Reader Submission on...

...the "impossible" size of Noah's Ark

[posted 6/22/97]
I'm in an inter-faith discussion group by mail and the militant atheist of the group (he's hooked up with Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, WI- one of their main guys is former Christian evangelist Dan Barker who wrote Losing Faith in Faith said that Noah's ark was a myth because no wooden boat could be built over 400 feet long.

A History of Technology, vol. 5, Oxford Univ. Press, p. 355, states the problem: There was an upper limit of around 300 ft. on the length of a wooden ship because wood couldn't provide a rigid bow-to-stern connection, and tension from wave-action increased as the length grew. The British Shipbuilding Industry From 1870 to 1914, pp. 13-4, said pretty much the same thing, while Alexander Laing's American Ships, pp. 409, quoted a shipwright as to the opinion that the six-master clipper ships (region of 330 ft. in length) were too long.

My response to this critique is to say that yes, there is some upper limit on wood-hull construction boats, but that the 300 feet citations above are guesses and opinions based on the observation that few attempts were made to build wooden ships over 300 feet. The reason why not was that by the time that expanding commerce in the second half of the 19th century would have demanded larger vessels, iron was becoming a cost-effective material to use in hull construction. So, the necessity to build larger wood vessels and/or improve wood-hull design was not present.

However, there were some wood-hull ships built over 300 feet: from Famous American Ships, by Frank O. Braynard, 1956, p. 75, the Hudson river steamer "New World" (1848) was 371 feet long. This early steamer probably did not have iron bar supports in the frame, since the text appears to say in the third paragraph that "Metropolis" (345' long, 1854) was the first steamer to have them [the page from Original American Lloyd's Registry implies that iron bar supports were required for long wood vessels after the mid-1850's].

Also in the above Lloyd's are specifications for other American wood-hull steamers (though all probably with iron bar strapping): "Dean Richmond" (348', 1865), "Adriatic" (ocean-going, 350', 1856), "Golden City" (ocean-going, 340', 1863), and the "Great Republic" (ocean-going, 334', 1853). The "Wyoming" (Laing, p. 408) was the last of the six-master clipper ships, and was 330' long, built in 1909. Laing's quote of the shipwright Rockwell shows that the criticism of the six-masters was something other than that they wouldn't float.

Page 23 of Ancient Ships, by Cecil Torr, 1964, says that Callixenos reported a 40-banked (oar banks) ship that was 420' long and 57' wide. There is no proof that this ship existed, however.

Of course, the issue of construction is not a very strong argument for the atheist, since it is by definition an argument from the negative. Also, "practical" commercial construction was expected to last 20 years or more, while Noah's ark had to last only 1 year, and did not need to support any masts or handle engine vibration. Finally, the correct proportionality of the ark for stability is an argument in favor of its historicity (unlike the ark in the Gilgamesh epic, which was 120 cubits by 120 by 120). I.e., did the Bible guess the dimensions needed by a ship of this size? (I included a page with the illustration of the iron-hulled "Preussen" that was close to the dimensions of the ark.)

A footnote to this discussion is that there is some disagreement over how long the ancient cubit was. I would suggest being careful not to lightly assume the longer definition so as to allow enough space in the ark for all the animals, else the durability problem becomes too big.

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