Tool: An instrument that is used for doing work.
Machine: A device with a system of parts that work together to perform a task.
Function: The purpose or role that an object or a person fulfills or is suited for.
Purpose: The reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.

The Whale
To some Moby-Dick is a revenge tale pitting an enormous white sperm whale against Captain Ahab a Shakespearian like character who lost his leg to the whale during a previous voyage. To others it is the tale of Ishmael a young seaman searching for life’s meaning during a particularly cold and rainy September. Literary critics consider it to be among the greatest English language novels of the 19th century. This classic by Herman Melville is all of these to be sure, but it is also a detailed instruction manual on the American whaling industry. Significant portions of the book are fully dedicated to the cataloguing of tools, descriptions of machines and narration of how the whaling vessel Pequod located, captured, dispatched and processed whales into lamp oil as well as other valuable products such as ivory, baleen, ambergris and spermaceti.

The Ship and Crew
In 1712 a Nantucket fishing vessel became the first to capture a sperm whale. Although smaller than right whales, sperm whale oil and spermaceti were far more valuable than right whale oil. The possibility of a richer catch led whalers to travel further into the open ocean and eventually into tropical waters in search of sperm whales, however, the greater distances and warmer temperatures resulted in blubber putrefaction becoming a serious problem. By the middle of the 18th century, this issue was resolved through the introduction of on-board rendering. This industrial innovation resulted in the overlay of guild organization onto traditional maritime command as well as the hybridization of the ship itself to include structures and mechanism to support multiple long boats, hold whales fast during dismemberment, move large pieces of whale carcasses, render blubber into oil, store the oil in barrels and transfer the barrels into the ship’s hold.

The Pequod

Captain Ahab
(Steward, Cabin Boy)

1st Harpooner


125’ long

1st Mate - Starbuck

2nd Harpooner


25’ beam

2nd Mate - Stubb

3rd Harpooner


300 tons of displacement

3rd Mate – Flask

4th Harpooner


15-20 Seamen and Green Hands who provided the less skilled labor required to row boats, dismember whales, render oil and otherwise man the ship.

The Tryworks
The most peculiar machine aboard a 19th century American whaling vessel was known as the tryworks.

“Besides her hoisted boats, an American whaler is outwardly distinguished by her try-works. She presents the curious anomaly of the most solid masonry joining with oak and hemp in constituting the completed ship. It is as if from the open field a brick-kiln were transported to her planks.

The try-works are planted between the foremast and mainmast, the most roomy part of the deck. The timbers beneath are of a peculiar strength, fitted to sustain the weight of an almost solid mass of brick and mortar, some ten feet by eight square, and five in height. The foundation does not penetrate the deck, but the masonry is firmly secured to the surface by ponderous knees of iron bracing it on all sides, and screwing it down to the timbers. On the flanks it is cased with wood, and at top completely covered by a large, sloping, battened hatchway. Removing this hatch we expose the great try-pots, two in number, and each of several barrels capacity.

Removing the fire-board from the front of the try-works, the bare masonry of that side is exposed, penetrated by the two iron mouths of the furnaces, directly underneath the pots. These mouths are fitted with heavy doors of iron. The intense heat of the fire is prevented from communicating itself to the deck, by means of a shallow reservoir extending under the entire enclosed surface of the works. By a tunnel inserted at the rear, this reservoir is kept replenished with water as fast as it evaporates. There are no external chimneys; they open direct from the rear wall...” Herman Melville; Moby-Dick, Chapter 96

Image by: Darren Harvey Regan

Function and Design
Although Melville’s Pequod was an amazement of functional adaption it could not be described as either elegant or well-designed. It was in fact a hybrid ship of an older era mashed-up with an immerging industrial technology. It would be another century before whaling ships were thoughtfully designed and built as true floating factories and their impact on the world’s whale population was swift and devastating.

As designers we tend to value the integrated and the elegant over the transitional. Transitions are often awkward and ripe with contrast and contradiction which is almost always unsatisfying to those who were comfortable with the past and those who advocate for quick adoption of the future. However, there is something intellectually revealing and emotionally charming about the transitional hybrid which is lost once a technology, material, or new purpose becomes fully integrated into an object, product, space or building. The sharp, clear, expression of revolutionary functionality becomes softened with integration and consequently the storyline of what came before fades and the promise of what is to come loses its mystery.

As technologies evolve the thoughtful designer naturally strives to express the functional changes that these technologies represent. In this instance a hybrid approach to design offers an interface to the future which can preserve the important expressions of historical context into which these new tools and machines are immerging.