Friday, 22 July 2011

Winds of change: From the Titanic to turbines

On a recent short break to Belfast, I was fascinated to visit the famous ship building docks of the city that in their heyday rang to the sound of over 30,000 workers labouring to create some of the most technologically advanced and luxurious ships the world had seen.1

One of the most prestigious shipbuilding names to come out of Belfast, is Harland and Wolff, founded in 1861 the company quickly became the largest and most progressive shipbuilders in the city. In the early twentieth century they were commissioned by White Star Line to build the record breaking Olympic class liners; Olympic, Titanic and Britannia. Often overshadowed by her more famous sister it is perhaps RMS Olympic who went on to have the more fascinating career- surviving a collision months after her launch, a mutiny over lifeboat provision in 1912, and ramming & sinking a German U-boat whilst serving under the admiralty in WWI.

Knocking off at H&W, with the incomplete Titanic looming in the background.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Throughout WWII and beyond Harland and Wolff continued to establish their reputation as progressive, forward thinking engineers. Shifting the emphasis of their operations in the second half of the century away from traditional shipbuilding to new growth areas such as offshore oil and gas operations. Their gargantuan gantry cranes Samson and Goliath, built in 1974 and 1969 respectively, tower over Belfast a testament to H&W- constructed at a time when the UK shipbuilding industry was in near terminal decline.

The colossal Samson and Goliath gantry cranes
Source: Wikimedia Commons

With this rich record of visionary engineering and progressive leadership in Harland and Wolff's locker it shouldn't have surprised me when I was clambering to get as close as possible to Belfast's guardian cranes to see the sight captured below. In a probable reaction to the confused look on my face, my girlfriend commented, "maybe they're ship propellers?"
- "no way José I retorted"- as a bit of a geek I knew that these were indeed wind turbine propellers.

The cranes on my visit, with parts of a wind turbine circled
Source: Authors own ©.

That evening back at the hotel I took advantage of the free wi-fi (about the only free thing at our budget chain lodge of travel) and sure enough discovered that H&W were now fully embracing the renewable revolution occurring off the shores of Western Europe. It makes sense. Their machinery, engineering expertise, and building capacity developed initially for shipbuilding, then tweaked to the demands of offshore oil and gas projects are perfectly suited to the construction of offshore wind-farms.

In fact about 75% of Harland and Wolff's business is now offshore renewable based, and it seems the shipbuilding leviathan's change in direction wont be a lonely one with household multinationals such as Mitsubishi and Siemens entering the offshore renewable arena.

It seems that the innovative nature first imbued in the company by its founders (Edward Harland was the first shipbuilder to make an upper deck of iron rather than wood) is alive and well. Long may the wind fuel the sales of those companies who dare to innovate and progress.

1 - see or for an overview of the shipping heritage of Belfast


  1. Maybe the bbc science and environment correspondent reads this blog?

    This article is all about how H&W construct a turbine at sea:

    Although it has flashier graphics than my humble blog!

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