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Feature Article: A History of Running Lights
I have developed a possible sequence for
the development of red and green running lights on ships and aircraft.
I would like to make the following case, derived from a variety
of sources, for what I believe happened. All of the basic information
is available in common reference books but I can't find any record
equating this knowledge to the final conclusion.
Before the invention or application of a rudder to ships, they
were steered by large boards near the stern. These boards could
be on one or even on both sides of the stern. Gradually the boards,
called steerboards, came to be on just the right side.
This eventually led to the right side being called the starboard.
The location of this steerboard on the right meant that the captain
maintained a command proximity to this right stern position. The
captain's cabin and Quarter Deck position is on the right side
of ships to this day. (The reason the captain of an aircraft is
on the left is a postscript)
To protect the steerboard, the placing of such a sailing ship
beside a wharf meant that the left side of the ship would be the
side of choice. From the left side another board was used for
loading and unloading the ship. This loading board eventually
led to the left side of the ship being known as the larboard
side. The vocal distinction between starboard and larboard in
a high wind could easily lead to misinterpretation.
We must now move to the 15th Century. During this period England
and France were having one of their periodic disagreements. The
English decided to boycott French products including wine. Seeking
another source of wine the English turned to Portugal. Portugal
produced a red wine, which when fortified (made more alcoholic),
was suitable to the English taste. A trade agreement resulted
between England and Portugal with English cloth being exchanged
for Portuguese wine.
The major port used for shipping wine out of Portugal at that
time was known as O Porto. O Porto is located in northwest
Portugal and is now known as Porto. The increased trade into this
port could have precipitated the need that "starboard"
and "larboard" be modified. The left docking and loading
side of the wine trade ships at O Porto would have made
the change to the term "port" both possible, practical,
The combination of the Latin porto (to carry), the practicality
of docking to the left side, and need for a more distinctive term
for the left side of a ship leads me still further. It is not
very difficult to see how the word port became associated with
the red of Portuguese wine. There should be little doubt that
the ships of the wine trade would acquire a characteristic red
color on the left side. The combination of the left side of the
ship being the side nearest the port or loading side, the port
of O Porto, and the red wine lead me to suggest such was the process.
Red along with the word port became the accepted identification
for the left side of a ship. The selection of green lights for
the right side follows more directly. I suggest that the red and
green of the Portuguese flag have become the running lights of
the world. Thus, even in its decline as a seafaring nation, Portugal
still shows its colors more than any other nation.
Last Modified June 23, ©2017 TAGE.COM