First and Famous: Fullagar

By Max Wilson 

In the lead up to, and throughout the First World War, the place of riveting occupied a crucial role in large-scale shipbuilding practices across the world. The method of joining large plates of iron and steel with rivets or bolts was originally carried out manually with hand hammers. Over this period the industry had rapidly adopted the use of portable hydraulic, and later pneumatic riveting machines that worked by compressing air.[1] Though this maximised the number of rivets that could be fitted by up to six fold per day, the shipyard relied on the skilled hard labour of the rivet squads even more as the demand for larger tonnage ships increased. These riveting squads, traditionally working 48 hour weeks, often comprised of up to five men, a riveter, possibly one that was right handed and another for the left, a 'holder up', a catcher, and a rivet heater. To be a riveter usually required completion of a five year apprenticeship, and with these squads being paid by the number of rivets fitted during a shift, they relied on swiftness, precision, strength, and the ability to work as a team.[2] The work of the riveters also impacted upon drilling, plating and caulking, and so by the end of the war, the spatial considerations of the yards naturally placed riveters at the centre of the building process. In May 1921, volume 35 of the magazine Popular Mechanics included an article about a newly launched vessel that threatened the structure of the shipyard with a pioneering type of joining.[3] The method was electrical arc welding and the vessel was the Fullagar, a steamer of little note but for one key reason, she required no rivets.

Welding had been recognised by shipbuilders for some time, though in the years prior to the outbreak of the First World War it had been employed mainly as a method of repair rather than construction. The process of electric arc welding involves passing an electrical current through a mild steel rod wrapped in an asbestos flux. The purpose of this flux was to prevent the admission of air during fusing which would otherwise cool the process and result in a weaker join. The rod was then placed near to the adjacent plates or frames that needed welding and created an arc that melted the rod and fused it to the components in a strong seal.[4] Gradually the advantages of welding and the possibility of its application in shipbuilding were coming to the fore; it might create lighter, streamlined ships with greater flexibility and strength, while lending itself to prefabrication away from the shipyards.[5] The technique also required fewer people and less training. Aware of the possibilities that welding might offer to shipbuilding, Lloyd's Register sanctioned tests under Westcott Abell and published the society's Provisional Rules for Electrically Welded Ships in 1918. These provisional rules offered guidance in a pioneering technique recommending the approval of electrodes and welding plans, and the training and supervision of staff involved in the process.[6] Despite this the process was still doubted in shipping circles, the riveters unsurprisingly referring to the method as little more than a 'sealing wax.'[7] When T & J Brocklebank ordered the 420 gross ton vessel Fullagar in 1919 this method was put to the test.

 In 1917 the Birkenhead shipbuilders Cammell Laird & Co Ltd took a pivotal step in the development of this new joining technique; the installation of arc welding equipment at their shipyard. With the order from T & J Brocklebank in 1919 Cammell Laird & Co Ltd began construction of the motor vessel Fullagar; the world's first fully welded ocean-going ship.[8] The vessel derived her name from an experimental diesel engine designed by H. F. Fullagar that had been fitted on board. Fullagar also utilised a variety of different types of joints and it was noted that welders received instruction as to technique both before and during her construction. When she was finally launched in 1920 she measured 150 feet in length with a raised quarter deck, and was 420 gross register tons. Lloyd's Register had specially surveyed the vessel during construction and were to enter her name in the Register Book with a class of '+100A1', with the notation 'Electrically Welded, Subject to Biennial Survey-Experimental.'[9] Her owners intended her for the coastal trade where she would carry up to 500 tons in cargo. Vessels in this trade typically rested on the ground when being loaded and unloaded; this it was believed would provide the ultimate test to the strength of Fullagar's welding.[10] Now she would face the trials of prolonged coastal trade.

Over the course of her life, Fullagar underwent several name changes; Caria; Shean and Cedros and was later converted to steam, and then back to diesel again. In 1924 she ran aground fully loaded with coal at Garston, Liverpool, and though her hull showed signs of buckling she remained watertight and her welding showed no signs of failure.[11] Despite this, her owners opted to sell her as a constructive loss to a Scottish based salvage company, who decided to repair her. She was later repaired after another serious incident and given permission to be converted to cross the Atlantic to British Columbia where she would be engaged as a cement carrier. Not long after, Fullagar, now named Shean struck a rock fully loaded, causing serious damage. Despite this, her tenth annual survey revealed that although other parts of the vessel had deteriorated, her welding showed no signs of rust and were still in good working order.[12] Finally, in 1937, Fullagar [Cedros] collided with the vessel Hidalgo and sank 30 miles off Baja California, Mexico. After withstanding 17 years of constant rough service, punctuated by several significant accidents, the efficacy of Fullagar's ground-breaking all welded hull had stood the test of time where a riveted vessel may not have. 

Despite this success shipbuilders were slow to adopt this new method and it was not until the Second World War that it became standard practice. In the early interwar period shipping was largely depressed as shipowners and builders struggled to quickly resume their activities; as such welding generally remained a restorative practice. The physical and operational structure of the yards were still committed to riveting; a departure for welding could be financially ruinous.[13] Above all, owners and builders knew about rivets, and they knew that they worked. The early history of welds had shown some to be brittle and was believed by many to be inappropriate for the tremendous strains of large scale builds. Once other vessels had been constructed and observed to be seaworthy the shipyards finally began to accept welding over riveting.[14] In addition, officially amended rules of classification and the urgent demands of the Second World War finally saw welding take prominence in the shipyard. With this in mind, the decision of Cammell Laird & Co Ltd to undertake such a potentially costly and unknown venture like Fullagar is admirable. At a time of great depression and consternation in shipping circles the investment in this innovative new technique of joining would later revolutionise the way ships were constructed. Fullagar therefore represents a bold new chapter in maritime engineering and it is for this reason that she is proudly admitted to our 'First and Famous' list.

[1]The Shipwright's Trade, Sir Westcott Abell, pg. 181 

[2]The Royal Navy, 1930-2000: Innovation & Defence, ed. Richard Harding, pg. 91-92 

[3]Popular Mechanics, Volume 35, No. 5, May 1921, 747

[4]The History of the Ship; The Comprehensive Story of Seafaring from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Richard Woodman, pg. 366 

[5]The Royal Navy, 1930-2000: Innovation & Defence, ed. Richard Harding, pg. 90 

[6]Lloyd's Register 250 Years of Service, Nigel Watson, Managing Editor Barbara Jones, pg. 128 

[7]Shipwright's Trade, Sir Westcott Abell, pg. 180 

[8]Lloyd's Register 250 Years of Service, Nigel Watson, Managing Editor Barbara Jones, pg. 129 

[9]Lloyd's Register 250 Years of Service, Nigel Watson, Managing Editor Barbara Jones, pg. 129 

[10]Shipwright's Trade, Sir Westcott Abell, pg. 180-181 

[11]The History of the Ship; The Comprehensive Story of Seafaring from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Richard Woodman, pg. 366 

[12]Shipwright's Trade, Sir Westcott Abell, pg. 181 

[13]The Royal Navy, 1930-2000: Innovation & Defence, ed. Richard Harding, pg.91 

[14]The Economics of Shipbuilding in the United Kingdom, J. R. Parkinson, pg. 112-113