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Harnessing the wind


Masts and sails

The earliest evidence of the use of a sail comes from a picture on an Egyptian vase dated to 3500 BC.  This was a square sail mounted on a mast in the bow.  Later illustrations clearly show a sail hung from a yard, with a boom along its foot to give extra control.

It is quite possible that the sail was invented in Egypt.  The Nile runs the length of Egypt, and the prevailing wind blows in the opposite direction to the flow of the river.  So, with a vessel equipped with a sail, the boatman could travel up or down the river without having to rely on muscle power.

It is likely that travellers to Egypt took home the idea of sails, which were used on sea-going ships built by the Phoenicians, Greeks and later the Romans.  Illustrations from the first millennium BC on Greek vases clearly show merchant ships and warships with square sails.  It is a matter of speculation if and how sails spread beyond the Mediterranean.  There are illustrations from what is now France dating from around 100 BC of Celtic boats which appear to have masts.  Surprisingly, those great seafarers the Vikings seem to have adopted the sail rather late, not until the 8th century AD.  The evidence from archaeology suggests that their early vessels, in which they made extensive voyages around the Atlantic and along the Mediterranean, were propelled only by oars. 

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