La Belle's Building Environment

The distinct design characteristics exhibited by La Belle's hull remains are first documented in drafts of much larger vessels that date to the year of its construction, and these characteristics are associated with basic design concepts that were used to build a wide range of French ships for most of the eighteenth century. La Belle is a relatively small vessel (Figure 1) with a reconstructed length of around 54 French ft (17.5 m), a maximum moulded width of 15 French ft (4.9 m), and a draft of 7 French ft (2.3 m). Its small size might suggest it to be too insignificant a vessel to be on the cutting edge of naval architecture. On the contrary, its innovative design system is a product of when and where it was built. La Belle was built during a period of French naval expansion that began in the 1660s (Boudriot 1988; 1998a; Ferreiro 2007:62–80; Lemineur 1992; 1996) in one of the main French naval arsenals of the time, Rochefort, which was only established in 1666 (Boudriot 1985).

During this period of expansion, primarily due to the efforts of Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683) in his roles as secretary of state of the navy and minister of finances under King Louis XIV, and his son Seignelay (1651–1690), as secretary of state of the navy, more state resources were devoted to the development of French shipbuilding, resulting in the construction of larger ships as well as an increase in the overall size of the navy both in terms of the number of ships and total tonnage. Concurrently, there was an effort to standardize and supervise design and construction. These efforts are reflected in the issue of official royal regulations for ship construction and the creation of new supervisory and inspection positions. Most importantly, there was a growing demand for the documentation of ship design with lists of key dimensions, devis, and also to some extent with drawings.

The lack of development and knowledge of ship drafting is openly criticized in naval correspondence of the late 1670s, specifically in comparison with progress in civil architecture (Lemineur 1996:56, 220; Rieth 2009:136–137). Regardless of how effective existing methods of hull design were, by the time of La Belle's construction during the height of the Scientific Revolution, older "craft methods" of ship design and construction would have seemed out of step to naval administrators when compared to current developments in science, mathematics, and other fields such as civil architecture. It would still be two centuries before William Froude's mathematical ratios for model testing would make predicting hydrodynamic hull performance a practical reality (Phillips-Birt 1957:12–16), but the need for the development of a science of naval architecture was already emphasized in the late seventeenth century—particularly by Colbert in France (Ferreiro 2007:62–80). NEXT