Two flue irons have been used for taking whales and large fish for more than a thousand years. The seal of the Basque town of Biarritz in 1351 shows a whaling scene in which a harpoon clearly has a two flue head.
This early engraving, 1611, clearly shows the two flue harpoon, also.
From Hans Egede, Beschryving van Oud-Groenland, as re-engraved for "Churchill's Voyages" (1745) and reproduced in George F. Dow, Whale Ships and Whaling: A Pictorial History of Whaling during Three Centuries (Salem, Mass.: Marine Research Society, 1925), p.60.
The two fue design was described by Frederic Marten, writing of a voyage in 1671 as follows:
It is shaped like an arrow before: it hath two sharp beards, they are sharp at the edge, and have a broad back, like unto a hatchet that is sharp before and blunt behind, or on the back, so that it may not cut with its back, for else it would tear out, and all your labour would be lost.
Early colonial American harpoons were used to fasten a "drug" to the whale to slow and tire it. The drug, or drogue, was either a block of wood about two feet square, or crossed planks, or some other type of float fastened to the iron by a short warp not over seventy-five fathoms in length. Sometimes harpoons attached to drugs were called log harpoons. The early irons had a smaller head than the later irons because they had to withstand only the force necessary to pull the drug through thewater, not the force of a heavy whaleboat. The shafts of these early irons ended in a shoulder with a small spike at the base, rather than the familiar socket, which was used to fasten the iron to a pole.
By the mid-1700's the use of drugs was largely abandoned in favor of fastening the whaleboat to the whale by means of a "tow iron." In his book The Yankee Whaler, Clifford W. Ashley states that this change took place between 1761 and 1782. This was a major change, and understandably caused concern among whalemen. An interesting account of the introduction of the tow iron was related by Thomas Beale in The Natural History of the Sperm Whale in 1839:
An American whaler, who had been bred from his boyhood in the service informed me that his grand-father had been employed on a whaling expedition in a small vessel off the coast of America, and that, having experienced a great deal of ill success in consequence of their being unable to capture any whales by means of the log harpoon, the captain of their little barque wished them to make trial of the method of which they had just heard, by the boat and line; but to his irresolute seamen the idea seemed monstrous; the mere thought of having the boat they were in attached to an infuriated leviathan by a strong rope struck terror among the whole crew. "What," said they, "shall we he dragged to the bottom of the sea? Shall we be towed with the velocity of lightening to the other side of the world? Shall we be torn to pieces by the jaws of the monstrous fish that we may he fastened to?" In vain did their captain explain to them the various means they could employ to avoid those anticipated dangers; he urged their reason to note the excellence of the plan, but his eloquence proved of no avail; so fearful were they of this dangerous innovation on their old method, that the very rope which the captain had prepared for the service was pointed through the ship's stern during the night, and allowed to run overboard. But nevertheless, others more daring undertook the trial soon afterward, in which they frequently came off victorious, so that the new method was established among them, and has since been much improved.
Back to top of page Typical British two flue iron with stop withers
British two flue harpoons (and other British irons) are seen with stop withers, or reverse barbs, sometimes called beards, at the flue tips. This addition appeared sometime in the mid-eighteenth century. The action of these stop withers was explained by Captain William Scoresby in 1820 in, An Account of the Arctic Regions, vol II, p.224:
When the harpoon is forced by a blow into the fat of the whale, and the line is held tight, the principal withers seize the strong ligamentous fibres of the blubber, and prevent it from being withdrawn; and in the event of its being pulled out, so far as to remain entangled by one wither only, which is frequently the case, then the little reversed barb, or "stop wither" as it is called, collecting a number of the same reticulated sinewy fibres, which are very numerous near the skin, prevents the harpoon from being shaken out by the ordinary motions of the whale.
The stop withers were used on some New England harpoons, but rarely. A bill from a New Bedford blacksmith, Nathan Taber, for whaleship William Rotch in 1822 lists:
32 harpoons @ 90ct, $28.80 - 18 bearded ditto @ 1.20, $21.60 .. 50.40
It was apparently more difficult, and therefore more expensive, to make the harpoons with stop withers. Two types of stop withers are seen - acute and obtuse. The sketch illustrates the difference. Obtuse stop withers could not be as effective as acute, and were probably a later version.
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William Carsley Iron
The earliest United States patent for a harpoon of which there is a record was granted to William Carsley, a New Bedford blacksmith, in 1841. There was a problem with the two flue irons; they would pull out too easily. There are a few possibilities for this (discussed under single flue irons), but it was thought that the problem was the fact that the entry wound and the size of the harpoon head were the same. This meant that the iron could pull back out through the entry cut it made.
William Carsley patented a variation to the two-flue harpoon such that the head did not align directly with the entry wound after it was darted (reference US Patent No. 2195, July 29, 1841). His invention simply consisted of offsetting the flues slightly in opposite directions. This would theoretically cause the iron to twist in a spiral during entry, so it would not be aligned with the cut it made. Carsley stated in his patent that this feature could be made on two-flue or single-flue irons. In actuality, this twisting motion did not happen. Blubber was soft enough to move out of the way of the slightly offset flue tips, and there was too much mass of the harpoon to force into a spiral motion. The Carsley iron was not successful, and there were not many made.
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Charles F. Brown Harpoon Patent Drawing for Charles F. Brown Harpoon
Another invention that utilized the twisted-flue concept was patented by Charles F. Brown of Warren,, Rhode Island, in 1850 (reference US Patent No. 7,610, Sept. 3, 1850). The patented feature did not include the twisted flues but only the method of attaching and securing the line by means of an arrangement which eliminated knots and splicing. This was accomplished by use of a sliding ring on the shank of the iron arid a rounded, blunt front end of the socket. The ring was too small to pass over the socket. The end of a line was passed from the rear through the ring, then bent around the shank in front of the ring, and finally passed back through the ring to the rear. When the line was pulled tight, the ring was brought to bear against the rounded end of the socket, pinching the line between to secure it. Brown stated in his patent specifications that the harpoon head "may be made of wrought-iron steeled at the cutting-edge, or of cast-iron chilled." The head was designed with a chisel-shaped cutting edge.
The straight parallel sides of the head were not cutting edges, and they terminated at the rear as rounded sides to the flue tips. The two flue tips were inclined in opposite directions to cause a rotating action in the same manner as the 1841 Carsley iron. Again, the twisted flues were not claimed in the patent.
Another feature of the Brown harpoon was a wrought-iron pole rather than an ordinary wood pole. It was described as screwing into the base of the socket at the forward end and having a large knob at the butt for a handhold. A swinging link, or loop, through which the whale line passed freely, was fastened near the middle of the pole. This link was to keep the line in position along the pole for darting. I have not been able to locate an example of this harpoon.
Back to top of page Holmes and West Harpoon
In 1846 John Holmes and Abner West both of Tisbury, Massachusetts, invented another type of hand darted, two-flued harpoon (reference US Patent No. 4,865, Nov. 24, 1846). This iron consisted of a stationary two-flued head and a separate part, consisting of two barbs nested at the rear of the stationary flues. This rear part was free to rotate about the axis of the harpoon shank. It was held in alignment with the stationary head for darting by a small wedge or grommet and, once darted and in place in the whale, it rotated solely through the whale's motions. The rotation of the rear part was nor limited. This action was to result in four barbs rather than two to prevent withdrawal.
The patent claims for Holmes and West's iron covered this two-part construction of the head and also a multiple-rod shank that used a bundle of small diameter, solid rods rather than the common single rod shaft, in order to provide greater flexibility and reduce shaft breakage.
A newspaper article of 1844 stated optimistically about the new invention:
"John Holmes, Esq. at Holmes Hole, Marthas' Vinyard has invented a whale Iron which promises shortly to supercede those now in general use,''
Patent drawing for Holmes and West Harpoon
-a promise that was never fulfilled. One possible drawback was the flexible shaft; it may have been so flexible that it bent when the iron was entering the whale. Also, with no positive means to cause rotation of the rear barbs, they may not have rotated at all. A later patent by Meyhew Adams in 1863 did address this.
Back to top of page Meyhew Adams Harpoon Photograph courtesy of History of Technology Division, NMAH, Smithsonian Institution.
A hand-darted harpoon that used a second part of the head rotating similar to the Holmes and West design (see above) was patented by Meyhew Adams of Chilmark, MA in 1863, 17 years after the Holmes and West design (reference U.S. Patent No. 38,207, April 21, 1863). The rear portion of the Adams two-flued head was free to rotate about the axis of the harpoon shank, but internal ramps, or steep screw threads, engaged corresponding parts at the rear of the stationary part of the head. This caused a positive rotation when tension was applied to the shaft after the iron had penetrated the whale's flesh. It also limited the rotation to ninety degrees so that the two parts were crossed at right angles to each other. A small wood shear pin held the two parts of the head in alignment for darting.
U.S. patent drawing for Meyhew Adams harpoon
The patent claim for this iron claims: "The application to the harpoon of a semi-revolving head resting upon segments of screws or angular pivots, causing the harpoon to turn at right angles with the semi-revolving head when fast to a whale and a strain set upon it, and then to remain fixed or coupled together."
There were several other variations to the harpoon in an effort to prevent it from pulling out too easily. A basic modification to the standard two flue iron was the single flue iron.
©: 2000 - 2008Thomas G. Lytle . All rights reserved
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