- A.N. Other and NHSA Webmaster
- History - general, Ship design and development
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2008 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
In days of old, when muzzle-loading cannons constituted the main armament in ships of war, it was necessary to keep a good supply of cannon balls near the cannons. The pressing question was how to keep them from rolling around the deck. Best practice of the day, after much experimentation, was to stack them as a square-based pyramid, with one ball on top, resting on four, resting on nine, all of which rested on sixteen.
Thus, a supply of 30 balls could be stacked, immediately on hand, in a small area right next to the cannon. However, that led unfortunately to another problem – how to stop the ‘pyramid’ collapsing as the bottom layer slid away.
The solution was a metal plate with 16 round indentations, looking rather like a large muffin griddle, and called, for reasons lost in time, a Monkey. A good answer it would seem, but it was found that if this plate was made of iron, the iron balls would quickly rust to it. The solution to this problem was to make the plate of brass – hence, Brass Monkeys.
The ignorant of this and past worlds do not realise that brass contracts much more and much faster than iron when chilled. Consequently, when the temperature dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that the iron cannon balls would come right off the Monkey.
Thus it was quite literally ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.’
And all these years we’ve been thinking it was a mildly vulgar phrase not to be repeated in mixed and genteel company. Well, well!