Cruise Holidays, Quantified

We’ve just submitted a paper for ‘Contemporary Perspectives in Tourism and Hospitality Research: Policy, Practice and Performance’. In this I’m teamed up with co-worker and tourism professional Christine for our second study of the cruise industry. In our first paper, we looked mainly at the effects upon a host community in the early stages of its development as a tourist destination. This time, though, we went straight for what Leslie [2012] called the Achilles heel of responsible tourism: transport. Leslie argued that the vast majority of a typical holiday’s contribution to climate change is likely to come from this.

If that’s considered true for most holidays, imagine how much greater the emissions are when your ‘hotel’ not only accommodates you and provides you with entertainment, but also moves from place to place. Moving a hundred thousand tonnes of ‘hotel’ is never going to be easy, even when it floats… and it turns out to be a particularly messy business.

Comparison between Boeing 747, Allure of the Seas, and the Eiffel Tower

Yes, cruise ships are big. The largest, Oasis-class ships consist of approximately 100,000 tonnes of metal.

Cruise ships typically use Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) – also known as bunker fuel. It’s a wise choice when you have to figure your fuel consumption by the tonne, because it’s cheap: when fuels are distilled from crude oil, yielding valuable products such as propane and gasoline, HFO is the residual sludge that’s left over. It has to be heated with steam just to get it to flow along a fuel line, and it’s nasty stuff in terms of the particulates and sulphur that are released when it is burnt. Our primary interest was in the climate change potential, though: we’ll worry about acid rain and carcinogens another time.

Sample of Heavy Fuel Oil

Heavy Fuel Oil: at room temperature it‘s more like grease. [photo: ‘Glasbruch2007’]

It was actually quite hard to ignore all the ‘other’ things that are reported about the cruise industry, like the dumping of sewage with little or no treatment, and other substances as well such as chemicals from on-board photo processing, dry cleaning and printing. In 1998-99, Royal Caribbean paid out millions in penalties following US Coast Guard surveillance showing the Sovereign of the Seas (then the largest cruise ship in the world) discharging oil en-route to San Juan. An investigation revealed the installation of a secret bypass pipe that discharged waste oil – with a similar device in use on every Royal Caribbean cruise ship [US Department of Justice, 1999].

In a single paper of less than five thousand words, we had to concentrate on just climate change, though. DEFRA [2012] quotes a figure of 3766.5 kg CO2e emitted per tonne for HFO consumption. (This is what would normally be called “well-to-wheel” analysis, looking at the greenhouse gases released by obtaining, refining, transporting and then burning HFO. The ‘e’ denotes carbon dioxide equivalency when assessing a mixture of greenhouse gases.) The exact fuel consumption will vary, depending on the ship and its itinerary, but 130 tonnes per day is a good starting point… which equates to 489,645 kg CO2e emitted per day – just for moving the boat and providing electrical power for services such as air conditioning. We went further, with a full life cycle analysis taking into account not just fuel usage but the provision of food and drink, excursions, travel to and from the port of embarkation and so on. Another thing that has to be ‘paid for’ is the ship itself: its footprint is affected by the materials used in construction, the number of cruises it will make during its life, and its likely fate. Only when all these things are known can we have a full picture of the contribution to climate change that is made by a cruise holiday.

Full details will have to wait until the proceedings of the conference are published (assuming our paper is accepted by the reviewers) but for now, if anybody is reading who cares about the environment but it also interested in taking a cruise holiday, the abridged version of the study is…




DEFRA (2012) 2012 Greenhouse Gas Conversion Factors for Company Reporting, available from:

Leslie, D. (2012) Responsible Tourism: Concepts, Theory and Practice, Wallingford: CABI

US Department of Justice (1999) Royal Caribbean to pay record $18 million criminal fine for dumping oil and hazardous chemicals, making false statements, available from:


Running on sun… by proxy?

On several occasions, I’ve visited businesses that are known for their sustainability work, and I’ve seen that they don’t have all the ‘eco’ features that you might expect. Why don’t they have solar panels? A rainwater collection system? Light pipes? (There are quite a lot of other architectural improvements I might list.) The reason they can’t have these things is often because they’re working out of rented premises, and this means they can’t put in all the equipment that they might otherwise have done.

Some ‘eco’ businesses choose to buy their energy on a tariff that promises renewable generation, in an effort to regain some of the lost ground. That reduces the damage to their ‘green’ image a little, but… what if you could have solar panels by proxy? Who says a solar panel has to be on the roof of your building, just because you funded its installation? Energy is just a commodity, readily fed into the grid and then used wherever it’s needed. Money – the return on your solar investment – is even more readily stored and transmitted.

Understand this: the big ‘sustainability crunch’ of the early 21st century is going to be all about energy. We’re facing a crisis because a succession of UK governments have failed to face up to difficult, long-term questions. Issues such as energy security (what to do if that nice Mr Putin decides to cut gas supplies next winter) and climate change (the extent to which we can afford to disregard our Kyoto Protocol obligations) have to vie with popularity (few people vote for the party that puts a nuclear power station in their neighbourhood) and simple economics.

Renewable energy is interesting to some, although in many cases the payback period is formidable. It’ll be interesting to see if investment in renewables harms liquidity in the years to come, but even if a person or business has money to spend and is entirely happy for it to be tied up for decades, not everyone can join in the ‘dash’ for renewables.

Piggy bank, and solar panels

Solar energy: money for nothing, or the longest of long-haul investments?

Would I want to have an array of solar panels on the roof of my home in rainy Yorkshire, looking desperately out of place on a 200-year-old building? Not really – and since it doesn’t have a south-facing roof, its energy-generating potential is somewhat limited. Despite all this, the investor in me is attracted to the idea of putting my money into a renewable energy scheme.

Enter CloudSolar, slogan: “No roof? No problem.” Given the negative effect that cloud cover has upon solar generation, the name is obviously one of those immune to irony things, but the basic premise is intriguing: just because you want to buy a solar panel, why should you have to find a place for it? Instead, buy a micro-share in a solar farm and have them take care of siting and maintaining it.

Solar panels on a home

Environmentally sound. Aesthetically… not so good!

CloudSolar take a 20% cut for what they do, and they plan to send you a payment (the other 80% of the money received for the sale of ‘your’ electricity) every three months for twenty-five years.

Each panel, rated at 250 watts, is priced at US$750. (Is that good? A quick search suggests that a branded 250W panel currently goes for about £207/$325 on the Internet, but that’s for the panel itself, without the associated equipment, the installation, or the place to put it.) For those with a different amount to invest, CloudSolar offer discounts on multiple panels, and half- and quarter-sized ones are also available. A key feature of the deal is that you own the panels that you buy; if circumstances change, it seems you can claim your property back. Meanwhile, the panels are guaranteed for twenty-five years, after which they can remain in place as long as they function. That 20% fee also covers them against theft, and damage.

This could be huge. Even if people only manage to invest a small amount, a sufficient number of citizens could put a big hole in carbon emissions from electricity generation. If CloudSolar are right in their claim that over 25 years, one of their panels will deliver enough electricity to run an average household for seven months, that means you’d need 43 of the things in order to operate a carbon neutral home. (In simplistic terms, not including however many more you’d need to offset the carbon from the manufacture, installation and servicing of your share of the solar farm…) Still, it’s a start; and 43 CloudSolar panels would only cost you $32,250… which isn’t much money, compared to the price of a house nowadays. (The average UK house price is around £192,000, which is $303,000.) Best of all, they’re not just asking people to give up all that money in order to be ‘green’; they’re inviting them to make an investment that pays real dividends.

CloudSolar promotional information

CloudSolar don’t guarantee a return on investment, but their business model is refreshingly different [image: CloudSolar]

The technology is nothing new, but the business model is intriguing – and far better than those ‘plant a tree to offset your guilt’ schemes that are just about completely unregulated.

I’m not suggesting that any reader should pursue the CloudSolar option: like any major investment, you ought to speak to your financial advisor before you take the plunge. Might CloudSolar go bust? I have to wonder if they’d prove to be like every double glazing firm I’ve ever done business with; you know, the ones that close down around the time that the warranty claims begin…

Are they offering a reasonable deal? You’d have to get a professional to read the small print. The currently unspecified charges for having CloudSolar remove your panels and ship them to you might come as a nasty surprise; I really couldn’t say. Also, while you’re free to invest in an American solar farm if you want to, you might find that there are financial incentives to a home-grown solar solution: if you’re in the UK you should have a look at the Energy Saving Trust’s information.

A setback for CloudSolar came when crowdfunding service Indiegogo shut down their campaign, refunding over $440,000 to the backers. This was because the CloudSolar campaign breached Indiegogo rules by inviting backers to participate in a profit-sharing scheme… but what had originally been a successful campaign, comfortably exceeding its target, seems likely to resurface. Even if crowdfunding doesn’t offer a route to investment, it’s clear that a lot of people want what they’re offering.

Solar enthusiast homeowners who have a suitable roof might also want to investigate A Shade Greener, whose business model is to fit solar panels entirely free: this means that they benefit from the governmental feed-in tariff, not you… but when you’re in the house you get to use whatever the panels deliver for free – and the rest of the time, the surplus electricity they sell is at least preventing some greenhouse gas emissions.

So many different business models! I suspect that the price of grid electricity can only head upwards for the next couple of decades as the older nuclear and perhaps coal plants get decommissioned; running on sun (one way or another) is looking increasingly attractive, and it’s becoming easier to do, at last.

Nominated for a WHAT?

Something a little bit different today: it seems a fellow blogger has nominated Capacify for a Liebster Award. At first, I thought “urgh – some kind of chain letter thing”. It caused me quite a bit of background research, to understand what it meant. (Meredith at Perfection Pending made some good points in her article about why she doesn’t like the Liebster award…)

Upon reflection, I decided to follow the Liebster process: to acknowledge nomination and make recommendations of my own, in turn. The Internet is all about interconnections, and Web 2.0 doesn’t really operate on a basis of scarcity (other than eyeball-share), so why the heck not? It’s really no bad thing that the person upon whom the award in conferred is expected to make multiple nominations in turn. That just cements together the online community. At least, I think so…

Which is a very long-winded way of getting around to saying “thank you” to Tom from The Sustainabilitist (dot org). I always suffer from this gnawing self-doubt… is anybody out there? Are the viewer stats just evidence of an army of search engine indexer-bots? Am I actually getting through to people? So, it’s nice to hear from people. Also, Tom’s message to me meant that I was introduced to The Sustainabilitist, which has been a delight to read. Everybody and their dog has a moral take on sustainability; the philosophical angle is much neglected.

Ten Questions

As part of the Liebster process (which has morphed a little as it’s been passed down from blogger to blogger) Tom gets to ask me a set of ten questions. I’ve reproduced them below, along with my answers…

What is your favorite hobby, and why?

In my experience, hobbies seem to get suspended by parenthood. I work away a lot, so time at home is family time. Thus it usually involves constructing various permutations of Brio railway layout on the living room floor… but I hope to get back into scuba diving at some point in the not-too-distant future. It’s the next best thing to being a spaceman, quite frankly… and space is sterile; the seas and oceans are full of interesting things!

What is your favourite ingredient for cooking, and how do you enjoy using it most?

Don’t laugh: Quorn chicken-stype pieces. My lifestyle means I often cook for one, and these are a great standby to keep in a small freezer compartment and then fling into a stir fry or something. I’m not a full-time vegetarian, but I like the way these things take on a variety of flavours, and I find them very forgiving of my amateurish culinary efforts.

Who is your favourite author, and why?

I think that would have to be the late Iain Banks. His novels always seemed incredibly real to me.

If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be, and why?

I’d go back to New Zealand at the drop of a hat. If anybody needs to ask why, they haven’t been there. (Although, maybe we should keep New Zealand a secret: too many visitors would spoil it.)

What is your favourite time of day, and why?

I like the dead of night. It’s a good time for getting things done. (As long as you’re not intending to use power tools, that is.)

What is the name of your all time, favourite, go-to recipe?

A bhuna (medium curry) made with peppers, mushrooms and some of those fake chicken-style pieces, identified above. Lob in anything else you have kicking around the place, such as sweetcorn, left-over roast parsnips… anything! Perhaps this is why it doesn’t have a proper name of its own. But a bhuna with all kinds of things in it. Yeah.

What type of music do you enjoy listening to?

I’m quite partial to a bit of 1970s rock. Robert Calvert, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull. Queen, maybe. Oh – and if we’re in the import business, Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon. Not very fashionable, perhaps… but that bothers me not a bit. I think chart music is the pits – but then, the charts were never meant to be for adults.

What is your favourite season, and why?

I think spring. It’s a time of renewal, with tremendous promise. (And in this hemisphere, spring is springing right now, so that’s nice.)

What social movement do you enjoy?

Enjoy – that’s the key word. A social movement should be fun, or at least cool. Too many civil movements are desperately worthy, but seem like something one ought to be doing, rather than something you’re doing because you love it. Perhaps that’s bad for democracy.

Grassroots movements are more important than ever at a time when party politics and elections every 4+ years seem increasingly alien and irrelevant to ordinary people. Get out and protest your single issue – as long as you enjoy doing so.

And… I’ll leave it at that, adroitly (I hope) and shamelessly (for sure) failing to answer the question.

What do you hope people will take away from your blog?

Obviously, the ideal outcome of this project would be for everyone in the world to realise that the best way to solve the problems of the 21st century is to appoint me as benign dictator. Failing that, I hope that the reader might understand the sustainable supply chain more thoroughly and make a better decision as a result of stopping by. That would be nice.

Additionally, I write in an effort to showcase my own work: blogging and tweeting, etc. seems like a good way to draw attention to the academic papers and presentations that I’ve made available.

And finally…

I need to nominate some other bloggers in order to pass on the baton, and in so doing I have to come up with a list of questions for them. I chose to nominate three blogs, as follows:

Green Living 4 Live
A good place to take the pulse of ‘green’ issues and emerging technologies. I’ve learned a lot from here.

Shed Project
Among other things, Allan demonstrates that a private citizen can get the most from alternative and renewable energy sources, and save quite a bit of money in the process. Also, his creativity is centred upon the uniquely British hub of male space: the shed – where every drawer is a man drawer.

My Sustainability Journey
This is a somewhat different one, because it’s written by students. Each of them contributes a reflection on the principles they have been introduced to, and the activities they have worked through. I don’t know if we can persuade Dr. Cosette Armstrong, academic at Oklahoma State University, to join in the Liebster process… but as a sustainability educator myself, I’m finding the blog interesting on two levels.

Here’s the questions that go to my three vict, er, esteemed fellow bloggers:

  1. If one of the quarks in a hadron is pulled away from its neighbours, why will the the colour-force field “snap” into a new quark-antiquark pair? (Okay, I’m kidding… the real question is: what historical period most fascinates you?)
  2. You have a day at liberty in the nearest big city, but you’re on a budget of just about zero. How do you decide to spend the day?
  3. What’s the secret ingredient of the best blogs?
  4. What social convention could we do without?
  5. What unusual or very personal item do you have to take with you on a long journey?
  6. What’s the most useless gadget, gizmo or gewgaw you were ever given?
  7. What’s the best game (any kind) ever?
  8. What do you think of Facebook?
  9. What slightly embarrassing piece of music is a guilty pleasure, concealed somewhere within your collection?
  10. Smart watches: awesome or gruesome?

That’s all folks! Best wishes to my nominees, who are now requested (according to the much-mutated Liebster rules, in the form they reached me) to…

  • Nominate 3 to 10 blogs and tell them that they have been nominated. Each nominee should have under 200 followers (or not have received the award).
  • Curse Thank the person who nominated you, and link back to the nominating blog.
  • Answer at least five of the ten questions, and propose ten for your own nominees.
  • Write a post containing the answers to the questions you were asked.
  • Post the Liebster Award icon to your blog.
  • Include these rules in your nomination to other bloggers.

Ah, yes. I need to post the Liebster icon. I don’t really want to show it on every article (that seems a bit much) so let’s just lob it in here…

Award logo

Got Liebster?

So, yeah, basically, it’s like a virus. One of those that you only pass it on to people you like. Hmm!

A Logistically Challenged Holiday

This isn’t exactly topical, but we ration our son’s chocolate intake, and as a result we’re only now coming to the end of our Easter eggs. Some of the packaging of the very last one is pictured here…

Despicable egg packaging

Despicable photobomb from the chocolate-obsessed one.

In a sense, we saved the best for last, because minions are awesome. Hard-hearted indeed is the person who hasn’t fallen for Gru’s army of fireplug-sized, banana-hued felons… but it seems that their latest caper pits them against the environment.

Any Easter egg is an appallingly inefficient way to supply chocolate: they’re fragile, and the bulk of a hollow egg is far greater than it needs to be, considering the amount of chocolate supplied. Also, they’re… well… egg-shaped. That means they don’t stack properly, so the packaging typically involves an outer layer that is a cuboid. That introduces another lot of fresh air, and a need for some kind of protective spacer to hold an egg-shaped egg in a box-shaped box. For this, vacuum-formed plastic seems to be the solution of choice. This is disappointing because a few years ago plastics seemed to be disappearing from this kind of packaging. Now they’re returning, like a bad sequel.

Easter egg box boasting recyclability

For a time, it seemed that Easter egg boxes were all going biodegradable.

I wrote about the evils of mixed-materials packaging in ‘Meet the Monstrous Hybrid’, and Easter eggs got a mention in ‘What has packaging ever done for us?’ – both back in August 2014.

What packaging does is a key question here. Obviously, chocolate would be much easier to transport and keep fresh if it was moulded into a slab, but we have to bear in mind that an Easter egg is not a chocolate bar. The purpose of the product is not to deliver sugar, milk powder, cocoa butter, cocoa mass, lactose, emulsifier and flavourings in a convenient way: the purpose of an Easter egg is to dress up those ingredients in a way that makes the recipient know that you love them. It’s basically a hug, expressed through the medium of cholesterol.

Small foil-wrapped egg, with its carton in the background

What we need, obviously, is a squarer egg.

People who study logistics might observe that 85mm x 205mm x 240mm is an awful lot of space for a food product of questionable nutritional value, and with a net weight of 55g… but in a sense it doesn’t matter: if the customer is willing to pay a premium that covers the increased cost of transportation and storage, plus the retailer’s increased costs due to shelf space requirements, the product is commercially viable. In effect, the movie tie-in and elaborate shelf presence of this otherwise unbranded Easter egg can be considered to be its advertising budget: the chocolate itself is undifferentiated.

This particular package is made larger, in part, by the presence of a keepsake tin, and that’s a nice touch because it’s the only part of the product that’s likely to outlive the packaging it came in. It was supplied with a collection of magnets… in a cellophane envelope. Inside the tin. Inside the plastic spacer, inside the cardboard box…

Want redundant packaging? Look no further than Bonbon Buddies of Oakdale Business Park, Blackwood, South Wales… although some of the waste shown at appears to be worse.

We really enjoyed playing with the little minion: it’s like Mr Potato Head, only far less disturbing. (Seriously: that toy creeps me out.) It’s a shame that so much waste had to be involved, though.

In fact, it’s more than just a shame: it’s despicable.

Hot Metal

Just imagine that it’s 1880, or thereabouts. Since 1450, printing has been performed in more-or-less the same way: with moveable type based on the principles developed by Johannes Gutenberg. A compositor would take letters and symbols from a type case one by one, and arrange them (upside-down) on a composing stick.

Type case and composing stick

Type case and composing stick [photo: Willi Heidelbach]

Clamp all your letters together, suitably spaced, in a galley, and ink it up to produce a quick proof… then load it into a printing press and away you go (eventually, after care has been taken to ensure quality).

Once printing is complete, somebody has to disassemble the carefully-arranged type and file it away in the relevant type case. There’s a separate case for each typeface: different sizes, bold text, italics, capitals… and each individual letter has to be filed away in the correct pocket. They aren’t labelled. (And God help you if you should ever drop a type case, mixing up its contents…)

Typesetting gets a makeover

It seemed to James O. Clephane that this sequence of activities was an impediment. He was a court reporter in the USA, and he’d been impressed by the development of the typewriter (in 1868) but rapid note-taking didn’t help much if your notes then had to be handed to a compositor for typesetting before printing.

Fortunately, Clephane brought in German-born inventor Ottmar Mergenthaler. His major contribution was the idea that groups of letters could be cast on demand, so as to form a whole line of type in a single piece. It was a short step from “line o’ type” to the name of his machine: Linotype.

For more than four centuries, through the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, the printing press had been the engine-room of the knowledge economy: Mergenthaler supercharged that engine. His machine and its descendants would dominate the industry until the 1960s… and yet, to modern eyes, it’s completely insane.

Linotype machine

Feeling more like an organist than a typesetter, I sit at the controls…

Another Gutenberg?

Linotype begins with a mass of tiny brass dies called matrices, held in a magazine. (Or a number of magazines: one for each typeface.) Each matrix looks a bit like a flattened molar, with a letter formed on its crown. Depress a button on a keyboard and the corresponding matrix drops from the magazine. The machine is powered by a single motor (with a lot of belt drives, and gears), and the newly-arrived letter is borne away to one side, to join its brethren like a collection of trucks in a siding. You can look at the arrangement of matrices, to proof-read the line you are about to commit to print, and doctor the set of letters if you made a typo.

So far, so incredibly complicated… but here comes the crazy part. Once your line of text is complete, you depress a lever and the assembled collection of letters is drawn into a built-in die casting machine. The matrices are clamped in place, forming one side of a mould cavity, and a piston forces molten type metal (an alloy of lead, tin and antimony) into the resulting mould. This produces a ‘slug’ with lettering (in mirror writing, fit for printing) down one side. In just nine seconds, the slug is ejected such that it forms one line in the block of text being set up for printing… and the craziness continues.

The crucible for melting type metal

What workplace isn’t enhanced with a pot of molten metal?

The matrices, those individual letter dies, need to go back into the magazine to be used again. For this, each matrix is lifted up and carried along the distribution bar. Pre-Linotype, the distributor was a print industry specialist who broke up the letters and returned each to the right place in the type case. Thanks to Mergenthaler this task was performed automatically, using a series of binary-coded projections on the ‘roots’ of each ‘tooth’. These ensure that each matrix drops into the correct slot in the magazine, to be used again. This happens automatically, and the Linotype operator is free to continue working in the meantime. The result was no less revolutionary than Gutenberg’s achievement, and the amount of text that could be set in a day increased immediately. Pre-Linotype, no daily newspaper in the world had more than eight pages, but afterward – a functional machine existed by 1886 – the proliferation of the written word was unstoppable.

Add a punched tape reader to drive the selection of letters automatically, and you’ve got a typesetting machine that can be driven remotely, to transcribe articles submitted via telegraph. Move over, steampunk: the truth is stranger than fiction.

Of course, it’s not perfect. For one thing, it’s noisy. It’s also huge, and if the print industry has ever heard of ergonomics, I haven’t seen any sign of it. I actually wonder if the baffling nature of the equipment is the result of generations of print professionals seeking to maintain their specialised status? Best of all, with Linotype there’s always the chance of a mishap known as a squirt, which happens when poorly-fitting matrices allow a jet of molten type metal to spray all over your trouser leg.

Keyboard on the Linotype

Ergonomics? Not so much.

If somebody asked you to come up with a machine to speed the process of typesetting, I very much doubt your first thought would be to centre it around a mass of little recirculating letters and a crucible full of lead and antimony (both toxic materials)… and yet, it works. Eighty-five years before the first microprocessor appeared, people had access to a workable technology for typesetting on the fly. You had to rely on the human being for the spell-check, but other than that, it’s brilliant.

Is it ‘green’?

Can you imagine what the health and safety people would say if the Linotype machine were proposed as a new technology nowadays? From the pot of molten metal to the mass of exposed moving parts, it’s a complete non-starter. Even so, despite the large mass of material embodied in the machine, the precision with which it had to be made, its energy consumption, noise output and so on, I’m not so sure that Linotype should be condemned on sustainability grounds. One of the key things about letterpress printing is that the raised type makes an impression on the paper being printed – and we equate that embossing with a posh job. The classiest wedding invitations, business cards and greetings cards all have something tactile about them… and the only practical, modern way to achieve the same effect (at least, as far as I know) is to use metal plates, selectively etched via lithography. Etching metals with acids is not something to be undertaken lightly, and the resulting sludge byproduct is far more of an environmental hazard than a bit of hot type metal that never needs to leave the print shop.

Linotype slug

My first Linotype slug. The font: Metro Light.

Linotype and its rivals are an anachronism, but the machines that survived being sold for scrap in the 1970s and 80s are finding a new lease of life in boutique print shops, for small, artsy jobs. The specialists who operate them don’t just preserve an interesting piece of our heritage; they use the machines commercially and competitively – sixty or more years after they were made.

Author’s note:

There was a time when a printer underwent a seven-year apprenticeship, whereas we spent just a few hours in that world, so please excuse any poor terminology found in this blog post. Mistakes are my own.

Mrs F. and I were privileged to spend a day with the good people at Prelogram, on a ‘Run the Presses’ day. By coincidence, the architecture print that was being produced during our visit was a picture of the Pantheon, the Roman building that I mentioned last week. It’s a small world…

There’s a lot more that I could write about Urban Cottage Industries and their two brands, Factorylux® industrial lighting and Prelogram® craft print. To a person interested in sustainable manufacture there were some really nice touches – perhaps deserving a post of their own at some point.

Whatever happened to iron?

I recently spent a day working as a blacksmith. It’s the kind of thing I like to do: understanding the origins and basic principles of an industry. (My next such outing, in a few days, will find me operating an old printing press…) I think it’s important that a 21st century citizen should be able to make something, rather than depending on unseen, anonymous factories for everything…

During the induction, amid the safety tips and general advice, one thing that the tutor said surprised me: that we would be working in steel. Not iron? Surely, blacksmithing dates back to the iron age… so why wouldn’t you work in iron?

Too expensive, I was told. Apparently there are one or two people who still pursue authenticity, but this involves such curious practices as dredging up links from old naval anchor chains in order to obtain the required material. Wait… what? Iron is a chemical element, and steel is an alloy. Iron ore is blasted out of the ground in chunks the size of the Albert Hall, in places as diverse as Australia and Sweden. How can iron be harder to come by than steel, the material that’s almost entirely composed of iron?

Nonetheless, I spent the day working in steel. Steel may have been in use more than 3,000 years ago, in East Africa and what is now Turkey, but iron has been around for billions of years, since the earliest days of the solar system… so how does a man-made alloy get to be cheaper and more readily available than the base material?

Forging a steel bar into a point

A first hands-on experience: forging a steel bar into a point.

It’s an interesting supply chain effect: although there’s more work in the production of steel (even the relatively unsophisticated mild steel), there’s not much demand for plain old iron nowadays, and that which is non-standard costs extra. The iron age has been and gone, and now iron is quite hard to come by.

Coke burning in the forge

For fuel, you can’t beat the real thing: industrial coke.

I found the mild steel to be a very forgiving material: when glowing orange-hot it seemed you could batter it from one shape to another with impunity – quite different from my experience turning pots, where the clay becomes ‘tired’ and threatens to collapse if you overwork it. No doubt I still have a great deal to learn about grain structure and tempering, but I’m interested in making the effort.

Blacksmithing tools, and workpiece.

That threatening spike in the first picture ended up being formed into a keyring.

There’s something very satisfying in the low-tech business of forging hot metal into shape. I’m sure it could be done faster, more accurately, cheaper, etc. by a professional or a piece of modern machinery, but sometimes that isn’t the point. Our stuff shouldn’t just be faster, cheaper, better: it should be good for the soul, too. A person should feel a connection with the things they own (beyond the slightly creepy connection that you get by letting an Apple watch share your medical information). In any case, five hours spent swinging a hammer turned out to be far more therapeutic than you might expect.

Norse-inspired dragon coathook

I’m not sure we’re going to display it in the house, but this is the end result of my labours: a Norse-inspired dragon coathook.

Hands-on Heritage: Introduction to Blacksmithing took place at Gayle Mill near Hawes, North Yorkshire. Plenty more information about blacksmithing can be found by visiting instructor Adrian Wood’s website.