Home / Not Quite the Alchemists Dream


My mental picture of a Medieval Alchemist is of a wizened old man, working long hours in an unsanitary cellar, probably still retaining the remains of his last meal in his long grey beard, bent over strange instruments and muttering under his breath as he experiments to find the elixir of life or to transmute lead into gold.

Sadly for you dear reader, this story contains none of those heroic elements although it does relate to how my Chief and I converted lead into several items of low value! because this story relates to an unusual maintenance activity on board ship and a less than successful attempt to turn a profit from it. I admit from the outset that this tale reflects my interest in the technicalities of the job of Radio Officer (R/O) but at the time, the circumstances served (at least to me), to demonstrate the importance of being properly informed ahead of a negotiation.

Thos and Jno Brocklebank’s radio department always encouraged a spirit of “can do” amongst their Radio Officers. No job was ever considered to be too large, too difficult or outside of their capabilities.

During my first trip on the Steam Ship (SS) Mahseer in 1963 during routine maintenance activities in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the Chief R/O Harry Jefferson and I discovered (almost by accident) that there was earth leakage on two of the four lead covered cables that linked the Direction Finding (DF) receiver in the radio room to the Bellini-Tosi loops mounted on the forward part of the Monkey Island (the deck above the Bridge). The Bellini Tosi loops were named after the two Italians who invented it in the early 1900's. If you can imagine two tubular metal rings, each approximately one Metre in diameter, the first one fitting rigidly inside the slightly larger second ring and mounted at right angles to it; with both rings mounted on top of a one and a half Metre high metallic pedestal, then you will have some idea about what a Bellini Tosi loop aerial system looked like. In 1960's British Merchant ships, the loops were placed as high as possible above the ship’s superstructure and positioned along the centreline of the vessel with the slightly smaller loop pointing Fore and Aft (Bow to Stern).

The two loops were a core part of the Marconi Marine Lodestone Direction Finding system and were the primary element of its aerial system. It was essential for the accuracy of the DF system for the electrical windings of both the Fore and Aft and Port and Starboard loops to be electrically balanced and to possess a very high resistance to earth. Having a low resistance earth leakage on the Fore and Aft loop therefore brought into question the accuracy and reliability of any radio bearings that were taken with the Lodestone system. As an aside the DF system was the only navigational aid that was mandated by the International Radio Regulations of the time to be fitted to Merchant ships and any deficiency with the system could prevent the ship from sailing unless and until the defect was remedied.

Our initial suspicion was that water had entered a junction box on the Monkey Island but sadly this turned out to be a false hope after we removed its inspection cover and extracted the grease that filled the interior of the box. Further tests revealed that when the four cables were isolated at both ends (at the loops and in the Radio Room), the two cables from the fore and aft loop still showed low resistance to earth.

We then carried out a visual inspection along the length of the cables particularly those sections that were exposed to the elements but however hard we looked we could not see where water was gaining entry into the lead sheathing. We were forced to conclude that over time the lead outer sheathing had become porous and as a result salt water had penetrated the two cables somewhere along their length. This water ingress had impregnated the paper insulation with salt, causing corrosion between the copper inner conductor and lead outer sheathing.

We had conducted spot checks on the DF on the way out to Colombo but were not sure how the earth leakage problem was affecting performance or accuracy. All that we were able to do on that trip was to estimate what materials were required should the company agree to us replacing the cables.

On return to the UK at the end of that voyage, Harry submitted a report on our findings together with a requisition for the cable. The request was greeted initially with skepticism by the Radio Department until we were able to demonstrate to one of the Radio Superintendents prior to sailing deep sea again in 1964 that the problem did in fact exist. I can imagine that the initial scepticism on the part of the Radio Department was justified because each of the four cable runs was approximately fifty Metres long and the total cost then as now for lead covered cables would be extremely high. Never the less the outcome of our request was that before sailing on my second deep-sea voyage on Mahseer, we received the cable and saddle clips along with the other radio stores.

The four cables ran from the radio room, up through a bulkhead gland into the accommodation space on the forward part of the Boat Deck, then through a ceiling gland into the Bridge. In the Bridge they were laid on a wide batten on a vertical bulkhead thence across the underside of the Monkey Island deck to emerge onto the Monkey Island through a waterproof gland. On exiting onto the Monkey Island they then entered the terminal box referred to above where they connected to the windings of the two loops. We had to be extremely careful to avoid the lead outer covering on the new cable from being stretched or cracked as the cables were bent and secured into position. Many times when we were removing the old and fitting the new cables did we regret ever volunteering to do the work. Removing years of accumulated paint from the wiring clips and pulling the old and then the new cables through bulkhead glands led to severe frustration as well as skinned knuckles. Eventually the work was finished with only check bearings needing to be taken at a convenient time during the voyage home.

Over a beer one evening before leaving Colombo, Harry and I talked about how we should dispose of the old cables that were by then, coiled up and stored safely away in one of the storage lockers used to hold wireless spares. The company had given no instructions about its disposal, leaving us to conclude that it was ours to dispose of as we saw fit. Being Eco friendly before it became the badge of honour that it is today, we concluded that heaving the cable over the side of the ship into the Indian Ocean would be a waste and the wrong thing to do. We therefore decided to try our luck at selling it in Port Said on the journey home.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I am forced by the experience of our cable disposal activity, to conclude that a seller is well advised to understand the market they hope to sell into if they hope to achieve a successful and profitable outcome. For reasons I cannot now remember and with no hard data to go on, we believed (wrongly as it turned out) that we would get much more for the old cable, by separating the lead sheathing from the copper inner conductor. This we did after spending many happy hours between watches with an engine room blowlamp. The copper, which we thought would be worthless, was heaved over the side thus destroying our green credentials after all!

Port Said at the Northern end of the Suez Canal which I passed through many times; was always viewed from the deck of the ship as there was never sufficient time to go ashore. Our stay in the port was brief and only long enough to join the South Bound Convoy (on the outbound voyage) or on the return journey home to take on Bunkers (Fuel oil for the ship's steam boilers). In both directions we would take on supplies of fresh water and stores usually in the form of vegetables and salad items for the Galley. During these brief stop overs local traders (known affectionately as Bum Boat men) would come on board to sell souvenirs or paper back books to the crew. These bumboat men were incredible salesmen.

Imagine our dismay on arriving at Port Said and in the early stages of negotiations, to learn that lead prices were at an all time low whereas copper was very much the must have commodity!

After what we thought was some very hard bargaining and as Egyptian currency was of no use to us whatsoever, we exchanged the lead for a number of leather Port Said camels and a couple of the “Bronze” heads of Queen Nephertiti mounted on tiny marble plinths. The buyer must have had his chums in the local Souke teahouse in fits of laughter about our gullibility for many years after that transaction, but heck you live and learn.

Mahseer’s DF checked out very well against the visual bearings we took after we sailed from Port Said. The voyage ended at Tilbury where most of the officers including Harry paid off the ship. I was instructed by the Radio Department to stay on board and coast Mahseer around to Liverpool in sole charge of her Wireless Station. The reasons for doing so are explained in the Cargo Tallying story. I presume, because I never sailed on her or saw her again after I left her in Liverpool that Mahseer’s DF carried on working reliably during the next eleven years until she was broken up at Gadani Beach, Karachi in 1975.

I know that the ancient Alchemists put tremendous effort into turning lead into gold but I very much doubt that our conversion of lead into some of Port Said's "finest"! souvenirs ever formed part of their dreams.

copyright © John Leary