Ships of Note: The Swinging Saloon

Cross section of a paddlesteamer. What looks like a Victorian dance hall is perfectly horizontal within whilst the ship is pitched at a crazy angle.

Oasis suggested that you gotta roll with it. Not if Sir Henry Bessemer had anything to do with it…

Explain yourself.

I’ve had a great idea.

Have you?


Come on, out with it then.

This here is Sir Henry Bessemer’s Swinging Saloon, and it promises to eliminate the prospect of sea sickness.

And did it?

Also no.

Right. So how did it not work then?

The idea was that the passenger saloon could be kept horizontal by a crew member squinting at a spirit level and frantically yanking hydraulic levers in response. The good intention was to create a simple way to counteract the rolling motion of the vessel. The paving on the road to hell being well established by now, it instead turned out to be a complicated way of making the rolling motion worse.

So instead of keeping everyone comfortable, it actually increased the chances of them throwing up everywhere?

It never got that far.


You’ll notice that the SS Bessemer there is a paddle steamer?

I think I can see where this is going.

The helmsman certainly couldn’t. With the four paddlewheels being yanked out of the water at random intervals, directional control was achieved strictly through the law of averages. You might notice this isn’t in the COLREGs.

Hang on, four paddlewheels? Why?

Apparently it was thought impossible to have too much of a good thing. This was not a good thought.

By this point I wasn’t expecting one. Naturally it survived for years?

Nope. After a briefly exciting career lurching into maritime architecture the length and breadth of the English Channel whilst the concept was tested, the Saloon Ship Company went bust. Bessemer converted the saloon into a billiard room at his mansion in Surrey.

With the swinging mechanism in place?

Fortunately not. Apparently even Bessemer had seen enough of the mechanism going balls up.

The details:

Launched: 1874

Completed: 1875

Retired: 1875 and a bit

Current status: The ship itself was scrapped and the swinging saloon was later blown up by the Germans. A few panels still exist, and can be seen in the National Maritime Museum. I’m hoping they’ve honoured Bessemer’s memory by hanging them at an angle.

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7 thoughts on “Ships of Note: The Swinging Saloon

  1. “unsupervised boffins” is now my favourite tag and I will have to return with frequency if only to see what further havoc they’ve caused now…

  2. The aeronautical concept of “chasing the needles” probably entered play.

    1. Yeah, that was a huge part of it. Apparently it worked great when they tested it on the lawn though.

      And no, that’s not a joke – they really did test the concept mocked up on somebody’s lawn.

      1. How did they simulate the rocking? Or did they just wait for a passing earthquake?

  3. It occurs, with even cursory thought, that this, even if it had worked, was only going to deal with roll, and as someone who has from time to time suffered from a bit of the old sea sickness, I’d say pitch is, if anything, the main culprit.

    Mindyou, it works ok for the stove in the galley.

  4. The picture is making me a bit queasy so I can only imagine how bad actually being on board was. 🥴

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