This page contains information about the development of rowing equipment
beginning about the end of the 18th century. Many of us sit back and think that
most of the significant improvements in rowing equipment were made in the 20th
century. When reviewing all the developments, patents, etc, it's clear that huge progress
was made in the mid-19th century. In 1825 oarsmen were competing in clinker
built, in-rigged boats. By 1875 they were competing in sleek, lightweight,
out-rigged, sliding seat "shells", very similar to today's high
In 1868, Waters, Balch & Company of Troy, NY manufactured paper boats.
This was a process of layering sheets of paper (fibers) and impregnating them with a
varnish/shellac type material, almost like a plastic material. Today's boats use carbon fibers and epoxy (fiber reinforced plastics - FRP); a very similar process. The dimensions and
weights of the shells were very close to today's specs.
The roots of our sport go back to the early industries of the 17th/18th
centuries and earlier. On the Thames in London, the river was used to transport goods and services. One service in particular flourished with thousands
employed. The livery service transported people from one side of the river to
the other and from the lower portions to the upper portions of the city. These
watermen were closely governed by Parliament and had to spend years as an
It was very early on when one waterman decided to challenge another
waterman or when one passenger urged his waterman on to a speedy passage that
boat speed became an asset. A
waterman could enhance his income by receiving a gratuity from his pleased
patron or gain publicity and a reputation by winning contests. Racing between watermen
- Click on Images to Enlarge -
Thames Waterman c. 1825
In 1715 an actor named Thomas Doggett used these watermen regularly to
cross the Thames to get to his theatre appearances. He decided to place a sum of money
in an endowment to provide for a race for a Coat and Badge to take place
"forever" for 6 emerging watermen. This competition continues today.
In the United States, much the same was done, especially in New York City,
where people were transported across the rivers by livery boats. The steps at the end of
Whitehall Street became the Grand Central of the water transport era. Soon races
were contracted with rather large purses (see Time Line). The boats, known as Whitehalls,
were durably built, in-rigged wherries.
Whitehall, Victorious, 1824
Another line of ancestry contributing to rowing competition, descends from
the naval and merchant shipping trade. Pilot gigs, ship's tenders and the like
were used regularly to transport people to and from the larger ships. As soon as you
get two or more rowing craft going in the same direction, a race
will develop. These challenges were often made in a harbor between two visiting
ships or a visiting ship and a local crew. Sums of money were wagered and a purse of money was waiting for the
Four-oared gig from the ship, Sirene
Boats and Hardware
Outrigger, c. 1830s
As the seriousness of the racing and the size of the prize grew, oarsmen
looked to improve their equipment to give them an edge. In 1828 Anthony
Brown, England, attached crude wooden out-riggers to a boat. The out-rigger allowed for a
narrower, speedier boat to be built without the need to support an oar directly
sitting on the
gunwale (in-rigged). Frank Emmet, of Dent's Hole on the Tyne, had a try and in
1830 produced the "Eagle" with iron out-riggers. The metal out-rigger was perfected by Harry Clasper,
Newcastle, England, c. 1841, and his claim of "Inventor of the
Outrigger" has withstood the test of time. The in-rigged and out-rigged
boats of this era had a fixed seat, moveable foot-board, thowle rowlock, and an exterior keel.
Thowle type rowlock c. 1860s from The Oarsmen's
Shell Construction, c. 1840s
The next major development was the smooth skin, keel-less hull. The boat
became known as the "shell" because its structure was internal and a
smooth delicate egg shell like skin was formed around it. According to U.S.
boat-builder, George Pocock, who came from a line of Eton and London
boat-builders, his dad's uncle, William Pocock, was a London professional sculler and builder
c.1840. He raced Harry Clasper on the Thames and afterward, invited Clasper to his
shed to see the keel-less boat he was building. Supposedly, an article was
written about this Pocock boat in a London newspaper. [If anyone has a lead
about this article, I would appreciate any information.] The Pocock story goes
that Clasper went back to Newcastle-On-Tyne and built a keel-less boat
claiming it to be the first.
In any case, the first widely raced keel-less boat, The Five
Brothers, was completed by Harry Clasper in 1844. It won at the
Royal Thames Regatta on June 22, 1844 manned by the five Clasper brothers.
Clasper built a new boat for the 1845 Thames Regatta called the Lord
Ravensworth. This boat captured the World Championship on June 26 with four
of the Claspers vs the London Coombes' Crew and another London Crew containing
Matt Taylor, England, took Clasper's keel-less boat to the next level by
applying a thin skin to the keel-less frame. In 1854 he constructed the Victoria
that won the 1855 Stewards Cup at Henley and in 1856 he built a shell eight that
won Henley's Grand Challenge Cup. In 1856 the age of the racing shell began.
Matt Taylor with his 1855 keel-less four, Victoria
winners of the Stewards' and Wyfold Cups
Following the developments in England, James McKay, a boat builder in New
York, began building the sleek shells. After this, most
improvements were developed in North America and then traveled to England.
The Coxless-Four, c. 1867
The general configuration for four-oared boats through the late 1860s
included a coxswain to steer. At the Paris International Regatta in 1867, the Saint John,
New Brunswick, coxless four arrived and defeated the other crews all rowing with
coxswains. E.D. Brickwood states in 1876 that the Saint John four's
"victory was as much owing to their rowing without a coxswain".
Even earlier, in 1855, Harvard raced a coxed-eight and a second boat, a
coxless-four vs. Yale's two coxed-sixes. Harvard's eight, with an adjusted time,
defeated it's coxless four by three seconds while Yale's two coxed-sixes were third and
fourth. It was not uncommon to have mixed boat types in a race, sometimes with
handicaps and sometimes not.
Meanwhile, the English oarsmen at the International Regatta brought back
the stories about this Paris coxless four. The next season, 1868, W.B. Woodgate
had a coxless four built for the Henley Stewards' Cup. He placed a temporary
seat for a coxswain on the stern deck and, upon the starting command, the coxswain
jumped overboard. Woodgate's coxless four won the heat but was disqualified for
the infraction, however, the result was the establishment of the coxless-four at
Henley and in English waters.
Lightweight Paper Boats, c. 1868
Paper boats were developed in the late 1860s and patented in June, 1868 by
the Waters, Balch & Company in Troy, New York. They were a box manufacturer and devised a method of taking sheets of damp paper and forming
them over a special mold, then drying and sealing the hull with a glue-resin type material. The U.S. Naval Academy was one of the first programs to
purchase a Balch shell - a four-oared. From 1870 to about 1885 they were
THE boat to have. The
boats were widely used in all parts of North America and foreign deliveries
were made as well.
The builder's claim was that the hull shape could be exactly
molded and built consistent with the designer's intent. However, their
life span was limited and they were difficult to repair. Once injured, they would
absorb water and their high performance was compromised. In the late 1880s they
began to lose favor and by 1895 they were mostly forgotten, but they were the
rage in 1870s.
Here are some of the dimensions and weights of the paper boats in 1871:
Shell Length -
30 ft. Width - 12 in. Weight - 30 lbs.
Double Sculls Length - 34
ft. Width - 14 in. Weight - 50 lbs.
Four-Oared Shell Length - 41 ft. Width - 18
in. Weight - 100 lbs.
Six-Oared Shell Length - 49 ft.
Width - 19 in. Weight - 120 lbs.
Paper six - 1871
Sliding Seat, c. 1869
About the same time as Waters, Balch & Co. were developing their paper
boat another important development was taking place at the other end of the
Hudson River. There were some attempts reported at trying to
slide on the seat to extend the length of the rowing stroke. In 1861 sculler,
Walter Brown, had tried a sliding seat but abandoned the effort. J.C.
Babcock of New York City who, as early as 1857 experimented with a sliding seat,
in May of 1870 successfully fitted sliding seats to a Nassau Boat Club gig
six. They raced at the Hudson Amateur Rowing Association regatta to test the
seat's merits. The conclusion was that on its first try the sliding-seats were a
J.C. Babcock described these seats in December, 1870 as "a wooden frame
about ten inches square, covered with leather, and grooved at the edges to slide
on two brass tracks fastened to the thwart, of sufficient length to allow a
slide of from ten inches to a foot, though in rowing the proper length of slide
is from four to six inches. The ways to be occasionally lubricated with lard,
and I found no stops or fastenings necessary to keep the seat in position."
- Illustrated Catalogue and Oarsman's Manual For 1871
Print of Babcock's sliding-seat, Illustrated Catalogue and Oarsman's
Manual For 1871
The sliding seats were eagerly accepted by the racing community and everyone
rushed to get their new sliding seat. Yale used slides in the H-Y Boat Race a
little over one year after the Nassau trial race. Oxford and Cambridge used
slides in the 1873 Boat Race.
Swivel row-lock, c. 1874
At this time, coming onto the professional sculling scene, was Michael F.
Davis. He resided in Portland, Maine and The Spirit Of The Times in December
1879 described him "as the most noteworthy oarsman of modern times, an
apothecary by profession, a gentleman by birth and education, and a professional
oarsman by inclination." From 1874 continuing through 1884, Davis
revolutionized rowing equipment. I can't think of anyone or any decade
where so many new devices and new ideas sprung from one person's mind.
Patent after patent were applied for and granted. They cover the
swivel row-lock with numerous improvements, out-rigger connector castings so
that steel tubing could be used instead of solid iron rod, the three-tube rigger
instead of the four-tube type, reduced friction seats, sliding seat w/rigger, a modern
type oar button, a roller bearing oar collar, steering foot-stretcher, a bow
attachment called a "wind sail" to help compensate for cross-wind
forces turning the boat. One of these is pictured on Hanlan's boat in the 1881
print Hanlan vs. Laycock (see Time Line - 1880). His oar and scull patents will
be discussed later with Oars & Sculls.
The swivel rowlock caught on quickly in North America, but was slower
to find a following in England. It wasn't until 1905, after the Belgians carried off a
number of Henley pots while using swivels, did the British fully accept the
device. Still, the fixed-pin rowlocks continued to be used in England where Leander
Club won the Grand Challenge Cup in 1949 with fixed-pin rowlocks.
We can look back at this explosion in the development of rowing equipment and
pick out the biggest breakthrough after the outrigger and shell
construction. It was clearly the sliding seat. It changed the sport from one of
fairly simple upper body power with static leg pressure to one of very complex
power application. J.C. Babcock in his 1870 description is most intuitive in his
evaluation of his new sliding seat: "the slide properly used is a
decided advantage and gain of speed, and only objection to its use is its
complication and almost impracticable requirement of skill and unison in a crew,
rather than any positive defect in its mechanical theory." M.F. Davis
contributed many, many bits and pieces to the smooth operation of this new,
complex rowing application. In a matter of several years, these two individuals
transformed rowing from an early 19th century sport to what we know as a modern 20th century
I can't think of any real significant changes in shells and hardware all
the way through until 1972. In 1893 Cornell tried a boat made of aluminum,
but it didn't prove to be advantageous. From the 1880s to the 1960s, small
improvements were made in seat design and wheel development. Boat framing was
refined and shell designs were tweaked. But, no earth-shattering improvements
Boat-builders were numerous. Each country would have local and regional builders with a few
dominant national/international builders. Donoratico, Stampfli, Karlisch, Pirsch,
Sims, and Pocock were some of the nationally known builders prior to the 1970s.
George Pocock began building shells with his brother in Seattle in 1912.
The Pococks were very open to try new materials and designs. The George Pocock
Racing Shells company supplied most of the boats for the collegiate, school,
club and Olympic teams in North America for two-thirds of the 20th c. Italian
builder, Donoratico and Swiss builder, Stampfli, were two companies that
penetrated the North American market in the 1960s.
Sliding Rigger, 1877-1983
The boat speed can be significantly improved by trading the sliding seat
for a sliding rigger. This increases boat efficiency because body mass remains
still on the fixed seat while the rigger/foot-stretcher unit slides. With body
mass stationary, the boat doesn't pitch bow to stern nearly as much, thus, less
hull resistance is incurred.
The sliding-rigger dates back over 100 years before its c.1982 re-introduction.
In April 1877 Michael Davis of Portland Maine applied for a patent
(US#209,960) for a sliding
rigger/foot-board with fixed seat. This was only a few years after the
sliding-seat became commonly used and is remarkable that someone was thinking
well beyond the sliding seat. His reason has a bit of a twist. Seats still
weren't perfected and didn't slide very smoothly. Davis was thinking that the
excessive friction from a loaded (body weighted) moving seat could be eliminated
by fixing the seat again and sliding the foot-board/outrigger components. "To
avoid this great amount of friction... is the purpose of this part of my
invention. The means used to accomplish this result are a sliding foot-board and
It is reported that this sliding-rigger concept was tried by Walter Hoover
(USA) in the 1920s. The mechanism was used in
1954 by C.E. Poynter of Bedford (UK). The September 25, 1954 Illustrated London
News described the invention in a double-scull. The concept surfaced again in 1960 when
Nick Smith (AUS) fitted a practice boat with a sliding-rigger system.
1954 sliding rigger
Around 1981 Empacher Bootswerft (GER) perfected the device using modern
materials and hardware. Germany's outstanding sculler, P. Kolbe, won the FISA
World Championship in it and everyone rushed to get a new boat with the
mechanism. At the 1982 World Championships 1st through 5th place used
sliding-rigger boats while the only sliding-seat boat in the finals placed 6th.
In August of 1983 FISA banned the use of the sliding-rigger beginning
January 1, 1984 because it was thought to be more costly than sliding-seat
boats. This may or may not be true. Nick Smith in his book, Rowing and
Sculling, makes a good point about how the sliding-rigger could be removed
after arriving at the float just like you remove the sculls. This makes carrying
the boat easier and many more boats could be stored in the same space as
I also think that manufacturing costs of the sliding-rigger would diminish
as the materials technology improved. Today we see the cost effective
wing-rigger and this technology is easily adaptable to the sliding-rigger
mechanics. Who knows, maybe the sliding-rigger will surface once again.
Composite Boats, c. 1972
In 1972, in preparation for the Munich Olympics, the German federation
supported an equipment development program. Empacher Bootswerft was one of the
recipients of this financial support and experimented with the newest materials
- glass/carbon fiber/honeycomb and epoxy resins. The result was a couple of state-of-the-art
shells competing in Munich. From this point on, shells of fiber reinforced
plastics became more prevalent. In just 2-3 years a majority of boats racing
at the World Rowing Championships were made of these high performance materials
and most were built by Empacher.
The traditional wooden boat builders had to either transform themselves
from craftsmen to materials engineers or close their doors. Many didn't make the
transition. Besides Empacher, new company names appeared: Carbocraft
(England), Schoenbrod (USA), Van Dusen (USA), Hudson (Canada), Carbocraft-USA
now known as Vespoli USA. Some builders did make the transition: Pocock (USA),
Stampfli (Switzerland), Kaschper (Canada) to name a few.
The result of this transformation from wood to carbon
fiber/honeycomb/epoxy is that
boats weigh less. Wooden eights in the 1950s were 300 pounds while eights in 2000
are a little over 200 pounds. They don't glow with the same beauty, heart and
soul as the wooden craft, but they're much stiffer, stronger, more durable, can
be more easily repaired and require less maintenance than their predecessors.
Oars and Sculls
It seems that oar and scull developments have been a little
more gradual. The early oars (17th c.) were straight with a very long
flattened surface and square looms. Then at some time (18th c.) they became a little more
contoured with a curve to the blade, but still a long slender blade. Into the
19th and 20th c. many blade shapes were tried. Some had a short life while
others were widely accepted. Here are some examples:
Square loomed scull c. 1847 (Complete Oarsman)
"Modern" oars, Top - "Square blade", below -
"Coffin" blade (Complete
The "tulip" or "Macon"
blade first introduced in 1959 was the preferred shape from 1960 until 1991.
The Concept2 Big Blade or Hatchet blade
Many materials have been used to make oars: wood (sitka spruce), aluminum
and composite materials (fiberglass, carbon fiber, Kevlarô fiber). The real
challenge to make oars using composite materials in the 1970s was to make an oar
that would perform, be durable, and be cost effective.
In 1972 a British
company, Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds produced a set of carbon reinforced oars
for the ARA for the Bristish Olympic team, however, they were very costly. In 1977 the Dreissigacker
brothers, Dick and Pete, founded Concept2 in Vermont to manufacture carbon fiber
oars. They devised a production method and developed a composite oar that became
the choice of all North America and much of the rest of the world market. Other
manufacturers made carbon oars, but Concept2 satisfied all three of the
parameters the best and earliest.
In the Fall of 1991 the Dreissigackers experimented with a new blade
design. It was soon called the hatchet blade because of its
cleaver like shape. It's acceptance was immediate and the first crews to
use them were successful on the race courses. FISA entertained a ban on the oars
because they felt that all the competitors at the quickly approaching Olympic
Games would be unable to purchase the oars in time to compete in Banyoles.
Concept2 assured the governing body that all orders would be produced on time to
meet demand. Their word was accepted and they met their orders. Today many manufacturers are producing the hatchet
blades and some design variations exist. The hatchet blade prevails and the symmetrical
Macon blade can't be found racing anywhere.
Rowing machines have been in use since at least the mid-19th century.
There are advertisements and patents dating back to that era. The patent below
is an improved rowing machine patented in 1871 by W.B. Curtis. William Curtis
was one of the most active people in the rowing community. He, along with two
others, founded the New York Athletic Club. He also was the person who called
for a meeting of all amateur rowing clubs for the purpose of forming the N.A.A.O.
His patent below shows how developed the off-the-water training interest was.
Improved rowing machine, Wm. B. Curtis, pat. June 27, 1871
Kerns' and Laflin rowing machines, c. 1901
The Narragansett Machine Company in Providence, RI produced hydraulic
rowing machines from about 1900 all the way through the beginning of the 1960s.
The Narragansetts can be seen in numerous old photos of college crews training
indoors. Some photos show them onboard ships transporting crews across the
Atlantic for Henley and the Olympics. If you look closely the next time you
watch Titanic, the movie, you'll spot a couple of Narragansetts onboard
in one scene. These machines were the foundation of winter training along with indoor tanks for the
major college programs.
Onboard the Titanic
Narragansett Hydraulic Rowing Machine, c. 1900-1965
In the early 1960s an Australian company built a machine called an ergometer;
a machine to measure work capacity. They were very large steel devices with
flywheels and leather straps applying resistance. Two were purchased by Harvard
and then two more were bought by the Naval Academy. These machines were used to
test the output of some of the 1968 Olympic team hopefuls and were subsequently
used to do the first aerobic testing of oarsmen by Dr. F. Hagerman - 1968-1970.
They were a bit sensitive to humidity and temperature, so scores couldn't be
1960s Australian "Ergometer"
In 1970 Gamut Engineering in California developed an effective less
sensitive rowing machine. It became the foundation of winter training and
testing of college and national team rowers through all of the 1970s. Today,
they're still utilized in some rowing programs.
From Norway came the Gjessing-Nilson ergometer using a friction brake
mechanism. It became the internationally accepted testing standard for a while.
In 1981 the brothers, Dick and Peter Dreissigacker, designed and produced
a much simpler and cost efficient rowing machine called the Concept2 Indoor Rower.
The first model used an open bicycle wheel fitted with plastic paddles to create
air resistance. After design improvements, today the machines are shipped world-wide
with thousands in
health and fitness clubs everywhere. Just as Henry Ford produced cars
efficiently, economically and for the greater public use, the Dreissigacker
brothers have done the same with their rowing machines for the rowing, health
club and home markets. The design has gone through
continuous improvements and is one of the most dependable and cost effective
exercise machines developed since the bicycle. It is certainly a major factor in
the explosion of interest in rowing as an exercise with the general public.
What started in 1982 as a fun event to add some humor during the college winter training
period, the CRASH-B Sprints or more formally called the World Indoor Rowing
Championships, draws competitors from all over the world. The bicycle wheel
model (Model A) was used for the first few years with a mechanical
speedometer/odometer testing the competitors for a 5 mile duration. The Model B
was the next generation with a wire enclosed, cast alloy flywheel and electronic
monitor outputting metric distances. The CRASH-B Sprints tested the competitors at a
distance of 2500 meters. Concept2 made more improvements and the Model C was
introduced. Eventually the CRASH-B Sprints settled on 2000 meters as the race
"Siamese Outrigger on the Serpentine" designed by W. Austin Ashe c.
Improved front facing rowing gear, W. Lyman pat. Oct. 26, 1875
Arthur Meyers Rigging Stick - 1949
(submitted by Mr. Burt Welte)
An early rigging stick was designed by legendary coach, Arthur Meyers. In
1887 coach Meyers was co-founder of the Lone Star Boat Club on the Harlem River.
The "stick" was used by most of the leading competitors in the 1950s.
Meyers on right
John B Kelly, Sr. & Jr. using the Meyers stick
Boat Names & Terms