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A capstan on a sailing vessel.

Part or all of this entry has been imported from the 1913 edition of Webster’s Dictionary, which is now free of copyright and hence in the public domain. The imported definitions may be significantly out of date, and any more recent senses may be completely missing.


From French cabestan, of uncertain origin.


capstan ‎(plural capstans)

  1. (nautical) A vertical cleated drum or cylinder, revolving on an upright spindle, and surmounted by a drumhead with sockets for bars or levers. It is much used, especially on shipboard, for moving or raising heavy weights or exerting great power by traction upon a rope or cable, passing around the drum. It is operated either by steam power or by a number of men walking around the capstan, each pushing on the end of a lever fixed in its socket.
    • 1951, W. I. B. Crealock, Vagabonding Under Sail, Hastings House (New York), page 211:
      We toiled over the capstan, and late in the afternoon slipped out of the harbour.
    • 2013 July-August, Henry Petroski, “Geothermal Energy”, American Scientist, volume 101, number 4: 
      Ancient nomads, wishing to ward off the evening chill and enjoy a meal around a campfire, had to collect wood and then spend time and effort coaxing the heat of friction out from between sticks to kindle a flame. With more settled people, animals were harnessed to capstans or caged in treadmills to turn grist into meal.
  2. (electronics) A rotating spindle used to move recording tape through the mechanism of a tape recorder.


Derived terms[edit]

  • capstan bar - one of the long bars or levers by which the capstan is worked; a handspike.
  • pawl the capstan - to drop the pawls so that they will catch in the notches of the pawl ring, and prevent the capstan from turning back.
  • rig the capstan - to prepare the for use, by putting the bars in the sockets.
  • surge the capstan - to slack the tension of the rope or cable wound around it.

See also[edit]