New Sci, 24.2.07, had a letter commenting on a previous article about the strength and stamina of trireme rowers 2500 years ago (10.2.07). Patrick Leonard of Southampton wrote:
Only 150 years ago a trained railway “navvy” in the UK was expected to dig out 1 ton of material a day, as I read in a biography of the Victorian civil engineer Robert Stephenson.
The steel plates for the box girder sections of his 1850 Britannia Bridge across the Menai Strait were forged by men wielding 40-pound (18-kilo) sledgehammers. The standard heavy sledge in use today is 14-pound (6.3 kilos). I have used a 28-pound (13-kilo) hammer but it is not something I would recommend.
A 19th-century potter throwing flowerpots would use half a tonne of clays in a day. In 1972 in Uttar Pradesh, India, I witnessed 1.5-metre-tall labourers, who could not have weighed more than 45 kilograms, lifting bags of rice probably weighing 70 kilograms, by rolling the hessian at the top to obtain a grip and hoisting them up and onto their backs with ease.
I suspect working toughness is what is missing now – something not possible to acquire in a gym.
In New Sci Letters 17.3.07, George Parsonage of Glasgow wrote:
The ancient Greeks rowed hours, days, weeks, months, years, doing nothing else during their waking hours. Our modern-day sportsmen and women would be hard pushed to stay shoulder-to-shoulder with these lads.
My father, Ben Parsonage, was the last of the River Clyde boatme/watermen. Without using outboard motors, he could easily row 30 kilometres downriver with a 20-stone (130-kilo) man sitting at the back of the boat and, after a day of work on the river, row back. He could row upriver against currents I have never been able to overcome, to places I have never been able to reach and in times I have never been able to match. At the age of 75 he could still row faster than I could, even though at the young age of 63 I am still the fastest fixed-seat sculler in Scotland. He was 5 feet 1 inch (1.55 metres) tall and weighed only 65 kilograms.