Computers make their debut

11 Sep 2017

The main story in ‘The Motor Ship’, October 1967, concerned the launch of the ‘Queen Elizabeth II’. This was, surprisingly, regarded as something of an anti-climax – in both the “remarkably uninspired” choice of name, and the fact that she was seen as “the last of the big liners”.

As the detailed report on the ship noted, the ship would operate the North Atlantic liner service during the summer season, and subsequently be employed on cruises. At 58,000gt and with capacity of just over 2,000 passengers, the ship was indeed “big” by the day’s standards , but our predecessors could not have imagined the growth in the cruise market which would mean that far from being the last, the Queen Elizabeth II would be dwarfed by the next generations of cruise ships, of 200,000gt-plus and able to accommodate over 7,000.

A secondary article in October 1967 described the Queen Elizabeth II’s onboard computer installation, based on a Ferranti Argus 400 unit, said to have cost £100,000, and claimed to be the most sophisticated such system on any merchant ship and the first to combine technical, operational and commercial functions at sea. It was a “micro-miniature” unit, in which the central processor measured “less than one cubic foot”, capable of machinery monitoring, alarm scanning, data logging, weather routing, prediction of fresh water requirements and stock control. All of these functions, and more, would be well within the capabilities of today’s everyday laptop computer costing around 0.5% of the Argus 400, so it is easy to forget the great advances achieved in information technology in half a century. The main benefit of the Queen Elizabeth II system was said to be in fuel consumption, mainly achieved by more precise control of machinery operation, expected to represent a reduction of 1.5% to 2%.

The potential of computers was beginning to be realised in ship design, as well as in ship operation. The emerging container ship technology was thought to be particularly applicable, with demand for the latest container ships on the rise, and a race to get new high-speed, high capacity ships afloat as soon as possible. Hitachi Zosen in Japan had applied digital computers to the complex question of selecting the most economical ship size and hull form for carrying a given number of containers, and ensuring that, with a number of containers being carried on deck rather than within holds, seaworthiness and stability were not compromised. Hitachi’s design, then under construction, was for a ship to carry 750 containers of the new ISO 20ft size – small by today’s standards, but exploring new ground 50 years ago.

Europe’s largest tanker, the 191,000 dwt Myrina, had just been launched at Harland and Wolff in Belfast for Shell Deutschland. This was the first of over 20 ships of similar size being built in various countries. The larger ships were intended to reduce dependence on the Suez Canal, being capable of sailing the longer Cape route at a cost almost 50% less, thanks to up-to-date design and economies of scale. The original order was from a Norwegian owner for a 167,000 dwt vessel, but during the build process it was taken over by Shell and the deadweight increased. H&W achieved this by inserting an additional midships portion, achieved in just six days, and thought to be unique at the time.

The Myrina overshadowed the previous largest British-built tanker, the 115,250 dwt Narica, which had just been handed over by Swan Hunter, also for Shell Deutschland. Narica was notable as the fleet’s first motorship, with a Sulzer 9RD90 engine of a modest 18,000bhp, and for being completed well ahead of schedule, at the owner’s request.