truck-canoe hybrids

Water-Taxi in Bangkok

One of the key moments along my path ‘through’ sociocultural anthropology was when several years ago I listened to Kurt Beck‘s presentation on the cultural appropriation of the diesel-engine in the Sudan (meanwhile published as Beck 2001). Diesel-powered pumps finally replaced the saqiya, an ox-driven pump used for irrigating the fields located on the banks of river Nile. Later on followed bedford’s metamorphosis: hotbeds of creativity—the appropriation of the truck in Sudan (Beck 2004), which inspired Gabriel Kläger’s website
Africars—the latter includes an online version of the
hotbeds of creativity
featuring a ton of insightful pictures illustrating the inventions and the whole process of reworking undertaken by the blacksmiths-turned-engineers.

The diesel-engine is not only culturally appropriated in Africa, but quite naturally around the globe. In his weblog-entry
Improbable engineering James Gosling describes Bangkok’s water-taxis, true truck-canoe hybrids:

One of my favorite hacks is the rather improbably piece of engineering known in Thailand as a longtail boat. They function as taxis and tour boats in the many waterways of Bangkok. […]

When you look at them when they get closer, you see a truck engine mounted on the stern with a long piece of pipe stretching out toward the bow that the boatman holds on to. There’s another piece of pipe welded onto the transmission pointing out toward the stern [.]

When the boatman pushes on his piece of pipe, it rotates the engine left, right, up or down. When he pushes down, it rotates the tail upward and you get to see the business end of the beast: a naked propeller just hanging out there.

Safety is not a real concern here. Balance is pretty dubious too. These boats are pretty narrow, 4ish feet at best. They’re really just evolved canoes. It must take an amazing amount of skill to stay balanced, navigate, and not kill anyone. At speed …

The engines are just regular truck engines, mounted on a U shaped yoke, bolted to the stern. Some of the engines are very large—they wouldn’t look out of place in a large Fruehauf tractor. Not a lot of standardized rigs—lots of welding fun. A truly glorious hack.

The story was made known widely via an
entry at boingboing by Cory Doctorow. A boingboing-reader furnished some
background on the water-taxis:

It’s not well known that those boats originate from a change in the British government’s motor vehicle Construction and Use Regulations in the late 1960s. What with the new motorway construction programme well under way, the (largely old) truck fleet had begun to get in the way. So the then Ministry of Transport introduced a minimum power-to-weight ratio.

This meant that a ton of trucks with Gardner LX 105hp (mostly) or Perkins P4 engines suddenly became obsolete. Exporting second-hand trucks to places that would accept them (essentially, the third world) was not great business, so they were either scrapped or retrofitted with more wallop. Hence a mass of very reliable, very user-serviceable diesel engines going begging.

Some sly fox saw a chance, and went round the country buying the engines and shipping them to Hong Kong and Singapore for sale to chandlers. As the engine arrived complete with the reverse box and the end of a propshaft, they just put in a length of shaft and a prop. Local boat builders came up with the rest and a new, unmistakable craft was born.

They still have (even brand-new ones with much later power units, radar and GPS) the traditional eyes on each side of the bow, a custom recorded everywhere from the Mediterranean to Japan and back into pre-classical antiquity.

initially via entry at boingboing | picture by James Gosling

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