From warship to research vessel

The ship becomes a laboratory

Engraving of the Chemical Laboratory on HMS Challenger

Originally designed to police the ocean-highways of the world as part of Britain’s imperial navy, Challenger was modified to act as a scientific instrument to remotely gather information about our oceans.

Challenger was one of ten Royal Navy vessels designated as Pearl-class corvettes in the 1850s. Eighteen of the ship’s 20 guns were removed from the main deck, making space for the scientific expedition, including scientists, instruments, and specimens.

Previous expeditions had modified ships for scientific work, but the transformation of Challenger was a turning point in the design of research vessels. The ship’s modifications allocated dedicated working spaces to scientists, giving credibility to a field that would become known as oceanography.

Harmony on board: a shared space for scientists and seamen

Social cohesion between scientists and naval officers was essential for the success of oceanographic voyages. The plans of the lower deck not only reveal the large crew required to operate Challenger during the expedition, but how social relationships were organised through the use of space.

Unlike the extensive modifications of the upper and main decks, the lower deck was relatively unchanged. With its full complement at the beginning of the voyage, 20 naval staff, 5 scientific staff, and 213 seamen and marines slept, ate, and spent most of their free time on the lower deck. This shared space bridged scientific and naval cultures at sea.

Learn how instruments were used and adapted during the voyage in the next section.