Model Cargo Ships and More!

Author: Rich Harkey
November 09, 2014

Since the dawn of mankind's exploration of the water, ships and other watercraft have been a prominent feature of daily life. They embody both the tangible economic benefits of transportation and commerce and the promise and excitement of travel and discovery. Throughout history craftsmen have sought to capture these qualities by making model representations of ships and boats. Model ship building remains a popular and practical pastime. Consult the following information to learn more about this timeless hobby.

The History of Model Ships

Model ships served both practical and symbolic functions in early sea-faring cultures. Ancient Mediterranean people relied heavily on water transportation as a means of supporting their ever-expanding empires, and their fascination with ships is well documented in the archeological record. Numerous model ships called "solar boats", believed to be symbolic representations of the soul's journey into the afterlife, have been unearthed in tombs across Egypt. These small-scale model ships provide archeologists with an idea of what large-scale, functional ships may have looked like during the time of the Pharaohs.

  • The Solar Boats of Ancient Egypt - This article discusses the history and significance of a solar boat unearthed near the Great Pyramid of Giza.
  • Death in Ancient Egypt - A comprehensive overview of ancient Egyptian funerary customs and a discussion of the purpose of using miniature model ships as burial artifacts.
  • Model Ships in Egyptian Tombs - This article provides pictorial examples of model ships found in a variety of Egyptian tombs.
  • Model Ships found in King Tut's Tomb - This website includes transcriptions of archeologist Howard Carter's detailed notes about the model ships he found in Tutankhamen's tomb.
  • Video of an Egyptian Model Ship - This article includes a link to a video of an ancient Egyptian model ship on display at the Rhode Island School of Design Art Museum.
  • Oared Galley Ship Model - This article includes pictures of an oared galley model ship found in a tomb at Gurob in Egypt.
  • "Sloop-of-War" - A detailed description of a model ship designed by Rear Admiral T.O. Selfridge in 1873.It is believed that Selfridge had intended the model to serve as a small-scale prototype for a more economical warship to replace the U.S. Navy's aging Civil War era fleet.

Types of Model Ships

The ancient Egyptians, on rare occasions, crafted model ships from precious metals to honor their dead. Sailors often carved ship models out of walrus tusks and whale bone. Modern hobbyists craft their models from a variety of materials including wood, plastic, and fiberglass. Model ships crafted from folded pieces of paper provide an inexpensive and accessible toy for kids of all ages.

  • Ivory Whaling Ship - This link provides information about a steam whaling ship model, carved from walrus ivory, on display at the Alaska State Museum.
  • Elaborate Ivory - This link to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London includes historical information and detailed pictures of a model ship carved from ivory and decorated with diamonds and gold.
  • Precious Metals - This academic journal abstract discusses the significance of two model funerary ships, one made of silver and the other made of gold, found in the tomb of Queen Ahhotep I in Egypt.
  • Tin-plate Toys - This website provides information about the history of toy submarines and includes pictures of a variety of tin-plate submarine toys.
  • Wood-Frame Model - This website documents the process of building a wood-frame model ship from scratch.
  • Ornate Wood Carving - This article discusses a 1:50 scale model of the Swedish warship "Vasa". The ornately carved model took seven years to complete.
  • The Paper Boat Page - A comprehensive resource on the obscure history of functional, full-size paper boats made in the latter half of the 19th century.
  • Plastic Cargo Ship Model - This website includes detailed pictures of the "Marathon", a 1/350th scale model of a "tramp steamer" style cargo ship inspired by the cargo ships depicted in popular movies of the 1930's and 1940's.
  • Fiberglass Model Yachts - The American Model Yachting Association provides information for people interested in designing, building, and racing radio controlled model sailing yachts.

Uses of Model Ships

Building full-scale ships to test new, and unproven, design innovations is both costly and impractical. Model ships are often used as templates for testing large-scale designs, and in simulations of situations that would be impossible to recreate in the real-world. The cargo and container ship industry relies on laboratory simulations to improve the safety and effectiveness of their ship's designs. In an activity known as "wargaming", military strategists and historians use model ships to recreate important battles.

  • Liberty Ship Templates - A thorough history of the large cargo ships, known as "Liberty Ships", which were constructed as part of the war effort during WWII. The article also describes how full-scale models were used as templates for mass producing operational cargo ships.
  • Maritime Tradition [pdf]- This information sheet describes a model of the sailing ship "Friendship" carved by the ship's carpenter and second mate in 1804.
  • Prisoner of War - This article discusses the history of a model ship, made of bone, carved by a French Prisoner of War in the early 19th century.
  • Miniatures and Wargaming - This article provides a timeline highlighting the use of miniature models, including model ships, in wargaming throughout history.
  • Military Training [pdf]- This academic paper describes how models are used in wargaming for military training, education, and research.
  • Historical Interpretation - This article discusses the use of model ships in museum exhibits that present historical boat types commonly found in specific geographic locations.
  • Visualize the Past - This interview with Navy Veteran and model ship builder George Wells highlights the importance of using models for educational purposes.
  • Physics Demonstration [pdf]- This Journal of American Physics article describes the "self-induced vibration propulsion" of a toy boat.
  • Engineering Models - This link describes the Costal & Hydraulics Laboratory study of the Barbers Point Jetty using cargo and a container ship models.
  • Real-world Simulation [pdf]-This journal article examines the physical processes involved when a cargo ship collides with a whale. The investigation used scale models of a containership and right whale.

Model Ship Museums and Other Resources

There are a variety of resources available to both curious beginners and seasoned model-building veterans alike. Both the Smithsonian and the U.S. Naval Academy Museum feature model ships as part of their permanent exhibits, and many smaller maritime museums display models that portray ships that have a specific regional significance. Organizations dedicated to preserving historic ships, like the Historic Naval Ships Association, serve as valuable starting points for model builders who want to accurately recreate a specific type of ship. The Nautical Research Guild provides a comprehensive list of resources covering a variety of model ship building subjects.

  • The Rogers Ship Model Collection - Bequeathed to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1935, the Rogers Ship Model Collection is one of the most valuable collections of model ships in the world.
  • Massachusetts Maritime Academy - The Massachusetts Maritime Academy is home to a nine-foot-long and five-foot-tall model of the "U.S.S. Constitution".
  • Smithsonian National Museum of American History - The Smithsonian National Museum of American History is home to the permanent exhibit "On the Water: Stories from Maritime America". The exhibit includes several model ships including a model of the "Emma Mærsk" which was the world's largest cargo ship when it was launched in 2006.
  • Slave Ship Cross Section - This article describes how model makers created a cross section of an 18th century slave ship for the Smithsonian's "On the Water" exhibit.
  • "Dreadnoughts and Battleships" - This website offers valuable information about the history, data, and aspects of historical ships for model builders and wargamers.
  • U.S. Navy Ship Model Program - The U.S. Navy Ship Model Program collects, preserves, and displays model ships in museums, offices, and educational institutions.
  • Replica of a Cutaway Scale Liberty Ship - A detailed history of the WWII Liberty Ship building industry in Brunswick, Georgia. This website includes information about a replica of a cutaway scale Liberty Ship model on display at Mary Ross Waterfront Park.
  • How to Choose a Model Kit [pdf]- The North Dakota State University Extension Service guide to building a plastic model from a kit. This informative guide includes information about choosing a kit and how to personalize your finished model.
  • The Historic Naval Ships Association - Informally billed as "the world's third largest navy", the Historic Naval Ships Association is a valuable resource for model builders researching historic ships.
  • The Nautical Research Guild - The Nautical Research Guild's website provides an extensive list of resources for model ship builders.
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