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How the Gaza humanitarian aid pier traces its origins to discarded cigar boxes before World War II

Frank A. Blazich Jr., Smithsonian Institution, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

Palestinians in Gaza have begun receiving humanitarian aid delivered through a newly completed floating pier off the coast of the besieged territory. Built by the U.S. military and operated in coordination with the United Nations, aid groups and other nations’ militaries, the pier can trace its origins back to a mid-20th century U.S. Navy officer who collected discarded cigar boxes to experiment with a new idea.

Among the artifacts of the military collections of the National Museum of American History, I happened upon these humble cigar boxes and the remarkable story they contain.

In 1939, John Noble Laycock, then a commander in the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps, was assigned, as the war plans officer for the Navy’s Bureau of Yards and Docks in Washington, D.C., to help prepare for a potential war in the Pacific.

Laycock had to figure out how to construct naval bases on undeveloped islands. The top priority would be what the military called “naval lighterage,” the process of getting cargo and supplies from ships to a shoreline where there were no ports or even piers to dock at.

That’s exactly the problem the relief effort faced in Gaza – and one that military forces and humanitarian groups have faced countless times in the past century.

In the office files of his predecessors, Laycock found plans developed in the 1930s to use small pontoons – essentially floating boxes – that could be easily transported and quickly assembled by hand into larger barges or floating platforms. But Laycock saw problems with the plans’ design and method of connecting the pontoons to each other. And he had an idea.

 

In my research into his work, I found that around July 1940, Laycock began visiting every concessionaire in the Navy’s headquarters building, which was then located along the National Mall, asking them to save empty cigar boxes for him. Laycock and a helper lined up the boxes and spaced them evenly. Then they linked them together using wooden strips from children’s kites, which they fastened to the corners of the boxes with small nuts and screws.

The simple model demonstrated that it was possible to connect individual, uniformly sized, small pontoon boxes into a much longer, and much stronger, floating beam. Multiple beams could be combined into the base for a platform of any needed size. A big enough platform could support cargo, military trucks and armored vehicles weighing up to 55 tons.

In August 1940, during his family vacation, Laycock figured out how exactly to connect the individual pontoons, which were made of steel and not wood or cardboard like his cigar-box model. He designed steel fasteners – scaled-up nuts and bolts nicknamed “jewelry” that could be inserted and tightened by hand – that could handle the stress of the movement of the ocean beneath a floating platform.

Through trial and error, and applying various military requirements such as the width of the steel plates, weight of the empty pontoon, depth needed to float and load-bearing capacity, Laycock designed a basic pontoon 5 feet high by 7 feet long by 5 feet wide. He also designed a curved section to serve as the bow of a pontoon-based transport vessel. By 1941, testing had proved the design and the system were ready for mass production.

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