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No. 1077:
Coffin Wharf

Today, let's talk about coffins and harpoons. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

"Call me Ishmael," says the narrator of Melville's Moby Dick, as he walks through New Bedford in the 1840s. He's looking for cheap lodgings. He comes to an inn run by a man named Peter Coffin. The rooms are filled. The best Coffin can give Ishmael is the other half of a bed occupied by a mysterious harpooneer.

The harpooneer turns out to be a wild tattooed native of New Guinea named Queequeg. Queequeg and Ishmael are soon close friends. Then we meet the other two harpooneers who ship with Captain Ahab -- an Indian named Tashtego and an African, Dagoo. None of these three quarterbacks-of-the-whaling-team are white.

That matches what history says about New England whalers. By 1840 one New Bedford or Nantucket citizen in 15 was a free black -- often a craftsman. Those were cosmopolitan centers. Background meant little. What you could do meant everything.

In 1841, when he was 24, Frederick Douglass, former slave and abolitionist orator, went to New Bedford to work in shipbuilding. He found blacks were better off in the whaling towns than anywhere he'd been. He addressed his first white audience in Nantucket.

Here the Moby Dick connection rises unexpectedly. The person who extended the invitation to speak was one William Coffin. Coffin was a well-known name in New Bedford. I don't know if there really was an innkeeper named Peter Coffin, but there was a Coffin Wharf.

In 1836 a blacksmith named Lewis Temple set up shop on Coffin Wharf. Temple was one of many black inventors among the whalers. In 1848 he invented the toggle harpoon. It had a toggle device that latched into the flesh of a whale and anchored a line connecting back to the whaleboat.

Melville wrote Moby Dick a year or two later, and it is rich in technological metaphors. The lines that bind the whalers to the whale are woven through the story. The problem of anchoring lines in the whale is a central motif. In the end Ahab is tied to Moby Dick by tangled lines and carried down into the sea.

Only Ishmael survives the encounter with Moby Dick. And how is he saved? Well, Queequeg had seen death coming and built his own coffin. As the ship sinks, that coffin bobs to the surface and becomes Ishmael's lifeboat. The tale begins and ends with coffins.

Melville spoke in a language of deep-running metaphors -- like Queequeg showing us nineteenth-century racism, not just as it was, but also turned upside down and inside out. Now, out of the metaphor of the harpoon, and the coffin, and the metaphor of Queequeg, emerges the very real blacksmith, Lewis Temple, on Coffin Wharf.

It's more than just Temple, of course. Melville has summoned up an important early port on the long, still-unfinished voyage -- toward racial equity in America.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

James, P.P., Free Men and Women: "Such Proofs as You Exhibit." The Real McCoy: African-American Invention and Innovation, 1619- 1930. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989, Chapter Two.

I am grateful to Roberta Weldon, UH English Department, for her counsel on this episode and for acquainting me with the Frederick Douglass connection.