A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Friday, June 16, 2006

In which the History Geek discusses whether concrete floats

Oklahoma State University is the site of a contest this week sponsored by the Society of Civil Engineers which encourages students to see if they can construct concrete watercraft that can float:
Twenty-three student teams from around the country are competing in a concrete canoe competition to find out.

Staying afloat has a lot at stake — there's even a national champion.

The 19th annual competition is organized by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The teams competing for the championship put their boats through aesthetic, presentation and swamping tests on Thursday, with technical presentations on Friday and, finally, a series of races Saturday on Boomer Lake in Stillwater. Teams came from coast to coast and from Canada to the Gulf.

Mike Carnivale, chairman of the national competition committee, said designing, building and floating these concrete canoes pushed students to learn in a way they might not elsewhere.

"They learn about concrete, design, project management, the works," Carnivale said.

Hmmmm, this story has caused the involuntary unleashing of my alter-ego, the History Geek. Can concrete float? Once again, history provides the answer. The first concrete boat, a rowboat, was exhibited in 1855 at the Universal Exposition in Paris. Those whacky Frenchmen-- they'll try anything.

In 1917, a California businessman founded the San Francisco Shipbuilding Company in response to the US government's interest in building a concrete ship fleet; his first ship, accurately called the SS Faith, was in service from 1918 to 1921, when it was scrapped and turned into a breakwater off the coast of Cuba. Apparently being turned into breakwaters was a common fate for these ships, some of which have also been retired to that task in British Columbia and off the coast of Virginia. Several companies took part in the construction of this concrete fleet. About twelve concrete ships in all were built under this Emergency Fleet Corporation program. However, when the post-war steel shortage turned to a steel glut, the program was abandoned. Nonetheless, several of the ships in this program went on to have absolutely bizarre careers.

One of the ships built for this post World War I concrete fleet is on the National Register of Historic Places. Anyone who has ever been to Galveston may have happened upon the remains of the SS Selma, a concrete oil barge which was abandoned off Pelican Island in the 1920s. With that typical Texas sense of humor, this hulk is the official flagship of the Texas Army. No foolin.'

Another ship, the SS Palo Alto, became an amusement park for a while at Seacliff beach, north of San Francisco.

The SS San Pasquale at one time was a floating prison for Che Guevara during the Cuban Revolution and is now a ten-room hotel in Cayo las Brujas.

Some of these ships were unpowered barges serving as part of the Service Force Pacific Fleet in World War II, relying upon being towed by other ships. This is a link to a fascinating first-person account of a Navy supply officer who was adrift on one of these concrete barges during a typhoon.

So, yes, kids, concrete can float. Here endeth the trivia-fest.


At 6/17/06, 8:33 AM, Blogger Fred said...

The things I learn by reading your blog...

At 6/17/06, 11:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Liz here from I Speak of Dreams The SS Palo Alto is still on view at Seacliff Beach. Image Gallery of SS Palo Alto.

At 6/17/06, 3:47 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Freddie, I am here for you.

Thanks, Liz!

At 6/17/06, 4:17 PM, Blogger Mike in Texas said...

As long as the volume is greater than the mass, in metric terms, it will float. For something like concrete its all in how you shape it.

At 6/17/06, 4:30 PM, Blogger Mister Teacher said...

You know, I actually used to be an engineer, and there are still things that just boggle my mind. Yes, I know deep down in the darkest recesses of my brain that concrete can be made to float, but the very notion just seems to defy logic. Of course, even though they're not made of concrete, I'm always amazed that those luxury liners -- with 200,000 rooms, 500 dining halls, 13 basketball courts, five stadium seating movie theaters and a partridge in a pear tree -- can stay afloat.

At 6/17/06, 4:43 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

You are so right, Mike. It's also about "displacement," says the old sailor in me.

mister teacher, I am impressed, but tell me. Isn't it "Once an engineer, always an engineer?" Kind of like being a non-virgin? ;-)

At 6/20/06, 9:37 PM, Blogger Mister Teacher said...

Well sure, Ms. C, I guess that I will always be an engineer, but I consider myself a massively-overqualified third-grade math teacher now... ;)


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