MS Turanor Planet Solar A\J Photo © 2011 Philip Plisson

On July 13, 1908, huge crowds gathered in the streets of various small towns and villages in Germany to witness the spectacle of LZ 4, one of the first airships, flying overhead. The airship, which was on a proving flight from Lake Constance to Mainz, was greeted with cheering crowds and a considerable amount of nationalistic fervor, including mass renditions of Deutschland Uber Alles. Even as a prototype, LZ 4 was not a very practical aircraft. It had cost a tremendous amount of money to build, it carried just twelve people and its engines were unreliable; they failed on the return flight from Mainz, forcing an emergency landing. That night, a storm blew it from its moorings and crashed it into a hillside, whereupon it exploded, effectively bankrupting its owner Count Zeppelin and disqualifying him from any further military funding.

It turns out, however, that Count Zeppelin, who had built the ship, had little reason to despair. Within days of the accident, his dream of a powered airship was unexpectedly resurrected by hundreds of small, private donations from the German citizens who had cheered on LZ 4 as it passed overhead, and who had been devastated to hear of its loss. The public impression made by the airship’s problem-ridden flight was the key impetus for what may have been one of the world's first crowdfunding campaigns. This assistance helped Zeppelin and his successors initiate an industry that, while short-lived, was highly promising in its own time; the first commercially viable passenger flights across the Atlantic Ocean were by airships, not airplanes.

Of course, the history of the passenger airship ended abruptly with another much more well-known fiery accident, and so perhaps Zeppelin's unexpected windfall was all for naught. But the political, cultural and even commercial importance of impractical prototypes has been demonstrated repeatedly in the history of transportation technology. Henry Ford's first car was a race car, and his 1901 victory in a race against Alexander Winton on the frozen surface of Lake Michigan was probably essential for the creation of a market for the much more practical Model T. Similarly, the first contact most people in the early twentieth century had with airplanes was at county fairs, where veteran pilots from the First World War made a living performing acrobatic displays. The growth of many major transportation systems we now take for granted began with the demonstration of ridiculous, impractical prototypes, leading one scholar to coin the term “hopeful monstrosities” to refer to them.

This historical discussion brings me to the solar-powered catamaran discussed in Solar-Powered Boat Visits the Maritimes by Stu Campana for this blog. With a displacement of 85 tonnes, the ship is more of a monstrosity than most other prototypes of sustainable technologies. Campana is correct to point out that in its current form, this ship is not useful for much other than publicity. But that publicity could be an important, and indeed an essential, starting point for the development of more sustainable shipping. Consider the fact that just 15 cargo ships generate more pollution than every car on earth combined, and it seems like the shipping industry might be badly in need of some radical innovation.

The MS Turanor Planet Solar can contribute to that radical innovation by providing a platform on which to experiment with new marine technologies, but mere engineering improvements are rarely sufficient to change a system. Path-breaking technologies must also generate excitement. If a giant solar ship manages to garner sufficient attention, it may generate a push for stricter international shipping regulations by a public that knows that alternative technologies exist. Perhaps millionaires looking to show off will buy similar ships, providing a source of income for further development. Or it could lead to the development of more practical solar-powered ships to be used for cruises or ferry services by companies or governments looking to boost their image.

While I admit that some of what I just said is a bit far-fetched, we need to recognize that there is no radical scheme for sustainable technology that is guaranteed to succeed. A bit of imagination combined with some historical precedent suggests that even if it is not likely that a giant solar powered ship will generate positive change, it is at least plausible. This alone makes it a worthwhile project; if we see enough experiments of this kind, we could reasonably hope that at least a few of them will be successful. The MS Turanor Planet Solar is indeed a monstrosity, but it might just be hopeful.

Cameron Roberts is a Canadian PhD student studying the cultural history of transportation technology at the University of Manchester. He blogs about science, technology and society at Where's My Jetpack.

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