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Muscle power

Muscles, poles, paddles and oars

The first form of propulsion?

The first boats were propelled by muscle power.  This may have been a long branch used to push against the bottom, as a punt or quant pole is used today.  Equally, in deeper water, a branch may have been used as a paddle.  It would soon become apparent that making it broader at the end improved its efficiency.  It is known that paddles were in use for propelling boats the stone age, about 8000 BC.

It was a small but very important step for the paddle to evolve into the oar.  A paddler faces forwards, and has only the power of his or her arms.  In contrast, a rower who faces astern uses his arms and his legs (braced against part of the boat) and can thus bring more power to bear on the oar.  In addition, it proved possible to make oars longer so that two or more oarsmen could operate an oar, again adding to the power available.  The oarsmen could also be further inside the ship, and if the oar worked through a port, or hole, in the ship’s side, they could have some protection from the weather – important if the vessel was used at sea.

Another form of muscle power must not be ignored: bow hauling (pulling) with a length of rope.  This was possible only on rivers or lakes, which the men, horses or oxen could walk alongside reasonably easily.  In all probability it was used to move vessels against the river’s flow: the crew or the horse would get on board for the downstream voyage.  This sort of propulsion survived until very recently: horses hauled narrow boats on inland waterways in the UK well into the 20th century.


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