Before 1600, most shipwrights served long apprenticeships. They were learning a remarkably complicated technology that was passed orally to each succeeding generation and kept carefully protected from the competition. Time was needed to master the depth of knowledge and skills especially as the ships were constructed with very few straight timbers. In the late 17th century this was changing as the parameters and proportions used in shipbuilding were written down, and mathematics was used to define the design.
Matthew Baker (1530-1613) was appointed the first Royal Shipwright by Queen Elizabeth I in 1572 and spent many years compiling his seminal work in this area: Fragments of Ancient Shipwrightery. As suggested by the name, this manuscript was a collection of pages and notes rather than a finished publication. Baker was a leader in the effort to define ship design as a repeatable activity using mathematics. He created a single diagram to show the proportions and scale of a ship. From this, the size of all components can be derived.
This design by John Bradford shows the proportions of Virginia in the style of Matthew Baker. It depicts Virginia’s hull profile with all her rising lines and pricking points. This diagram also shows the shape and proportions of the mid-ship bends and three additional key frames. All other frames can be derived using the half-section top view. This is the forerunner of the modern and far more detailed lines drawing. If the historic Virginia ever had a design document, it most likely looked more like the drawing below.
This being the plan for Maine’s First Ship – the pinnace Virgina. Launched at the entry of the famous river of Sagadahoc in the year of our Lord 1608
A page from Fragments of Ancient Shipwrightery by Matthew Baker. This ship is about 90 feet in length and proportionately narrower than Virginia.