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A. J. Bell's 1874 patent model

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A. J. Bell's 1874 patent model
Smithsonian Institution, Photo by Richard Strauss, Negative #: 2006-9715


This object appears in the following sections:

Marine Patent Models — Complete Catalog: 1870-1875

Marine Patent Models — Who's Inventing?

Marine Patent Models — Life boats and rafts

A. J. Bell's 1874 patent model
A. J. Bell's 1874 patent model

Patent drawing for A. J. Bell's ship-construction method
Patent drawing for A. J. Bell's ship-construction method

A. J. Bell's 1874 patent model
A. J. Bell's 1874 patent model

A. J. Bell's 1874 patent model
A. J. Bell's 1874 patent model

Patent model for a ship-construction method
Catalog #: 1979.1029.01, Accession #: 1979.1029
In collection
From the Smithsonian Collection

This patent model demonstrates A. John Bell's method of constructing ships in detachable parts. In a vessel built after Bell's principle, the upper deck and a portion of any lower decks would float free if the main hull were sunk in some calamity. Bell also devised a sectional mast that could easily be cleared away in an emergency, to prevent it becoming an obstruction to the smooth separation of the decks; the mast is missing in the model.

Physical Description

The model of Bell's ship construction method is made of tin. The upper deck, complete with bulwarks and deckhouse, are removable to reveal an interior deck. The middle third of this inner deck, shaped as a highly flattened airtight box, is also removable. The upper and lower decks are pierced by corresponding holes where the model's mast, now missing, once ran. The model is painted white with blue upper works; the paint is probably a mid-20th century application. The model measures 12 in. L x 5 1/4 in. H x 4 1/4 in. W.

Date Made:
Museum purchase

A. John Bell of Ashland, Kentucky, devised his improvement in the construction of ships "to furnish a safe and reliable means for saving life in case of shipwreck by collision or other accidents." He specified that the upper deck of a vessel be constructed with high bulwarks (side walls) and, optionally, a watertight double bottom. It would be attached to the hull "by any suitable fastening devices, of such construction that they cannot come accidentally undone." These vague fastenings would be released during an emergency "so that when the hull sinks the deck will float upon the water, carrying the passengers and crew with it, and thus saving their lives." Similarly, a section of one or more lower decks would be constructed as a watertight tank, which too could float away once the upper deck was clear.

Bell believed his invention "applicable to all steamers and sailing vessels, both on the ocean as well as on inland lakes and rivers." This universality no doubt contributed to the almost toy-like, generic form of his patent model. Ignoring the dangers of exposure, hunger, and heavy seas that often attended the use of lifeboats, Bell claimed that the "advantage of this invention lies in the almost absolute certainty of saving the lives of all on board the vessel, by having such a large part thereof prevented from sinking when the hull goes down."


A. John Bell, Construction of Ships, U.S. patent no. 148,655, Mar. 17, 1874.

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