OAR (A.S. dr; M. Eng. ore; Lat. remus; Gr. eper/jfe : Sans. arilra; Fr. rame; Ital. Span., Port, rama), the instrument used for propelling a boat in rowing (?..). The word " oar " is probably derived from an old root ar, meaning to drive, to force away (cf. ar-ar-e, aratrum, plough). Such an appellation would easily be suggested by the visible difference in the action of the power employed by means of the oar against a thowl, or rowlock, from that of the more primitive paddle, where the power is gained by the action of one hand against the other. In the development of rowing from paddling the task of shaping the instrument of propulsion must have followed gradually the necessities indicated by use. In rowing, as well as in paddling, the leverage is of the second order, in which the weight lies between the power and the fulcrum. The point at which the power pressed the arm of the lever against the weight in rowing would soon attract attention by the frequent breakage of the paddle so employed. Experience would demand a thicker loom, and would soon teach the desirability of increasing the leverage where possible, and upon this would arise naturally the practical questions of the length of the oar, of the breadth of the blade, and of the right proportion of the parts of the oar, inboard and outboard, to each other. Then would also occur the problem of how to keep this proportion, which in practice would be liable to disarrangement by the slipping outward of the oar during the recovery from each stroke. Hence would arise the use of the thong (rpoiros, TpoTrtartip), familiar to ancient Greek and modern Levantine, and, in northern and western waters, the invention of the " button," with which in various shapes the rowing world is now provided. Other devices, such as a hole bored in a piece of wood attached to the oar, or even a metal ring, will, in different localities, be found answering the same purpose.
In the early stages of the transition from paddling to rowing, the oar would naturally be used at an acute angle vertically to the boat's side. In paddling the upper hand is used to push from you, the lower hand to pull towards you. But in rowing both hands are used to pull towards you. As long as the oar was used at an acute angle vertically to the boat's side, the position of the upper hand on the oar would have to be reversed, as it would more easily grasp the oar with the wrist turned inward towards the body. In many of the earlier representations of rowing this position of the upper hand seems to be indicated. This distinction should not be lost sight of, as the position of the hands on the oar affects not only the character of the stroke, but also the requirements as to the length of the oar and the breadth of the blade. The form of the oars given in the representations of early Egyptian ships is suggestive of paddles used as oars. Paddle-shaped also are the oars of the Phoenician ships shown on the Assyrian sculptures at Koyunjik (Layard), the date of which is about 700 B.C. The same form is seen on some of the early vases, but in some that are attributed to two centuries later the form is modified, and the oar blade proper begins to take shape.
The types exhibited in the representations of the Roman galleys are generally heavy and clumsy enough in appearance. Still they are veritable oars, not paddles. The material of which the ancient oars were usually made was pine, which then, as now, was most suitable for the purpose, being tough and comparatively light and easily shaped as regards loom and blade.
The oars of the Attic trireme were, if we may judge by those of which only we have the measurement recorded, not much longer for the upper bank than those of a modern racing eight, while those of the middle and lower banks could not have been much longer than those used now in the whalers and dinghies of the Royal Navy. As the oarsmen on either side probably sat in the same vertical plane, the inboard portion of the oars amidships was longer than the inboard of those fore and aft, having to conform to the curvature of the vessel's sides (cf. Aristotle, Mechanica, v.). No doubt in vessels of larger size the upper tiers of oars would be longer, and, if we are to believe Callixenus, as cited by Athenaeus, in the great ship of Ptolemy the oars of the upper tier were over 50 ft. in length with handles leaded so as to equalize the weight inboard and outboard.
It is difficult to trace any detail of difference between the oars of the Roman period and those of the Byzantine and medieval galleys. In the medieval galley by the invention of the " apostis," a framework on which the thowls were fixed, sufficient room was given for the play of longer oars, and, as the necessity of combining speed with greater carrying power in the galley became pressing, the arrangement alia scaloccio came into vogue, employing four or five or even seven men to each of the long sweeps by which the galleys and galleasses were propelled. For these large oars we hear of ash and beech being used as well as pine.
Table showing Oars used in Royal Navy.
Notes. (i) Since 1893 some curved or spoon-bladed oars have been made at Devonport. (2) There is no record of buttons being used, but on fir oars, which were covered with canvas on the loom, it was sometimes customary to work a Turk's head at the end of the canvas for ornament. (3) As regards sweeps, they used to be made of ash and were 30 ft. long. They were used last in training brigs, but there is no record of them for the last twenty years.
In the Mediterranean the galley propelled by oars long remained the principal type of war vessel. In the Atlantic, and in the northern seas, it was otherwise.
The employment of artillery on board ship gradually determined a change in the method of propulsion. The use of sails became necessary, and remained dominant until the introduction of steam (see SHIP). But as late as the time of the Spanish Armada, and even later, large sea-going vessels were provided with long sweeps which came into use when sailing was not available. In our own time, in the lighters on tidal rivers, may be seen long oars, plied by one or two or more men, which recall the type of oars once in general use in large galleys three centuries ago.
The oars used by the Northmen were, to judge by the remains discovered along with old Viking ships l at Gokstad and elsewhere, very similar to those in use at the present time in the fishing boats around our coasts. Those of the large craft were, to judge by the length of one found whole, somewhat over 18 ft. in length with a 5-in. blade and a diameter of 3 in. halfway down the loom. Some smaller oars, evidently used for boats, measured n ft. with a 4-in. blade. The oars were of pine, and the looms of some of them showed a groove cut for a clamp at the place where the oar rested on the sill of the rowlock. Comparing these oars with the measurements given below of oars now in use in the Royal Navy, it is apparent that there is no great difference in type between them.
Passing on to oars used on rivers and fresh water generally, we find the type differs considerably from that of the oars used in sea-going craft. The chief difference consists in the shape of the blade, which, instead of continuing the straight line of the loom in its expansion to its proper breadth, is fashioned in a curve calculated to offer a rigid resistance to the water during the stroke. 2 The loom below the button is not rounded but is more of an oval to the front with a flat back. From the oval front a spine runs down into the blade, in some cases to nearly half its length. During the last few years the so-called " girder " oars, with much thicker looms but double grooved along their length, have been used for racing purposes. This invention gives additional strength and stiffness, without increasing the weight of the oar, which varies a little but is usually about 8 Ib. The blades vary much in breadth, as indeed do the oars in total length, and in proportion of inboard to outboard. The necessities of the sliding seat in racing boats have given rise to much difference of opinion among rowing men as to the right proportion. In the middle of the 19th century the use of square looms inboard, and of a button to turn inside and against the thowl, was common, and most oars had a small slab of hard wood let in below the button, so as to save the oar from wear and tear at the rowlock. But since round looms came into vogue the round leather ear has taken the place of the old square button, and the loom is covered with leather for some inches above and below this so as to protect it from abrasion.
Of late the introduction of swivel rowlocks for racing boats has caused a further modification in the form of buttons. Swivel rowlocks have come into general use for sculling boats, pair oars and coxswainless fours. But as yet they do not appear to have captured the racing eight, except in a few instances. Neither crews nor coaches in English waters seem inclined to part with the time-honoured rhythmic music of the oar in the rowlock, which from the days of antiquity even until now has, to practised ears, told its own tale as to the crew being together or not in the stroke.
In the case of racing eights, when the round loom oars superseded the square loom, the early patterns were commonly (e.g. in 1857) 12' 6" over all, 3' 8* inboard, with a long blade 4!" to 5* in breadth. These were succeeded by a pattern 12' 6" over all, 3' 6* inboard, with a much shorter blade 6* broad.
Since sliding seats came in the average oar has been 12' 4* over all, 3' 8" inboard, with 5^" to 6J" blades. The modern racing oar may be said to date from 1869, the year of the Oxford and Harvard race at Putney. Until very lately no material alteration had taken place in this pattern, except in the matter of width oi blade. Some authorities, however, are, as has been 1 See Viking Ship, Nicolaysen (Christiania, 1882). 'Since 1890 the curved blade seems to have been adopted in some cases in the oars made at Devonport for the Royal Navy.
said above, far from satisfied with the present average oar, and are using shorter patterns, n' 10* or 12' o* over all, 3' 7" inboard, and 7" blades.
Single grooved oars were first made in America. But with the single groove a side weakness is often developed in the loom, and hence the double girder, invented by G. Ayling, has generally superseded the single groove, though many oarsmen prefer the box loom by the same inventor.
It is clear, however, that no finality has been reached in the making of oars. Tubular oars, first introduced at Henley by the Belgian crew in 1906, are now being tried, with circular or quadrangular bores, strengthened by the insertion of an aluminium shell.
For much of the information above given respecting the recent developments in oar-making for racing purposes and river work, the writer is indebted to Messrs Ayling & Sons of Putney, whose patented inventions and improvements are well known to rowing men. (E. WA.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)