Traditionally, sailing ships were commanded from the quarter deck, aft of the mainmast. With the arrival of paddle steamers, engineers required a platform from which they could inspect the paddle wheels and where the captain's view would not be obstructed by the paddle houses. A raised walkway, literally a bridge, connecting the paddle houses was therefore provided. When the screw propeller superseded the paddle wheel, the bridge was retained. Commands would be passed from the senior officer on the bridge to stations dispersed throughout the ship, where physical control of the ship was exercised, as technology did not exist for the remote control of steering or machinery. Helm orders would be passed to an enclosed wheel house, where the coxswain or helmsman operated the ship's wheel. Engine commands would be relayed to the engineer in the engine room by an engine order telegraph, which displayed the captain's orders on a dial. The engineer would ensure that the correct combination of steam pressure and engine revolutions were applied. The bridge was often open to the elements, therefore a weatherproof pilot house could be provided, from which a pilot, who was traditionally the ship's navigating officer, could issue commands from shelter.

Iron, and later steel, ships also required a compass platform. This was usually a tower, where a magnetic compass could be sited far away as possible from the ferrous interference of the hulk of the ship. Depending upon the design and layout of a ship, all of these terms can be variously interchangeable. Many ships still have a flying bridge, a platform atop the pilot house, open to weather, containing a binnacle and voice tubes to allow the conning officer to direct the ship from a higher position during fair weather conditions. The concept was that the higher you are situated, the better and farther you could see.

Larger ships, often had a navigation bridge which would be used for the actual conning of the ship. Modern advances in remote control equipment have seen progressive transfer of the actual control of the ship to the bridge. The wheel and engines can be operated directly from the bridge, controlling often-unmanned machinery spaces. Today, Monkey Island and Crow’s nest have become so archaic that people have forgotten their meaning as they have been deleted from contemporary marine glossaries.

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