Brass Monkey

Posted by R. Berg on February 06, 2002

In Reply to: Brass Monkey Reductio Ad Absurdam posted by James Briggs on February 05, 2002

: : : : : : :
: : : : : : : lot's of wild speculations about brass monkeys by Ms Camel et al (who's Al?)

: : : : : : :
: : : : : : : James Briggs said:
: : : : : : : "As the one who originally posted the the 'powder and brass monkey' explanation, and also a bit of a scientist, I have to point out that a coefficient of linear change gets magnified quite a bit when applied to a ring..."

: : : : : : : Hmm! You assert this without evidence or argument, scientific or otherwise. If I were forced to speculate as to how a heated ring expands under heating I'd probably say:

: : : : : : : If the temperature is changed to cause a 1m bar to expand by 1 unit then the circumference of a ring of diametre 1m would expand by pi units (i.e. 3.14 and a bit units).

: : : : : : : Maybe that's what you meant by "magnified".

: : : : : : : _*BUT*_ the diametre of this ring only increases by 1 unit, so what's your point?

: : : : : : : Cordially,
: : : : : : : TheUnlurker

: : : : : : : PS: Which bit of a scientist did you post? I can't find it anywhere.

: : : : : : A degree in Medicine! Physical objects have 3 dimensions. When cold, a ring contracts in diameter, width of the band and its height. Thus it shrinks significantly, enough to squeeze tightly backed iron balls (with a much less co-efficient of expansion/shrinkage than brass) out from the ring. In any case, this discussion is about the origin of the phrase, and not about the physical properties of brass - or iron, come to that! Do you have a better suggestion for the origin? I'd welcome it.

: : : : : Oh I don't know, er, let me think, let me think...
: : : : : maybe it's a vulgarization of "cold enough to freeze the whiskers/tail off a brass monkey". But that just begs the question (sound of a million postings being typed on the subject of begging questions).

: : : : : I am charmed that you think that this amounts to a game of best suggestions, but forgive me one more time visiting the world of the real; if, as you say, "when cold, a ring contracts in diameter (and) the width of the band contracts" wouldn't these effects tend to cancel each other out?

: : : : : Regards,
: : : : : TheUnlurker

: : : : OK, I give you best, but only because I have researched the true shape of a 'Brass Monkey' and nothing to do with the physics of metal expansion/contraction!
: : : : A 'Google' search came up with a two sites with some historical accounts. I reproduce them.

: : : : Quote 1: It has often been claimed that the "brass monkey" was a holder or storage rack in which cannon balls (or shot) were
: : : : stacked on a ship. Supposedly when the "monkey" with its stack of cannon ball became cold, the contraction of iron
: : : : cannon balls led to the balls falling through or off of the "monkey."
: : : : This explanation appears to be a legend of the sea without historical justification. In actuality, ready service shot was kept on the gun or spar decks in shot racks (also known as shot garlands in the Royal Navy) which consisted of longitudinal wooden planks with holes bored into them, into which round shot (cannon balls) were inserted for ready use by the gun crew. These shot racks or garlands are discussed in: Longridge, C. Nepean. The Anatomy of Nelson's Ships. (Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 1981): 64. A top view of shot garlands on the upper deck of a ship-of-the-line is depicted in The Visual Dictionary of Ships and Sailing. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1991): 17.

: : : : From Peter Grace: "Over here in Queensland, it gets pretty cool in the evenings at this time of the year (though it's probably pretty mild by UK standards). The other day, I used the expression brass monkey weather and was asked to explain. Any ideas?"
: : : : The full expansion of the phrase is "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey" and is extremely common throughout the English-speaking world, often reduced to the form you give, no doubt in polite company. The origin is unknown. All I can report is that variants of it were first recorded in the USA in the early part of this century. There is some suspicion, because of a citation from 1835, that the phrase may in fact be at least of this age.
: : : : There is a story, often repeated, that the phrase originated in naval warfare at the time of the Napoleonic wars, if not before. It is said that the stack of cannon balls alongside each gun, arranged in a pyramid on a brass plate to save space, was called a monkey. In very cold weather, it is related, the cannon balls would shrink and balls would fall off the stack.
: : : : Though monkey was a term used in this context and era (the boys bringing charges to the guns from the magazine were known as powder monkeys and there is some evidence that a type of cannon was called a monkey in the mid seventeenth century), there is no evidence for the word being applied to a pile of cannon shot.
: : : : The explanation sounds like a story that's been woven around a term already well known and is full of logical holes: would they pile shot into a pyramid? (hugely unsafe on a rolling and pitching deck); why a brass plate? (far too expensive, and unnecessary: they actually used wooden frames with holes in, called garlands, fixed to the sides of the ship); was the plate and pile together actually called a monkey? (no evidence, as I say); would cold weather really cause such shrinkage as to cause balls to fall off? (highly improbable, as all the balls would reduce in size equally and the differential movement between the brass plate and the iron balls would be only a fraction of a millimetre).
: : : : Fun story, though.

: : : : I'll modify the account on my web site
: : : : James B

: : : Are you conceding the point? You seem to have chosen quotes that suppport my position not yours.

: : : I quote from your quotes:
: : : "This explanation appears to be a legend of the sea without historical justification"
: : : and
: : : "The explanation sounds like a story that's been woven around a term already well known and is full of logical holes"

: : : Regards,
: : : TheUnlurker

: : Not being of scientific bent at all, I always find it helps, if painted into a particularly tricky corner, to blame Quantum Mechanics. I am quite certain that Schroedinger's cat has some bearing on things here, and on its behalf, I simply yet respectfully point out that nobody knows how much or how little brass may contract at cold temperatures when nobody's actually watching or measuring it. Therefore, the cannonball explanation is absolutely more than scientifically possible.

: : (Poor Isaac Newton must be spinning in his grave. Those clever scientific types simply had no idea how huge a can of worms they were opening when they came up with Quantum theory - it's the universal balloon pricker).

: I accept that 'brass monkeys' were such that they were most unlikely to have existed, at least to any great degree. I thought that was clear from my last posting. 'I give you best', was meant to imply that.
: As far as the expansion/contraction is concerned, had 'brass monkeys' existed, then they would have shrunk enough to squeeze out cannon balls!

But wouldn't the cannonballs have shrunk too?

The usual cautions about proving a negative apply, but let's see what the "Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea" says (Oxford University Press, 1976). Its entry for "monkey" has three parts: "the name of a small coastal trading vessel, single-masted with a square sail . . . ," "a small wooden kid or cask in which grog was carried after issue from the grog-tub to the seamen's messes in ships of the British Navy . . . ," "the name given to a form of marine steam reciprocating engine . . . ." There are also entries for "monkey block," "monkey jacket," and "monkey-pump." Given this level of detail, if racks for storing cannonballs had been called monkeys, I should think the Oxford Companion would say so.
The OED doesn't give such a definition under "monkey," either. However, it does say that "monkey" is an obsolete term for a kind of cannon.