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Knots in History

Knots and knowledge of ropework have been known by humans well before they became sea-faring creatures.  The earliest rope was made from such diverse materials as plant fibers, strips cut from animal skins, and even animal and human hair. Knots not only served a practical purpose but were also linked with magic, medicine, and religious beliefs. The Mayans even used knots as a base for their system of mathematics. One of the earliest knots known to be used was the sheet-bend, which the Incas incorporated into their nets. 

The development of new and more intricate knots accelerated as humans took to the sea. As vessels became larger and more complex, new knots evolved which performed different functions. Likewise, as the life of a sailor was often filled with much down-time, that void was filled by practicing ropework and knot-tying.

As the duties of a sailor became more complex and the number of knots increased, the need for a manual became apparent. The first manual for seamen to appear in the English language was John Smith’s A Sea Grammar, first published in 1627. In this work, Smith, of Jamestown-fame, sought to address all aspects of the sailing of a ship and life at sea. Smith included a brief section on splicing and knot-tying. According to Smith, a sailor relied on three knots:

Three main knots a sailor relied on:

Sheepshank Knot

Wall Knot

Bowline Knot

A few years later in 1644, Henry Manwayring published his Sea-Mans Dictionary, which provided more detailed descriptions of the knots first mentioned by Smith.

Manuals in the 17th century provided names and descriptions but no illustrations. Illustrated manuals did not start appearing until later in the 18th century, beginning with William Falconer’s An Universal Dictionary of the Marine in 1769. By the beginning of the 1800s, fully illustrated seamanship manuals and literature were abundant. The Mariners' Museum Library has a number of these early manuals in its collections. For more information on the Library’s resources on knots click here.By the time Bushby began “Notes on Knots” in 1902 there were several published works on knots and knot-tying. The majority of these publications were “how-to” manuals and lists of knots known at the time. While an understanding of knot theory was developing, the work was primarily confined to the applied mathematics community. With “Notes on Knots” Bushby sought to produce the most comprehensive work on knots of the time, combining instructions on knot-tyimg and an in-depth look at knot topology and mathematical theory. Had Bushby’s work been published, as was almost certainly his intention, “Notes on Knots” could have enhanced and even altered many subsequent knotting publications, including Clifford Ashley’s famous reference The Ashley Book of Knots.

Knots in History