With experience, complex technology is second nature whether in 1805 or 2012

I was staring at a sailing ship wondering how a person could figure out how to control all the lines to set the sails at the correct angle to power the ship. From my non-sailor perspective, it looks incredibly complicated.  How could you keep track of which rope does what and change it correctly to get the sail to do what you want.

While vacationing in San Diego, I enjoy touring the Maritime Museum. In addition to seeing a Soviet era submarine, it’s fun seeing the Star of India sailing ship and the replica H.M.S. Surprise, which appeared in the movie Masters and Commanders – the far side of the world.

While in San Diego last week, I pondered how to sail a large ship.

I’m amazed at the complexity of the controls for the sails. By my landlubber count of several photographs I checked after leaving San Diego, there are 10 main sails and at least 8 additional, triangular sails on the Star of India.

Each of the main sails has at least 4 lines from the deck to the sail. The additional sails have one or two lines. That means there must be at least 50 ropes and probably 10 or 20 more than that. All of them are tied off at the mid-section of the deck with a few inches between each one.  That’s a lot of ropes in a small distance.  Once you get above the deck, most of the ropes have pulleys. That is a lot of rope to rig and maintain.

After you figure which rope to adjust for which sail (and someone else on the rope on the opposite side of the ship to control the other side of whatever you are changing), you have to learn how to adjust each sail to optimally capture the wind for the direction you want to go.

And then you need to figure out how to fire the cannon to hit what you want at a great distance. From really cramped quarters. While the boat is rolling on the waves.

It is amazing to me that naval ships could ever get positioned near each other, pointed the right way to bring the guns to bear, and hit anything.

(Can you sailing guys and gals hold down the laughter? I get planes. I admire ships but don’t understand them.)

Obviously there have been huge numbers of sailors spanning many generations who figured that out. For them, it was second nature.

Then I had my aha! moment.

While complex and confusing to me, it was state of the art technology in the 1700s and 1800s.  If you studied the rigging and learned your trade, after years of experience it became second nature.

Just like today.

I can take one Excel workbook, create many spreadsheets within it, and put most of the work to document an audit in an electronic document. Ir never exists on paper. And I understand it. And make sure it is complete. And I make sure it fully documents my work and my audit conclusion.

Yet other people would look at the spreadsheet and wonder how I did it. Others would look at the audit work and wonder how that fits together to support an audit conclusion.

But that is all second nature to me.


Just like naval sailors being able to get the sails to do exactly what they want, so ships will go exactly where the captain says, and the crew can fire cannons exactly so.

My technology is second nature to me just like their technology was second nature to them. I suppose with study either of us could figure out the other.

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