An Invention That Changed History - The Tarr & Wonson Paint Factory

Sunday, July 7, 2019
It seems I can't break from the past these days, and that holds true for today's post...one that has been waiting to be put to words for over two years.  Assembling my last post which featured my ten favorite ways to enjoy summer on the water, I was reminded of this piece of Gloucester history, one that deserves its rightful place on the blog.  Friends....how many of you are familiar with this sight?  The Tarr and Wonson Copper Paint Factory!

With my affinity for old buildings, combined with my deep love for Gloucester, it's no wonder that the Tarr and Wonson Paint Factory caught my eye and stirred my soul.  Located on the point of Rocky Neck in Gloucester, MA....America's oldest seaport,  it was Captain John Smith who encouraged colonists to come to Gloucester to harvest the bounties of the sea.  Since those days, over 10,000 men have been lost at sea. You can read more about Gloucester in my earlier blog post:

If you have visited Gloucester, you know that parts of it haven't really caught up to current times and one doesn't have to look hard to feel part of the past, part of history.  That's definitely the case with the Tarr and Wonson Paint Factory.  Curious about its story, I researched and knew immediately it was a story I had to share. Not wanting to reword the story and at the same time give credit where credit is due, I'll give you the story verbatim by Janie Franz.

Copper Paint FactoryThe Tarr and Wonson Copper Paint Factory
an excerpt from an article by Janie Franz
For centuries, ship captains have sought ways to prevent the growth of barnacles, grasses, and other marine life forms from growing on the bottoms of their vessels. Heavy infestation, called fouling, can cause considerable drag, slowing ships and hindering maneuverability. Some marine pests can even bore into the ship's wooden hull and threaten the safety of the crew.
Augustus H. Wonson and his son Gardiner found a remedy by creating copper, anti-fouling paint for boat bottoms. Partnering with James G. Tarr, the Tarr and Wonson Paint Factory began manufacturing the first copper, bottom paint in 1863 in Gloucester, Massachusetts. It was a mix of tar, dry copper oxide, and naphtha or benzine, blended in a time-consuming three-step process. The original patent proclaims, "We have found by experiment that the hull of a vessel painted with our composition has remained free from shells and weeds for a period of twelve months, while another vessel painted in the common manner and employed in the same trade became so foul in six weeks as to require scraping."
The paint was so successful, the Tarr and Wonson Paint Factory made copper paint for the maritime industry for over a hundred years, sending this paint to ship owners all over the world. When the factory closed in 1980, it remained vacant for almost 30 years until Ocean Alliance, an oceanographic research organization, bought it to house its headquarters.
"I really believe the invention of Tarr and Wonson's copper paint launched the first industrial revolution in North America, which was commercial fishing," said Iain Kerr, Vice President and CEO of Ocean Alliance. "You cannot underestimate the effect it had on American society. Not only did it help in fishing, but it helped in commerce, it helped in warfare, and it helped in recreation."
Kerr, who also is a ship captain and piloted Ocean Alliance's research vessel Odessy, knows the value of this paint. "In the old days in warfare, it would take days just for the boats to get close and then they would start shooting. If you saw a boat on the horizon and your bottom was not foul, it didn't matter if they had more sail or not. You could just sail away," he said. Prior to copper, anti-fouling paint, navies would sheath the bottoms of boats with layers of thin, copper sheeting. "Think how expensive or heavy that was," Kerr adds.
Copper paint proved essential for the commercial fisherman.
"If you put a coat of paint on the bottom of a hull and not have to scrape it for a year, instead of every six weeks, suddenly you've got a business," Kerr explained. "And, with a clean bottom, these boats might be sailing anywhere between six and twelve knots. With a dirty bottom, they might be going three knots or two knots." This allowed fishermen to get to their fishing grounds quicker and get back to shore faster. Even when motors were added, having a dirty bottom could increase a businesses expenses further. "You might be doubling or tripling your fuel consumption."



There's so much on the internet about Tarr and Wonson and the Paint Factory that changed the fishing industry.  This is an awesome video about it: 
                              https://www.youtube.com/History of the Paint Factory  
As for me, I just love the building, sitting there worn and proud among the fishing boats and schooners in the Gloucester fishing port.  I might never have known what the story was behind this  building ....but in this case, now I do.   A great invention happened here, one that made a lasting impact for years thereafter.  
 And below you can see the Tarr and Wonson building in the horizon, just to the right of the sail of the Schooner Ardelle.

If you get a chance to visit Gloucester, be sure to take some time to explore Harbor Loop.  Visit the Maritime Museum, have a meal at the Gloucester House Restaurant, take a sail on the Schooner Ardelle or the Thomas E. Lannon and when you get a bird's eye view of the Tarr & Wonson Paint Factory, be reminded of the invention that was  manufactured here.  To read more about areas of interest in Gloucester, check out these earlier blog posts:

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