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Industrial artefacts such as coal mines, railways, canals, factories. docks, ships followed certain procedures to achieve their outcomes. We aim to place statements of what happened in a narrative and use historical records of the procedures and the attributes of the artefacts to visualise how they happened. This will be achieved by writing applications that read the narrative and deduce the resulting movements of the various artefacts involved.


Industrial heritage is important to this country and the world. It provides a memory of our past and it can provide inspiration for future generations of scientists and engineers. Industrial heritage includes many artefacts displayed in very popular museums (e.g. the Maritime Museum in Liverpool, the Science Museum in London and its partners in Manchester and York) or on their original sites (e.g. Ironbridge in Shropshire). There are hundreds of heritage railway lines that attract many thousands of visitors each year.

However, many of these displays are static or operate under circumstances that cannot replicate fully the original operations. We have photographs of the way things were and some video clips but these do not give a comprehensive view of how the whole thing operated.

The development of  technology has now made it possible to develop realistic visualisations of these operations that would be immediately accessible to the general public on dedicated screens within the museum or other heritage complex or on-line via tablets and mobile phones.

The 3D Parametric Modelling Project aims to explore the possibilities of the technology. It also aims to develop tools that require no specialist knowledge of using 3D modelling software but will enable the rapid creation of accurate, detailed animated models.  The project  has gone some way towards achieving its aims.

The 3D Parametric Modelling Project has provided a tool (ThingBuilder) to build animated 3D models of artefacts that include ports, sailing ships and paddle steamers. It has provided another tool (ScenarioBuilder) that enables the user to generate automatically a 3D, real-time visualisation of narratives describing the actions of the artefacts.

How far we have got

We are using the operations of sailing ships and ports to demonstrate our ideas.

Sailing ship operations are complex and not many people know how to sail a large, sailing ship. We have had a go at estimating how a sailing ship operates as it sails at various angles to the wind as illustrated by this video. Further refinement will be carried out after input from specialists in the field.

Sailing ship tacking

This video captured from ScenarioBuilder shows a sailing ship tacking. The movements of the yards and sails and the rolling of the hull were computed automatically by ScenarioBuilder from the state of the wind and sea and the characteristics of the ship.

Ports offer the opportunity to model a wide range of artefacts that work together and can be fascinating to watch. Many ports in England such as Liverpool , London and Gloucester no longer operate as they did because of the coming of containerisation. There is a lot of interest though in seeing how they did operate in the past.

Ports have developed over time and 3D Parametric Modelling Project can provide working models of a port at any chosen time.

The operations of the ports can be stated simply but their realisation can be very complex.  For example the docking of a ship might be recorded in a narrative as “SS Liberty docks unassisted in Southampton at Berth 44 at 06:00 am“. We are able to visualise her movements as she docks if we know:

  • the characteristics of the ship regarding movement through docks
  • the geometry of the docks,
  • the route into them that ships of the size of the SS Liberty would take

Here are some video clips of ships in and near Liverpool docks. The docks are a first draft of a model built with ThingBuilder. The movements of the ships conform to our initial ideas of how they moved. Both port and ships will be refined as the software is developed.

Sailing ship setting sail

The sailing ship leaves harbour and sets sail. The sails are set according to “sail plans” that are part of the characteristics of the ship.

Paddle steamers near Albert Dock

Two paddle steamers sail past swing bridges through the Canning Half Tide Dock.  The ship arriving from the right is coming from the Albert Dock.

Sailing down the Mersey

In this view two sailing ships and a paddle steamer are sailing down the Mersey. Another paddle steamer passes them sailing upstream. The Three Graces (Royal Liver Building, Cunard Building, Port of Liverpool Building) appear on the left.


We are looking to extend the visualisations to encompass more procedures. Thus, if we  have narrative statements such as “SS  City of Yazoo is carrying 1000 bales of cotton. It docks at Berth 20 at 5:00 pm. It starts to unload at 7:00 pm.” The movements of the ship, and the bales of cotton can be deduced if we know:

  • the characteristics of the ship regarding movement through docks
  • the geometry of the docks,
  • the route into them that ships of the size of the SS City of Yazoo would take
  • how the tug boats would operate that manoeuvre her along the route
  • where the dock side cranes are to be positioned
  • the method of operation of the cranes
  • the geometry of the warehouse storing the cotton

The movement of the cotton away from the warehouse via railway can also be deduced if we know: the railway track geometry the availability of  rolling stock the carrying capacity of the wagons the loading operation of the wagons the size of trains to be used to take away the cotton

In principle there is no reason why the journey of a cotton or wool bale from the loading point on an Australian or US river onto a steam boat to arrival at the cotton or wool mill in the north of England cannot be visualised in this way.

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