The big problem with wooden warships in warm waters was that the underwater part attracted lots of undesirable marine life.

Barnacles clung to the hull, then seaweed clung to the barnacles, until the entire ship was dragging along a mass that made it slow and hard to manoeuvre.

Even worse was the ship-worm that burrowed into the hull and weakened the structure.

As the British Empire expanded into warm waters it became a major problem.

Ships would be regularly hauled into dry-dock, the entire underwater part of the hull scraped, the rotted parts replaced, and the whole thing re-treated with the traditional mixture of tar and pitch.

It had to be laid on thick, consequently the phrase “Don’t spoil the ship for a ha’porth of tar” became part of the language.

This was a problem for the Royal Navy, because at any time up to half its ships could be laid-up in a dry-dock.

In 1708, a Liverpool shipbuilder, Charles Perry, found a cure, coating the entire underwater part of the hull in copper.

Marine life couldn’t cling to the copper, the hull remained free of barnacles, seaweed, and ship-worm and wouldn’t need to spend time in dry-dock.

Britain had a plentiful supply from the Welsh copper mines so it was easy and quick to do.

But the cost scared the Admiralty, it would take 15 tons of copper and cost around £1,500 per ship, whereas the traditional method cost just £262 per ship.

So the Royal Navy stayed with the traditional method, right up until the American War of Independence changed their minds.

What started as a civil war was seized as an opportunity by Britain’s traditional enemies.

The French joined in on the colonies’ side in 1778, the Spanish joined in 1779, and the Netherlands in 1780,

The colonies didn’t have many ships so it hadn’t been a problem until Britain found itself facing 3 large navies at once.

The Navy Board Controller, Charles Middleton, said the Royal Navy was “outnumbered at every station”.

And in 1781, a French fleet stopped a British fleet supplying troops at Chesapeake Bay, the British were forced to surrender at Yorktown and the American colonies were lost.

But a painful lesson had been learned.

More important than the American colonies was protecting the Caribbean sugar trade, which meant Britain needed a much larger fleet in a hurry.

But it took 5 years and 2,000 trees to build a warship, Britain didn’t have time.

The only way to get a larger navy quickly was to release all the ships in dry-dock.

The order was given to put copper hulls on nearly 400 warships, which almost doubled the size of England’s fleet.

So, at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782, Admiral Rodney was able to take on a French fleet in a battle that left 300 English dead against 8,000 French dead, with 5 French warships captured or sunk against no English losses.

For the British, retaining the Caribbean sugar trade paid for the war.

For the French, it led to bankruptcy, revolution, and their King being beheaded.

The main lesson is that it took desperation to make the Royal Navy see they didn’t need any new ships, they needed to think creatively about what they had.

Copper hulls meant all the ships would be at sea, not stuck in dry-dock.

It was the creative way to get a much bigger navy without building any new ships.

The lesson being, we may not need more: more technology, more people, more money.

We may just need to think about using what we’ve got differently.

Or, as Ernest Rutherford put it, “We have no money, we shall have to think”.