Anchors aweigh

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I have always wanted to invent something that cannot be bettered - the best ideas are always the simplest. What could possibly be better than the wheel? Another idea that I think will never be improved is the wash basin plug. You could think of all sorts of weird pumps and other devices to do the same task but not so simply. Traffic lights solved a problem people had agonised over for years before discovering the (now) obvious solution. The anchor is another simple foolproof invention.

Large anchor on dockside

HMS Conway anchor. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo.

Anchors must have been created shortly after the invention of the boat and the earliest ones were hauled up by hand. Ship models found in Ancient Egyptian tombs dating from around 1600 BC have grooved or perforated anchor stones. By 800 BC bronze anchors were being produced in Malta. By about 300 BC anchors, now made of iron, had a more modern appearance. A 16-foot long anchor from a ship of the tyrannical Roman Emperor Caligula – dating from about 40 AD - was salvaged from an Italian lake in 1929.

It is said that the first iron anchors forged in England were made in East Anglia in 573 AD. There is a modern-looking anchor in the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

As ships and anchors got bigger, a device needed to be invented to haul the anchor up – thus the capstan was born, probably more than 2,000 years ago. This is a vertical rotating drum originally operated by sailors using removable levers known as handspikes. Crew members would sing popular songs and sea shanties as they raised the anchor - probably the best known is The Drunken Sailor. These days capstans are powered by petrol motors, electricity, hydraulics or even pneumatics.

A large anchor outside the main entrance to Merseyside Maritime Museum  came from HMS Conway, a 92-gun wooden battleship built in 1839. Surprisingly, it is about the same size as the one from Caligula's Roman ship.

In 1876 HMS Conway became a school ship where thousands of Royal Navy cadets were trained. She was anchored in the Mersey for many years before being moved to North Wales. She was wrecked in the Menai Straights in 1953 and later broken up. The anchor, saved from the wreck with other relics, was later donated to the museum by the Conway Club – a group made up of former cadets.

Merseyside Maritime Museum is open seven days a week, admission free. A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).