Science Saturday- Lionel Lukin

In this Science Saturday story Charlie Keeble tells the remarkable story of one of the most iconic boats on our shorelines. It’s inventor is not that widely known as the boat itself but he has made a great invention that has saved countless lives at sea.

Lionel Lukin

Lionel Lukin is from Great Dunmow in Essex. He was born in May 1742 to a well to do farming family. His father is a descendent of Admiral Lionel Lane, who commanded the flagship of Lord Nelson, HMS Victory in the Anglo-Dutch Wars long before the Battle of Trafalgar. Lukin did not become a sailor himself, but was apprenticed as a coach builder, where he learned the craft of building horse carriages. He reached the top of his profession to become Master of the Worshipful Company of Coachmakers and Coach Harness Makers.

Later he built a coach building business in Long Acre, Central London where he had a fashionable house in Chelsea. But it was in boat building that he applied his inventive skills to that would make him famous. In 1785 he patented a design for the world’s first unsinkable, or more appropriately to give it’s technical name, an unimmergible boat. It was unimmergible in the sense that it could capsize but not fill with water and sink. 

A year before Lukin realised that lifeboats could save people’s lives if they were sink proof. These particular lifeboats were the ones launched from the coast towards people whose ships would crash onto the shore. In those days sailing vessels tended to frequently crash off the shores of Britain because they were hard to handle and steer themselves downwind. Forsafety purposes that they needed life saving boats wherever possible on the shore line ready to launch at a moment’s notice. But the lifeboats they had then were prone to capsizing because the people in them would struggle to keep the boat balanced in the water, as the rough waves would make them flip. 

Lukin experimented with a design by modifying a Norwegian yawl by fitting it’s internal hull with watertight compartments and the top with buoyant gunwales. To balance the boat he added a false iron keel on the bottom to act as ballast. That way any attempt to make the boat capsize would be impossible, because it’s weighted keel would make it flip itself right up again. Lukin’s lifeboat was revolutionary and when he tested in on the River Thames it was highly innovative. No matter how many times it capsized it just wouldn’t submerge. Also because of the way the buoyancy of the vessel had been improved it could hold more people than it normally would, because it was far lighter than the water it displaced.

The original design of Lukin’s lifeboat from 1785, showing the cross section of the boat’s hull to make it sinkproof using air and cork filled compartments.

The following year in 1786 the Archdeacon of Northumberland approached Lukin asking for his design to be built into a boat to launch off the coast of Bamburgh. In doing so he set up the first modern lifeboat station ready to be launched out to see at any given time by volunteers. Lukin went onto promote his lifeboat design but he never profited from his invention, for he had no intention of doing so because he felt that the benefit of a device that could save lives at sea was more important than making money from this endeavour. This would explain why Lionel Lukin is not that famous an inventor for boat building. But he was commended by the Royal Humane Society for creating the ultimate life saving boat. 

Later in 1823 Lukin responded to a request from Sir William Hillary to make an organisation in his famous declaration. That was an ‘appeal to the nation for the formation of a national institution for the preservation of lives and property from shipwreck’. A year later in March 1824 in Bishopsgate it was launched under the name of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution – RNLI.

The RNLI Severn class lifeboat. The biggest and most well known lifeboat design introduced in 1993.

Soon after Lionel Lukin left behind the fabulous rescue services he helped create. He soon gave up his coachbuilding business and retired to Hythe in Kent where he became active in church affairs. He died there in 1834. On back of his tombstone reads “This LIONEL LUKIN was the first who built a Life-boat, and was the original inventor of that principle of safety, by which many lives and much propertyhave been preserved from Shipwreck; and he obtained for it the King’s patent in the year 1785.”

RNLI Lifeboat station at Southend on Sea.

It’s been estimated that over 142,700 lives of the RNLI have been saved since it’s creation. All by the lifeboat that Lionel Lukin invented and it continues to do so by volunteer crews.They also educate people about safety and survival at sea.Everyone knows the RNLI’s lifeboats from their sight on the shorelines up and down the coast of Great Britain. Their distinctive orange and blue colours make them one of the most recognisable seaside icons in their own right. Ready for action to come to the rescue of people caught up in dangerous hazards at sea.

2 thoughts on “Science Saturday- Lionel Lukin

  • 1st August 2022 at 8:42 am

    Just to point out that the picture of the RNLI station at Southend features a hovercraft (on the left) and an inflatable boat on the right, neither of which rely on Lukin’s idea.

    • 1st August 2022 at 9:55 am

      The last time I took that photo was in 2017 and there was no Severn class lifeboat there. But this being a story about Essex scientists I had to use a picture of a lifeboat station in Essex and Southend-on-Sea was a good location to choose. Even though they had no Severn class there I decided to use that photo to highlight the RNLI being present on the Essex shoreline.


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