Monday, February 9, 2009

February 10th is Plimsoll Day!

So, what's a Plimsoll? I had the same question, so I looked it up, and found far more than I bargained for. First of all, I was asking the wrong question, initially. Plimsoll isn't a what. He's a who. Or at least he was a who, back in the 1800's. (Not the Seussian variety Who - upper case. Just the part of speech variety who - lower case.) He looked like this: 

Plimsoll Day is set aside to remember Samuel Plimsoll, a member of the English Parliament back in the day who championed sailors' safety while traveling the world's waterways in crammed-full ships. He was instrumental in the amendment of Britain's Merchant Shipping Act, which came about in response to the then-national problem of dangerously overloaded ships. Plimsoll's bill, dubbed the Unseaworthy Ships Bill, passed in 1876, and required that a mark be present on a ship's hull to indicate the waterline at which maximum cargo capacity was reached for the vessel.

Ah, but politics is a wily profession, is it not? For the law merely required that said line - which came to be known as the Plimsoll Line, or the Plimsoll Mark, - be painted on the boat. It did not say the line had to be an accurate representation of the safe waterline position for the ship's cargo load. That little stipulation didn't make it's way into law until 1894.

Today, the Plimsoll Line is universally recognized, and is actually several lines - each one indicating the safe waterline mark in relation to both cargo type and water type (salinity, temperature, ocean region, and season):

Now, back to my initial question: What's a Plimsoll? It's a shoe with a canvas upper and a rubber sole. Modern Plimsoll shoes - aka sneakers - look similar to this:

But which came first: the sneaker or the man? Hmmm. You tell me. See, the sneaker in question was originally called a "sand shoe," invented for beachwear by the Liverpool Rubber Company in the 1830's. It wasn't until sometime after the Plimsoll Line was created in 1876 that the distinctive footwear came to be known as a Plimsoll Shoe (since the rubber band between the upper part of the shoe and its sole resembled the Plimsoll Line on a ship's hull). So one could logically conclude that the shoe came first. But, add to the mix that Samuel Plimsoll was born in 1824, which predates both the shoe and the legislation, and you're back to the whole chicken vs. egg conundrum all over again. 

Well. I learned something today. How about you?