Sailors in the age of steam: Reexamining a counterintuitive response to advancing technology

Ivan T. Luke, Salve Regina University


Technology is continually advancing. With each major step forward, users must decide whether to adopt the new technology or to continue using the old. A number of things can influence this choice, but for commercial technologies, economic self-interest is presumed to be the dominant factor. Commercially superior technologies are expected to replace their less-profitable predecessors quickly. Curiously, this did not happen when ocean-going steamships evolved to be more profitable than sailing ships in the 1870s. Some mariners persisted with commercial sail well into the twentieth century. Many explanations have been offered, but none fully account for the phenomenon. Philosopher Albert Borgmann provides a possible alternative interpretation. Borgmann suggests that at some deep, intuitive level, we humans sense that there are benefits in doing some things the hard way; that our lives are meaningfully enriched when we engage with technologies that demand significant time, skill, and commitment. He calls these focal things and practices. This study explores the possibility that the subtle allure of Borgmann's focal things and practices contributed to the persistence of commercial sail. The historical record of a select group of schoonermen is examined, mariners who chose to work under sail into the mid-twentieth century. Qualitative analysis reveals a positive correlation between their lived experiences and key indicia of Borgmann's focal things and practices. Other, more conventional explanations for their choices are examined and dismissed. A conclusion is reached that the attractive forces Borgmann ascribes to focal things and practices did play a role in these mariners' apparently counterintuitive choices. This finding adds weight to Borgmann's larger body of work and has implications for how humanity might deal with advancing technology in the future.

Subject Area

Philosophy|Modern history|Transportation planning

Recommended Citation

Luke, Ivan T., "Sailors in the age of steam: Reexamining a counterintuitive response to advancing technology" (2011). Doctoral Dissertations. AAI3533448.