When the Empress of Ireland would dock and drop off her passengers it took about a week to clean the ship, bring in fresh supplies such as food, beverages, wash the linen and most important of all reload all the coal bunkers in the ship for the return voyage. The Empress could carry 1,800 tons of coal in the longitudinal coal bunkers, another 600 tons of coal in the 'thwart ship bunker and 800-900 tons of coal in the 'tween decks.
But how did they get all that coal onto the ship within a week?
It would take a very large group of laborers’ to load the ship manually and on top of that it was a very dirty job as coal dust would slowly cover the ship which would have to be cleaned before new passengers were to board. It was also extremely expensive and very time consuming.
By 1907, the British Admiralty had been looking for some kind of system that would overcome the long delays of re coaling their warships faster and reducing the labor costs. The Admiralty of the day had spend huge sums of money building coaling depots in various areas, experiments had been taken to see if the Admiralty could see if they could reduce or get rid of the hand laborers’ at the coaling depots and at the ships bunkers.
In November 1906 the same year that the Empress of Ireland was launched into service, the Admiralty brought in two of their warships the H.M.S. ’s Vengeance and Cornwallis to Mersey, to test a new piece equipment called Clarke’s automatic coaling system to see just how quickly it could fill a warship using between 900 to 1,000 tons of coal fill the H.M.S. Vengeance and using hand laborers’ they would fill the H.M.S. Cornwallis.
How the automatic coaling system worked. The barge can be operated by a one man crew and he can control the complete mechanism, he regulates the speed of the coal and when to start and stop it. There were two separate barges both loaded with 452 tons of coal; both barges were designed with a false bottom which was several feet from the actual keel bottom of the barge. This false bottom had several doors that open and shut allowing the coal to fall in a controlled manner towards the buckets. The buckets ran along the bottom of the keel and were attached to each other by a heavy chain. These chains pulled these buckets up a vertical tower which passed the coaling ports which were spaced along the side of the ship which lead to the coal bunkers below. As the coal passes up the tower to self acting automatic registering and weighing machine. It weighs the coal to a ¼ ton each before it dumps the coal down the coal chute which is positioned over an open coal chute door on the side of the ship and continues to do so until that bunker is full. Once the bunker was full a sailor notifies the man on the coaling barge to go to the next coaling port.
The final test results were very positive for the British Admiralty. Where it would have taken several days to load 904 tons of coal by a huge labor force, it took 3 ½ hours to load the H.M.S. Vengeance and far less expensive in labor cost.
Thus began a new dawn in automation for the coaling industry for the British Admiralty warships and the Mercantile Marine Steamers