A history of innovation and imagination

Within days of the National Institution for the Preservation of Life From Shipwreck* forming, a Committee of Invention was established. Its purpose? To explore innovations in boat design and decide where money would best be spent on new developments to save more lives at sea.

A history of innovation and imagination

Ever since, RNLI staff and volunteers have been coming up with new ideas, as well as keeping a finger on the pulse of developments in the wider maritime world.

Whether it was enthusiastic amateurs designing unsinkable lifeboat catamarans, or devising improvements to a new RNLI-endorsed compass during a solo sailing trip, the crowd has informed many leaps forward in search and rescue technology and techniques.

What follows isn’t exhaustive, comprehensive, or impartial: it's just a selection of some of our more innovative and imaginative moments.

*RNLI to you and me. OK, it took us 30 years to come up with a nattier name.

Safety and rescue kit

As well as constantly improving the kit available to our crews, the pages of early editions of The Life-boat Journal were full of recommendations of the latest gadgetry for its seagoing readership. Discount prices would often be negotiated to encourage ships’ companies to stock safety and rescue equipment.

1854: Corking good rescue material

Cork lifejackets have been around since 1765, but it is RNLI Inspector Captain Ward who finesses the design with narrow cork strips sewn to a wearable belt. In 1861, Henry Freeman becomes an early poster boy for the equipment when he is the sole crew survivor of the Whitby lifeboat disaster. He is the only crewman wearing Ward’s new design.

1859: Someone actually finds a use for floating candles

Monsieur Silas, a French gentleman, approaches the RNLI Committee with his ‘inextinguishable lights’, which self-ignite on contact with water, burning brightly for at least half an hour and staying alight for much longer. They will indicate where to search for survivors of nocturnal shipwrecks when all other lights have gone out, or, if wind and tide are favourable, float to shore as a silent call for help.

The Committee has some pretty romantic expectations of this last capability: ‘Casting their brilliant rays far and near, [the lights] would have told their own tale, and would have been so many eloquent although silent appeals to the sympathy of those on shore.’

The RNLI’s Rear-Admiral McHardy and Captain Ward test the lights and find them to be true to their claims. They recommend them at once as a cheap item for all ships to carry onboard, and for lifeboats to carry them as a trial.

1871: Space saving

Space on boats is always at a premium, and despite a cheap offer price from the RNLI, Ward’s lifejackets are hardly being carried on naval and trade ships. For trade, space is money. For the Navy, space and less weight is a tactical advantage. Anyone who’s folded down the banquette seating in their yacht to make a bed every night knows that dual functionality of items aboard is vital.

The RNLI makes a renewed call for the Admiralty to experiment with the buoyancy of cork-stuffed hammocks. It outlines different tests to undertake and works out relative prices for ordinary horse-hair, coconut fibre and cork shaving fillings. A snip at half the price of standard issue horse hair, the cork version gives the Navy ‘an opportunity of practising economy and promoting efficiency at the same time’, as the shavings are a waste product that would otherwise be burned.

1974: Keeping a warm head

By this time the face is the only part of a lifeboat crew member left largely unprotected, especially on inshore lifeboats which lack windscreens and wheelhouses. Even the thickest beards don’t provide that much shelter.

In 1974 the National Research and Development Corporation offers its help to the RNLI with the broad remit of ‘encouraging technical innovation’. Together with other experts, the RNLI designs a wraparound visor, with an unusual, inward tilt that disperses droplets of water by airflow and gravity. It provides the best combination of protection and visibility, which has so far eluded designers.

RNLI Research and Development Officer Stuart Welford has the happy task of testing the new kit out in a wind tunnel with 50mph blasts, spray and near-freezing temperatures (pictured). He finds it brings a marked improvement, going from ‘intolerable’ to merely ‘unpleasant’. From 1977 the helmets with visors are rolled out to Atlantic 21 crews, followed by other inshore lifeboat crews. At the end of his report Welford is already anticipating a day when in-helmet radio comms are possible.

2013: Fishermen's lifejackets

In partnership with Mullion, a lifejacket is designed for commercial fishermen. It is free from trailing straps, made from a wipe-clean material with reinforced Kevlar wear patches, and worn high enough to avoid catching in machinery. Sam Cully, from Portavogie in Northern Ireland, only has this new kit for 2 weeks when his boat sinks. Bravely sharing his story with the world, Sam becomes an advocate for his colleagues to wear similar lifejackets at sea.


From street collections to cryptocurrency, the ways we've raised money to save lives have been as inventive as the lifeboats themselves.

1891: The first charity street collection

Five years after the Mexico disaster, with the tragic loss of 27 lifeboat crew members from Lytham, Southport and St Annes, a public fundraising appeal is launched. Taking the cause to heart, local man Charles Macara and his wife Marion organise the first Lifeboat Saturday in aid of the appeal. Bands, floats and lifeboats parade through the streets of Manchester, followed by volunteers with buckets and purses on poles. This is the first charity street collection ever recorded, and the formula proves popular for decades to come.

1900: Cleaning up with Lifebuoy

In an early example of canny marketing, RNLI crew members feature on this advertisement for Lifebuoy soap. At around the same time, RNLI images can also be found on tins of fish and Player's cigarettes.

1925: The world’s first fundraising chicken?

Young Alison Robertson’s pet chicken is a key member of the RNLI fundraising team at Eastbourne. Born with a weak leg, the chicken becomes a tame family pet. On fundraising Flag Days she is paraded around town in a doll’s pram, coercing people into support with her steely gaze and hoping for more than chicken feed.

Alison goes on to be Chair of the Ladies’ Lifeboat Guild in Eastbourne, and is a formidable fundraiser for the rest of her life.

1956: Late fees for cricketers

A more genteel form of the swear box, a London cricket club fines players who turn up late for matches and donate the proceeds to the RNLI.

2014: Bitcoin

Collecting boxes have taken various shapes over the years, none more unusual (or slender) than the virtual wallet. In July, the RNLI becomes the first major UK charity to accept the digital currency Bitcoin.

The wallet may be virtual, but the benefits are very real. Over £1,700 has been drawn down and converted into sterling so far. It’s good to do this periodically, as the value of digital currencies can be volatile.

Why bother when we all still use cash? The RNLI receives gifts in Wills ranging from bottles of brandy to antique swords, so it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that a Bitcoin gift could be on the horizon. We want to be set up and ready to welcome it. Plus the innovation has attracted new supporters. One Reddit user commented, ‘I’ve always wanted to donate to the RNLI, and now I have.’

'Many inventions': Lifeboat design and fit-out

‘Many Inventions’, a somewhat exasperated article in Journal states that ‘a list of the strange devices which have been brought before the notice of the Life-boat Institution would fill a good-sized volume’. It then notes several ‘freak lifeboat’ designs submitted, in a bid to deter would-be inventors from adding to the growing number of well-meaning but overambitious solutions.

Ultimately, many of the innovations added to lifeboats weren’t new in themselves – it was making their purpose fit for the unique and gruelling demands of saving lives at sea that often stalled their introduction to lifeboating.

1963: First radar onboard

In an unlikely fusion of new meets old, the first radar is funded in memory of Heart of Darkness author Joseph Conrad, following a 1957 appeal on the 100th anniversary of his birth. After several years searching for radar sets suitable for lifeboat use, a Decca type 202 set is installed in the new Oakley class lifeboat.

Bums on seats

Early rowing and sailing lifeboats provided little more than a wooden bench for the crew. Tough on the body, yes, but these crews weren’t zipping along at 40 knots. Today, providing a seat that reduces the impact on the body of speeding to the rescue is more important than ever.

But there’s not much point in designing a silky smooth seating experience if tasks keep pulling you from your perch in rough weather. It’s a bit like sending your child out over the bonnet to towel down your windscreen as you pelt along the motorway. Unnecessary if you’ve got your wipers easily reachable on the dashboard.

1855: Relieving tubes

The new lifeboat stationed at Moelfre has several innovations onboard, including plugs to the relieving tubes (which allow water to drain from the lifeboat when she takes on a big wave). Crucially, these can be ‘withdrawn instantly by the crew without removing from their seats’. There are self-acting plugs in existence, but they aren’t nearly so watertight as the manual version. This way, the leak-free option can be installed with minimal interruption to the crew rowing to the rescue.

2006: Shock mitigation

The new Tamar class lifeboat is designed with shock-mitigating seats that move up to 20cm up and down when the going gets bumpy. A similar design has since been incorporated into the Shannon class lifeboat.

2006: Meet the SIMS

The Systems Information Management System (SIMS) on Tamar and Shannon class lifeboats allows all the crew to run many of the lifeboat’s vital controls from the safety of their seats, from fault finding to chart plotting. Tea making has yet to be integrated, but surely it’s only a matter of time. You can find more about this important development here.

2014: Inshore comfort

With top speeds of up to 40 knots, inshore lifeboats can give volunteer crews a rough ride. So the RNLI has always been on the lookout for technologies to reduce the impact of shock and vibration. Pneumatic seat specialists Park It Here products spend 3 years coming up with a new design for us, and from this year the new seats are being installed in Atlantic 85 lifeboats.

They are designed to be the same size, shape and cost as existing versions, meaning that crew are immediately familiar with the layout, and expensive modifications don’t have to be made to the boats at refit time. More importantly, sea trials show they significantly reduce the effects of boat acceleration on crew.

And finally ...

A hungry inspector gets his priorities right while on passage to Rosslare Harbour.

1927: A wireless-accompanied sausage cookup

As a preventative measure, Rosslare Harbour lifeboat crew heads out beyond the Wexford Harbour Bar when the weather is bad and the fishing fleet are out. But they need a way to contact shore to hear if there are any calls for help. As a result, they become the first lifeboat to have wireless radio installed onboard.

The technology, designed for ships’ lifeboats and fitted with a watertight casing and arm sleeve, is tested as the new Watson class lifeboat makes her way from the Isle of Wight boatyard to the Wexford coast.

The novelty of being able to call a wireless station 85 miles away clearly isn’t that exciting. The District Inspector on the sea trial is much more moved by the crew’s inventive onboard cooking: ‘I do not think there is anything of interest to record except perhaps that fried sausages and tea were enjoyed on the passage … cooked in the lid of a biscuit-tin slung over the funnel.’

Whatever next?

It’s fitting to end with the Life-boat Journal’s comments on the 1885 Exhibition of Inventions, after the RNLI’s existing lifeboat design was judged superior to newly designed hulls:

'There is the attendant danger in being always first, of being lulled into a sense of security, and consequent loss of readiness to go on improving from time to time. We think the two models now exhibited will show that this misfortune has not yet fallen on this Institution whatever the future may have in store.'

Translation: We won’t be resting on our laurels any time soon.

Today, the modern day version of the Committee of Invention is an open forum where staff and volunteers can share innovation successes and new problems. The collective creativity of our charity has tackled problems as diverse as excess pallet packaging and cheap communications devices for kayakers.

The playful, brainstorm style is not to be sniffed at. Sometimes coming up with an idea contrary to the laws of physics, good taste or financial responsibility illuminates the way to something more practical. Below is one tongue-in-cheek idea for how to remind inshore lifeboat crews to stow their mast safely before entering a boathouse. Strapping a cute and noisy puppy to a lifeboat’s mast might not be the most humane way to protect that mast. But turn that puppy into a parking sensor and we may be in business.