Cog

The bare roots of canal mechanics

By Phillippa Greenwood. Images by Martine O’Callaghan

Using a windlass to operate Bratch Locks on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal
Using a windlass to operate Bratch Locks on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal

THE ultimate marvel of Britain’s canals remains how still water manages to leap over hills, roll into valleys and tip into seas, defiantly clambering every ugly and beautiful crevice of our island’s landscape.

Boats have celebrated this for over 200 years, venturing inconceivably indland along these historic manmade trade routes – and canals have been hailed for their triumph over the challenge.

Grand architectural and engineering exhibits deserve every trumpet blow that belts out, but often behind the razzmatazz the real hero remains unserenaded. The truth is that canals conquered Britain’s contours because of one simple mechanism – the cog.

Cogs galore on the Anderton Boat Lift
Cogs galore on the Anderton Boat Lift

The living story of the canals began when James Brindley famously brought his ingenious plan of enabling boats without engines to climb uphill in still water and, behind Brindley’s brilliance, the cog quietly became the Trojan of the canals.

Of course the cog has its own history, and before the first clod of earth was dug on Bringley’s first canal, the cog was already changing the world in its own right, regardless of canals.

It was Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, who in his study of the orbit of planets first discovered the concept of the cog wheel. Then, in another cerebral era, Leonardo da Vinci experimented with rotary movment and the cog gear was born. He applied his genius to thoughts about pendulums, swinging, cranking and hoisting motion from the simple gear mechanism. The machine was born. Wind and water provided energy and the world had to prepare itself for the inevitability of an Industrial Revolution.

Huge cogs on the Falkirk Wheel
Huge cogs on the Falkirk Wheel

When the cog was first invented it was sculpted from wood, but later the solid steel cog forged its own future. The cog has played its part in everything from the bicycle and the car to the spinning wheel, the steam engine and Greenwich Mean Time. With simple magnificence the cog clunked beautifully with the rhythm of industry, and its well-oiled reliability helped make the tiniest watches and the heaviest machinery to fire the most potent ammunition of capitalism.

Iconic outstretched black and white lock arms steal the canal limelight, while the humble cog does the work. Solid, unassuming, lightly greased and silently ready for every traveller that passes through… Across the calm of the water, when the ‘clonk,clink,clonk,clink…’ starts winding, the waterways know someone is using the lock. This is the sound of water travel, holding the anticipation of every boater. The water won’t be hurried by the windlass and it usually takes 10 minutes to fill and empty a lock. But in canal terms this is not just function and motion, it’s a constitutional break, where time waits and passing strangers chat about the weather or more.

Candelstick cogs on Hatton Flight on the Grand Union Canal
Candelstick cogs on Hatton Flight on the Grand Union Canal

No one has needed to improve how a lock works under the power of the cog wheel, and progress hasn’t spoiled the pleasure of water travel. The simple small cog that stands at the four corners of a lock, waiting to lift the paddles, is our precious living heritage. Mini monuments in their own right, to be cherished with pride. 
Cogs are the sound, the sight and oily smell of the waterways. Ingenious simplicity, sculpturally beautiful, unarguably a treasure of Britain’s canals.

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