacific exploration, reported that three-quarters of the crew were impaired, and aborted the mission.  Nor did the disease single out the French; there was an outbreak of night blindness on the Prussian ship Arcona in 1861, and in 1851, 44% of the men on the British brigantine Griffon had to be led about after the sun went down (Koletzko 3-8).

Night blindness takes longer to develop than scurvy in part because vitamin A is stored in the liver.  If a healthy person with a history of adequate intake of vitamin A is suddenly deprived of it, he may have 8-12 months’ worth in reserve.  On the Novara, which circumnavigated the world in 1857-9, scurvy appeared on several of the long legs between ports where citrus fruits and potatoes were available, whereas night blindness only appeared near the end of the voyage (9).


To Be Continued . . .