Why swinging saloons failed

The SS Bessemer was an experimental Victorian ship that attempted to solve the age-old problem of seasickness among passengers by isolating the main cabin (saloon) from the rest of the vessel. The idea behind this was that if the main saloon could remain stationary (horizontal) in relation to the tilting hull of the ship, then passengers would not be exposed to stomach-churning, unnatural movements while on board.

The cabin was isolated by suspending it on gimbals from the deck and kept horizontal mechanically by an array of hydraulic cylinders controlled by a steersman. To keep the cabin floor at 180 degrees, the steersman simply consulted a spirit level to determine the tilt and then counteracted it.

On paper it seemed like an ingenious solution; in reality, however, it was to prove a monumental failure. While the suspension system worked, mitigating a large amount of cabin sway, the shifting centre of gravity made the ship almost unsteerable and very unpredictable while at sea – two factors that led it to crash into Calais pier on its first trip. The poor performance at sea, catastrophic maiden voyage and huge costs involved in the project saw it being wound up, with the ship dismantled only four years after its first – and last – commercial voyage.