HC Deb 23 April 1839 vol 47 cc474-7
Lord Eliot

rose to move the appointment of a committee to examine into the merits of the petition of Mr. S. Harris, F.R.S., relating to his invention for the protection of ships from lightning. The noble Lord said, he did not consider nautical knowledge necessary to understand this subject, or he would not have undertaken to bring it forward. He should attempt to establish three propositions: that ships unprovided with electrical conductors, or provided only with such as were now in use, were in great danger of injury from lightning: that the invention of Mr. Harris was effective to guard against it; and that having been tried, and found so effective, it had nevertheless been discarded. There were 170 cases of damage within the last fifteen years, occasioned by vessels having been struck by lightning. These numbers were obtained by Mr. Snow Harris, who had been permitted by the Hydrographer of the Admiralty to inspect the Log-books of the ships, and they formed but a small proportion of the entire number. Of these 170 cases, in 100 instances, the vessels were set on fire, and of the crews, sixty-two were killed, and 111 wounded. In the case of the Repulse seven men were killed; in the case of the Sappho seventy-three were wounded, and forty severely, and in the case of Le Juste, several men were killed. No danger was so appalling to sailors as that of lightning; and within the last two years he believed, that not less than seven of her Majesty's ships had been struck by lightning. Captain Fanshaw, commanding the Rodney, in which two men were killed by lightning, stated, that he had never passed through the Levant, in which dangerous thunder storms were frequently encountered, without wishing for Mr. Harris's conductors, and added, that the Caledonia, the Asia, and other ships, which had been for a considerable period on the station, and which were provided with these conductors, had never received any damage. The second position which he would lay down was, that the invention of Mr. Snow Harris would be effectual for securing vessels from lightning. He was a gentleman well known for his scientific attainments, and no man had of late years made more interesting discoveries in that branch of natural philosophy. The House was probably aware, that the usual conductors were metal chains, which were thrown across the side of the ship, in order to conduct the electric fluid into the sea. Those conductors were usually packed in boxes, and kept in the hold, and the consequence was, that upon an emergency they were hardly ever forthcoming, without considerable delay. The experiments of Mr. Harris had been submitted to the Inspector of the Royal Society, who had appointed a committee to investigate the matter, and the result of these deliberations was a full approval of them. In addition to the testimony to the improvements of Mr. Harris, he might also add, that of Sir David Brewster. The noble Lord read a number of letters approving of Mr. Harris's plan, from officers commanding ships in which his conductors were used. It might be objected, that the expense would be great. That objection, however, was not tenable, as he had a letter from a most respected and distinguished officer, which stated that the expense of fitting out a first-rate line of battle ship would not exceed 300l.—the value of the ship was 120,000l., so that the expense of conductors was not a very high rate of insurance. The experiment had been made in the dock-yards, and it was proved, that the strength of the spars was rather increased than diminished by the process. He was aware, that there was a great disinclination on the part of the House to become as it were a Court of Appeal from the decisions of various departments, but he thought this was a subject of the last importance, whether considered in a financial point of view, or as affecting the lives of our seamen. This did appear to him to be a question which required consideration. As he had been informed by the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. C. Wood), that the motion would not be opposed, it was unnecessary for him to say anything further, except that he thanked the House for the indulgence it had shown him. The noble Lord moved, that a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the statements contained in the petition of William Snow Harris, esq., F.R.S., relating to the protection of ships from the effects of lightning.

Sir E. Codrington

seconded the motion. In addition to the instances mentioned by the noble Lord, he would refer to two vessels which had been lost in South America, on which coast the effect of the lightning was most tremendous. So many vessels had been lost from this cause, that if the cost of the experiment was likely to be ten times the sum which it would be, it would be well worth the trial, for where conductors had been applied, no vessel had ever been destroyed by lightning. He could see no objection to the plan whatever.

Mr. C. Wood

said, he should not oppose the motion. He must, however, say, that the order for discontinuing Mr. Harris's invention, had been given, not by the present Board of Admiralty, but by a former Navy Board, not less then eight years ago. He had seen the experiments of Mr. Harris, and was bound to admit, that they were very satisfactory in appearance. And if it should turn out from the evidence before the Committee, that the invention was efficient—for that was in fact the only question to be investigated, there being no doubt about the two other points—he was sure, that no consideration of expense would prevent its adoption—most important as it was for the preservation of our ships, and of still more valuable lives. The tenour of the reports made by officers to the Admiralty, however, had not been favourable to the invention; indeed, there had been but one supporting it, and that was the one which had been mentioned by the noble Lord. The present Admiralty had not been aware of what was going on respecting the discontinuance of the invention.

Mr. Warburton

said, in his opinion it was greatly to be marvelled at, that in this present scientific age a committee should be required on the subject. Surely natural philosophy had made so far way into the Admiralty, that they knew the value of means for preventing the damage done by lightning. As to this there could be no doubt. The only question was, as to the proper means to be adopted for attaining the object. He considered, that it would be superfluous to go into the investigation of a subject that was known to every body. He thought when the noble Lord had got his committee, it would be as well that it should refrain from sitting for some time, in order that the Admiralty might make inquiry into the subject.

Admiral Adam

said, the real question was, whether suitable conductors could be made so securely as not to be subjected to flaws which would render them rather the cause of danger than safety; that was a question that had not yet been settled to the satisfaction of the Board of Admiralty.

Sir Robert Peel

thought, that the House ought not to interfere with the Executive Government, in matters of this sort; the better course would be for the Admiralty to undertake the inquiry, and appoint a commission for that purpose, consisting of four men of science, which would prevent the establishment of a precedent that might be very inconvenient.

Mr. C. Wood

said, the course proposed by the right hon. Baronet was that adopted in the case of Kyan's patent.

Lord Eliot

said, his only reason for bringing this subject forward was, that he might have a scientific and satisfactory investigation, and he would willingly agree to the suggestion of the right hon. Baronet, the Member for Tamworth. With reference to a remark that had been made by the Secretary for the Admiralty, he would observe, that experiments ought to be made under the eye of the inventor.

The motion was then withdrawn.