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No. 873:
Raising the Vasa

Today, a grand ship, badly built, becomes a time capsule. 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.

King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden ruled the Baltic Sea in 1628. That year he launched the warship Vasa. Vasa looked just like its contemporary, the Mayflower; only it was twice as big.

Vasa was a 200-foot gun platform. She had two rows of brass cannon -- 64 in all. She was wildly ornate. Her stern was a glory of brightly-painted carved figures of knights and mythical beasts. She could've sailed right out of a child's storybook.

Crowds cheered as Vasa crossed the harbor. Then wind filled her sails, and she began to heel. She leaned and leaned 'til her lower gun ports were under water. Water rushed in. She foundered and sank. She carried 50 people to their deaths 100 feet below.

The King, it seems, had meddled in the design. Vasa was designed for only one row of guns. He'd ordered a second row of 2500-pound brass cannon to be added. There was only room in the hull for 121 tons of stone ballast. That was far too little. Vasa would be top-heavy, and the shipbuilders all knew it.

Thirty-five years later, in 1663, a Swedish inventor named Albrect von Treileben came on the scene with a new diving bell. He managed to go down and get most of the expensive cannons. The rest of Vasa sat in the mud in the cold, low-salt, Baltic Sea, largely forgotten, in a remarkable state of preservation.

In 1956 the great wreck-hunter Anders Franzen found Vasa on the bottom of Stockholm harbor. He realized he could actually bring it up whole, though it would be a Herculean job.

Divers went down and tunneled through the muck under the hulk, dragging cables after them -- fearing a cave-in every moment. They attached the cables to a system of floats above. By blowing water out of the floats they managed to lift Vasa a few feet at a time. They stair-stepped her up to slightly shallower sea beds, over and over, 18 times.

By 1959 Vasa finally surfaced, and years of careful reclamation work began. Skeletons of the old crew lie where they've died. One has been crushed under a gun carriage. The mouth of another opens in a terrible screaming rictus. Three cannons had lain beyond the reach of 17th-century divers. Now they rise from the mud along with treasure, art, and a microcosm of 17th-century daily life. Out of the mud rise life and death.

And we sort the many ironies of Vasa. She was glorious in her finery, yet the crew lived in near cesspool conditions. It cost more to reclaim her than to build her in the first place.

But the greatest irony of all is that Gustavus Adolphus's technological blunder created a time capsule to serve history long after old naval wars had been forgotten.

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

(Theme music)

Ohrelius, B., Vasa: The King's Ship (tr. M. Michael). Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1952 and 1962.

Franzen, A., The Warship Vasa: Deep Diving and Marine Archaeology in Stockholm. Stockholm: norstedt and Bonnier Pubs., 1961.

Kvarning, L-A., Raising the Vasa, Scientific American, October 1993, pp. 84-91.

For more on the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, check out: