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Water vs. wood: Desalination Machines and Shipboard Space, ca. 1695

When the Dutch devised a clever desalination technology in the 1690s, they set out to test its efficacy before equipping all their vessels with the costly copper boilers. After outfitting several dozen ships bound for the East Indies, the inventor, Christiaan Nentwigh, trained a group of operators to run the machines and keep careful records of their productivity. In this talk, I will analyze the challenges that arose during the operation of this “waterwerk” machine. Among the various difficulties, the operators struggled to collect and store sufficient wood to keep the kettle boiling. The mariners’ frustration with these machines – including the material hurdles and unpleasant taste of the treated seawater –  ultimately prevented the widespread adoption of this innovative shipboard machine

Margaret E. Schotte has written a compelling comparative study of navigators in early modern Europe. Sailing School: Navigating Science and Skill, 1550-1800 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019) investigates how early modern sailors developed mathematical and technical expertise in the age of exploration and the print revolution.  Read more.

Simon Schaffer (University of Cambridge) praises Sailing School as a “careful and innovative book… [that] convincingly challenges received models of the transition from practice to print and from experience to theory in early modern Europe.”

“The first truly transnational history of nautical training” and “a brilliant contribution to maritime history and the history of knowledge.” – Karel Davids (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)


“An original, perceptive and scholarly addition to work on the history of navigation and seafaring.” – Richard Dunn (Royal Museums Greenwich)

“This fascinating study traverses with ease between the worlds of print, teaching, and book learning and the worlds of seafaring, navigational practice, and instrumentation. … An outstanding, highly original piece of scholarship, this will be the standard, go-to book for years to come.” – Pamela O. Long (Independent historian and MacArthur Fellow)


Dr. Margaret Schotte is an associate professor of history at York University. She holds an MA from U of T and a Ph.D. from Princeton. Her work brings together maritime history, book history, and the history of early modern science, technology, and mathematics. In 2020, her first book, Sailing School: Navigating Science and Skill, 1550-1800 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), won the John Lyman Award from the North American Society for Oceanic History and the Leo Gershoy award from the American Historical Society. Her current project focuses on the development of skilled labor on French East India Company vessels in the Indian Ocean.

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