5 October 2014

A history of innovation and imagination

Within days of the National Institution for the Preservation of Life From Shipwreck* forming, a Committee of Invention was established. Its purpose? To explore innovations in boat design and decide where money would best be spent on new developments to save more lives at sea.

Ever since, RNLI staff and volunteers have been coming up with new ideas, as well as keeping a finger on the pulse of developments in the wider maritime world.

Whether it was enthusiastic amateurs designing unsinkable lifeboat catamarans, or devising improvements to a new RNLI-endorsed compass during a solo sailing trip, the crowd has informed many leaps forward in search and rescue technology and techniques.

What follows isn’t exhaustive, comprehensive, or impartial: it's just a selection of some of our more innovative and imaginative moments.

*RNLI to you and me. OK, it took us 30 years to come up with a nattier name.

Safety and rescue kit

As well as constantly improving the kit available to our crews, the pages of early editions of The Life-boat Journal were full of recommendations of the latest gadgetry for its seagoing readership. Discount prices would often be negotiated to encourage ships’ companies to stock safety and rescue equipment.


From street collections to cryptocurrency, the ways we've raised money to save lives have been as inventive as the lifeboats themselves.

'Many inventions': Lifeboat design and fit-out

‘Many Inventions’, a somewhat exasperated article in Journal states that ‘a list of the strange devices which have been brought before the notice of the Life-boat Institution would fill a good-sized volume’. It then notes several ‘freak lifeboat’ designs submitted, in a bid to deter would-be inventors from adding to the growing number of well-meaning but overambitious solutions.

Ultimately, many of the innovations added to lifeboats weren’t new in themselves – it was making their purpose fit for the unique and gruelling demands of saving lives at sea that often stalled their introduction to lifeboating.

Bums on seats

Early rowing and sailing lifeboats provided little more than a wooden bench for the crew. Tough on the body, yes, but these crews weren’t zipping along at 40 knots. Today, providing a seat that reduces the impact on the body of speeding to the rescue is more important than ever.

But there’s not much point in designing a silky smooth seating experience if tasks keep pulling you from your perch in rough weather. It’s a bit like sending your child out over the bonnet to towel down your windscreen as you pelt along the motorway. Unnecessary if you’ve got your wipers easily reachable on the dashboard.

And finally ...

A hungry inspector gets his priorities right while on passage to Rosslare Harbour.

Whatever next?

It’s fitting to end with the Life-boat Journal’s comments on the 1885 Exhibition of Inventions, after the RNLI’s existing lifeboat design was judged superior to newly designed hulls:

'There is the attendant danger in being always first, of being lulled into a sense of security, and consequent loss of readiness to go on improving from time to time. We think the two models now exhibited will show that this misfortune has not yet fallen on this Institution whatever the future may have in store.'

Translation: We won’t be resting on our laurels any time soon.

Today, the modern day version of the Committee of Invention is an open forum where staff and volunteers can share innovation successes and new problems. The collective creativity of our charity has tackled problems as diverse as excess pallet packaging and cheap communications devices for kayakers.

The playful, brainstorm style is not to be sniffed at. Sometimes coming up with an idea contrary to the laws of physics, good taste or financial responsibility illuminates the way to something more practical. Below is one tongue-in-cheek idea for how to remind inshore lifeboat crews to stow their mast safely before entering a boathouse. Strapping a cute and noisy puppy to a lifeboat’s mast might not be the most humane way to protect that mast. But turn that puppy into a parking sensor and we may be in business.

Off the wall: A suggestion to ensure masts aren’t damaged when rehousing inshore lifeboats
Off the wall: A suggestion to ensure masts aren’t damaged when rehousing inshore lifeboats

We're kind to dogs, really.