We all know what bridges are, right? They are named so because they bridge a gap between two places. But, have you ever wondered why the command center of ships share a name with these structures?
The reason comes from the history. To understand this, let’s start by going back in time right back to the early days of sail when ships were a lot smaller, and of course steered by a rudder.
The rudder was connected to a tiller which was operated by a coxswain. The term coxswain translates to ‘a servant of the boat.’ The area that housed the tiller became popular by the name cockpit, as it was literally the pit where the controls of the boat were located. The usage of the term ‘cockpit’ is continued even in present times as the area of any vehicle where its controls are located. The cockpit of an airliner is probably the most well known example. So, now you also know how the airliners’ cockpits got their name.
Coming back to boats and ships, as the time passed by, the tiller was replaced by a wheel. Instead of connecting directly to the rudder, the wheel connected using ropes and pulleys. This gave the ‘wheel’ a distinct advantage of being able to be displaced from the very stern of the ship.
At the same time, ships’ designs were also changing. Ships were growing bigger and their hulls were getting covered by more number of decks. The biggest deck was the one covering the entire ship, known as the main deck. The one that we are interested in, however, is the quarter deck, the one aft of the main mast. The quarter deck was the deck which used to house the ship’s wheel.
Just like the tiller, the wheel was often operated by the coxswain. With ships increasing in size, the jobs performed by coxswain also increased. When operating the helm, he was known as the helmsman.
Unlike smaller boats, the coxswain was not in-charge of the whole ship. He now fell under the command of the Master or the Captain. The Captain would give orders and the helmsman would execute those orders. The entire control arrangement had grown in size from the early days of just a tiller and a coxswain. Now, we have added in a Captain and the ship’s wheel, not to mention the other officers, look outs, and ever increasing crew. Despite the growth, the arrangement still remains mostly on the quarter deck at the aft end of the ship.
The raised profile of the quarter deck meant that the captain could walk around, getting a good view over the whole vessel as well as the seas around the ship. He could give verbal orders to the helmsman, all the while walking around.
At some point the wheel was enclosed by a small structure which became known as the ‘wheelhouse’. The helmsman would be inside the wheelhouse but the Captain often remains outside, preferring to get the better view all around. It was also easier to direct the other crew from outside, here we’re talking about the work like adjusting sails, guns, anchors, and all of the other ship’s equipment.
Of course, wheelhouse is another term that is continued in the modern days usage as the room that houses the controls of a vessel. As the time passed by, and technological advancements took place, the wind power eventually gave way to the steam. Sails were first replaced by paddles and the first paddle steamer was born. Paddle steamers are recognisable by their large wheels at either side. The wheels turn propelling the ship forwards. Steamers were often still steered by a rudder though. Yes, some of them did have independent paddle wheels which could run at different speeds but particularly at high speed, a rudder was better.
For steering, the same personnel arrangement also applied, The wheel was operated by the helmsman who took orders from the captain but now there was a problem. From the captain’s traditional position of the quarter deck, the view was now somewhat obstructed by the paddle houses. The captain could still give the orders, but could not properly see where the ship was going.
The obvious solution would have been to climb on top of one of the paddle houses to get an all-round view. Fortunately, there was already access as engineers needed access to the top for inspecting the paddle blades. The captain could still climb up and still give orders to the helmsman for steering.
In the interest of efficiency, a ‘bridge’ was often built connecting the two paddle houses together. This started as a bridge in the most literal sense, and became the ship’s ‘bridge’ as we know it today. The captain could command the ship from the bridge, sending steering orders to the wheelhouse and engine orders to the engineers.
As time moved further, paddle gave way to propellers, but the concept of the ‘bridge’ remained. Accommodation areas replaced paddle houses, and the bridge remained above. Further developments enhanced the capabilities of the bridge. Remote operation evolved, allowing the steering to transfer to the bridge of the ship itself. Not just the wheel, but the entire wheelhouse was literally built on the bridge.
As engine controls became remote as well, these were added to an ever expanding wheelhouse. For manoeuvring, some ships would extend the bridge right to the side of the ship, creating wings. Of course, as navigation itself was conducted from the bridge, a chart room was also needed where Captain could plan the ship’s voyage and monitor her position from the chart room.
With the invention of the radio communication, ships needed a radio room. In the beginning, it was located near to the bridge, but as radio navigation became important, the radio room itself was built onto the bridge. A modern day bridge contains all the necessary elements for the control of the ship.
Here is a detailed video on this interesting subject: