The First Canoe

Excerpt from Man Upon the Sea by Frank B Goodrich – 1858

Man upon the Sea – Obtaining Motion upon the Water

The first object for obtaining motion upon the water must evidently have been to enable the navigator to cross a river, not to ascend or descend it; as it is apparent he would not seek the means of following or stemming its current while the same purpose could be more easily served by walking along the shore.  It is not difficult to suppose that the oar was suggested by the legs of a frog or the fins of a fish.  The early navigator, seated in his hollow tree, might at first seek to propel himself with his hands, and might then artificially lengthen them by a piece of wood fashioned in imitation of the hand and arm, a long pole terminating in a thin fiat blade.  Here was the origin of the modern row-boat, one of the most graceful inventions of man.

From the oar to the rudder the transition was easy, for the oar is in itself a rudder, and was for a long time used as one.  It must have been observed at an early day that a canoe in motion was diverted from its direct course by plunging an oar into the water and suffering it to remain there.  It must have been observed, too, that an oar in or towards the stern was more effective in giving a new direction to the canoe than an oar in any other place.  It was a natural suggestion of prudence, then, to assign this duty to one particular oarsman, and to place him altogether at the stern.

The sail is not so easily accounted for. An ancient tradition relates that a fisherman and his sweetheart, allured from the shore in the hope of discovering an island, and surprised by a tempest, were in imminent danger of destruction. Their only oar was wrenched from the grasp of the fisherman, and the frail bark was thus left to the mercy of the waves. The maiden raised her white veil to protect herself and her lover from the storm; the wind, inflating this fragile garment, impelled them slowly but surely towards the coast. Their aged sire, the tradition continues, suddenly seized with prophetic inspiration, exclaimed,

“The future is unfolded to my view! Art is advancing to perfection!  My children, you have discovered a powerful agent in navigation.  All nations will cover the ocean with their fleets and wander to distant regions.  Men, differing in their manners and separated by seas, will disembark upon peaceful shores, and import their foreign science, superfluities, and art.  Then shall the mariner fearlessly cruise over the immense abyss and discover new lands and unknown seas!”

Though we may admire the foresight of this patriarch, we cannot applaud him for choosing a moment so inopportune for exercising his peculiar gift: it would certainly have been more natural to afford some comfort to his weather-beaten children.  The legend even goes on to state that he at once fixed a pole in the middle of the canoe, and, attaching to it a piece of cloth, invented the first sail-boat.

Mythology assigns a different, though similar, origin to the invention:  Iris, seeking her son in a bark which she impelled by oars, perceived that the wind inflated her garments and gently forced her in the direction in which she was going.  No research would bring the investigator to conclusions more satisfactory than these.

Excerpt from Man Upon the Sea by Frank B Goodrich – 1858


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