The Industry . While the steamboat was the most dramatic maritime innovation of the period, most commerce continued to be carried by sailing ships. Americans had become the world’s best builders of boats and ships, and the rise of British maritime power was made possible by American shipwrights, who had delivered to England an average of fifty ships each year before the Revolution. In 1769 shipyards in the American colonies, mainly in New England, but also in New York and the Chesapeake, produced 389 vessels. After the war, with British markets for American ships shut off and merchants excluded from English ports, the industry declined. In 1789 the new U.S. government put a higher tariff on ships built or owned by foreigners which entered American ports, hoping to stimulate the shipbuilding industry. It succeeded, with the total tonnage of American-built ships owned by Americans more than doubling by 1790, from 123, 000 tons to 364, 000 tons. Because laws also forbade foreigners to buy American-built ships, more of these ships were owned by Americans, greatly increasing the United States’ share of the world’s carrying trade.
American Advantages . Americans had several advantages in building ships, most notably in their access to good timber. Shipyards tended to follow the forests, moving up the coast of Maine in the 1790s. Boston and New York shipbuilders invested in canals to help bring timber to their shipyards. Even with the forests closest to New York and Boston depleted, the country still had vast timber reserves, making the cost of construction much lower. An American ship, built of New England oak, would cost twenty-four dollars per ton; a similar ship built of fir along the Baltic coast would cost thirty-five dollars per ton. An American vessel made of more expensive live oak and cedar would cost thirty-six dollars to thirty-eight dollars per ton, while a similar vessel made of oak in England, France, or Holland would cost fifty-five dollars to sixty dollars per ton.
AMERICA RULES THE WAVES
The resurgence of foreign trade after the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 allowed for the American ship industry to reestablish itself. Shipping became one of the most significant parts of the American economy. From 1790 to 1807 American shippers more than doubled their carrying capacity. In 1790 American ships carried 40.5 percent of the value of goods carried in the nation’s foreign trade; by 1807 they were carrying 92 percent. Shipbuilding naturally became a vibrant part of the American economy, helped by abundant timber and naval stores and a skilled workforce. Tenche Coxe described these advantages in 1794:
Ship-building is an art for which the United States are peculiarly qualified by their skill in the construction, and by the materials, with which this country abounds: and they are strongly tempted to pursue it by their commercial spirit, by the capital fisheries in their bays and on their coasts, and by the productions of a great and rapidly increasing agriculture. They build their oak vessels on lower terms than the cheapest European vessels of fir, pine, and larch. The cost of an oak ship in New England is about twenty-four Mexican dollars per ton fitted for sea: a fir vessel costs in the ports of the Baltic, thirty-five Mexican dollars: and the American ship will be much the most durable. The cost of a vessel of the American live-oak and cedar, which will last (if salted in her timbers) thirty years, is only thirty-six to thirty-eight dollars in our different ports; and an oak ship in the cheapest part of England, Holland, or France, fitted in the same manner will cost 55 to 60 dollars. In such a country, the fisheries and commerce, with due care and attention on the part of government, must be profitable.
Source: Tenche Coxe, A View of the United States of America (Philadelphia: William Hall, Wrigley & Berriman, 1794), pp. 99–100,
Live Oak . More important than the quantity of timber was its quality. The live oak found in Georgia and South Carolina will not rot quickly. Under normal use a ship with a live-oak frame would last thirty years, three times as long as a ship made of inferior wood. Live oak is also somewhat denser than regular oak or other kinds of wood, making the ship much stronger. In fact, the U.S.
frigate Constitution, built in Boston in 1797, has such a strong frame that British cannonballs bounced off her hull in 1812, earning the ship the nickname “Old Ironsides.” Merchant ships made of live oak would not be expected to repel cannonballs but would resist rot and other enemies of wooden ships such as the teredo worm. In 1797 Congress appropriated $200, 000 to preserve groves of live oak in the nation.
Wages and Exports . Another advantage to American shipbuilding was a well-trained labor force. International trade became so important to businesses that sailors’ wages rose from eight dollars per month in the 1790s to thirty dollars a month by 1815, and the demand for good ships expanded so much that buyers would pay cash in advance to shipbuilders, who thus were able to pay their workers in hard currency. Shipwrights would earn about a dollar a day, more than farm laborers, and about the same wage as sailors or skilled carpenters. With the value of American exports growing from $23 million in 1790 to $52 million in 1815, good ships were in great demand. While shipbuilders did not become wealthy, they did earn good livings: in 1815 one New York shipbuilder earned $30, 000. American shipbuilders earned a reputation for producing the world’s best ships in this period.
Speed and Size. In addition to needing more ships, American businesses needed faster ones. Remarkable as the steamboat was, sailing technology made astonishing advances in this period. Merchants sought two different qualities in a ship: speed and size. The two could not be easily reconciled; a large ship which could carry bulky cargo could not sail as fast as a narrow ship which could quickly cut through the water. Boston shipbuilder John Peck experimented with long, narrow ships, which could both carry large cargoes and sail quickly. Elias Derby built a ship which sailed from Salem to Ireland in just eleven days; another of Derby’s ships sailed to France and back in five weeks, the time it took some sailing ships to make one crossing. Massachusetts builders favored smaller vessels. In 1795 E. H. Derby’s second Grand Turk, built at his Salem shipyard, had to be sold in New York because it was too large for Salem’s harbor and for Derby’s preferred method of trade. New York merchants preferred larger ships while New England merchants favored smaller, faster ones. With this greater speed, American ships were able to make two, three, or four trading voyages each year, while English ships typically made only one trip each year.
Algiers . The high quality of materials and the skills of the labor force made American ships the envy of the world. The Dey of Algiers in 1795 asked the American consul to send him some American shipbuilders. Send them poor, he told the consul, and they would return home rich. After making a treaty with the United States, the Dey contracted to have two merchant vessels built for his commercial fleet. The United States also built a frigate, the Crescent, as a special gift for the Dey. When this small fleet arrived in Algiers in 1798, it impressed all with the skills of American builders. No one, the American consul reported, had ever seen such beautiful ships, and the Dey, who had been threatening to attack American merchant ships, became convinced that the United States would be a dangerous enemy.
Freedom of the Seas . The U.S. merchants did a tremendous business during the wars between England and France (1793–1815). The United States followed a policy of neutrality and argued that neutral ships should be allowed to trade freely on the world’s seas. U.S. merchants grew wealthy at the expense of England and France while they supplied each side with American grain and took up much of the carrying trade merchants from those nations had formerly enjoyed. The French were first to object to this, and in 1797 they began capturing American merchant ships in the West Indies and Europe. The Adams administration responded with the use of the new navy, begun in 1793 to fight Algiers. In a series of naval battles the United States defeated the French all but once. In 1800 the two sides agreed to peace. One year later Tripoli announced that it would begin seizing American merchant vessels. The United States responded by sending its navy to blockade and bombard Tripoli. Arguing again for freedom of the seas, the United States declared war on England in 1812, and while the war at home went very badly, with the city of Washington burned and coastal New England blockaded, the navy, on the ocean and the Great Lakes, proved superior to the British. American sailors, trained in the merchant fleets, and shipbuilders, challenged to build sturdy, fast-sailing ships, defeated the British in many naval engagements. Free international commerce was vital to the survival of the American nation; the U.S. government would go to war to protect this principle. Thanks to the tremendous skill of American shipbuilders and sailors, the United States was able to maintain this principle. The frigate U.S.S. Constitution, completed in October 1797, remains in commission to this day, demonstrating the technological skill of American shipbuilders.
Samuel Eliot Morison, The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783–1860 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961);
Curtis P. Nettels, The Emergence of a National Economy, 1775–1815 (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1962).
"Shipbuilding." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/shipbuilding
"Shipbuilding." American Eras. . Retrieved July 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/shipbuilding
SHIPBUILDING. Shipbuilding in the United States began out of necessity, flourished as maritime trade expanded, declined when industrialization attracted its investors, then revived in World War II. Shipyards grew from barren eighteenth-century establishments with a few workers using hand tools even for "large" ships (200 tons) to huge twentieth-century organizations where thousands of employees use ever-changing technology to build aircraft carriers of 70,000 tons. Today the United States no longer leads the world in ship production, but it is still a major force in marine technology and engineering.
American shipbuilding began when Spanish sailors constructed replacements for ships wrecked on the North Carolina coast in the 1520s. Other Europeans launched small vessels for exploration and trade. In the 1640s the trading ventures of Massachusetts built vessels that established New England as a shipbuilding region. By the 1720s, however, New England shipyards faced competition from Pennsylvania and later from other colonies with growing merchant communities, such as Virginia, where slave labor boosted production.
The typical eighteenth-century urban shipyard was a small waterfront lot with few if any permanent structures. Rural yards, where land was cheap and theft less of a problem, often had covered sawpits, storage sheds, and wharfs. The labor force consisted of about half a dozen men, sawyers and shipbuilders as well as apprentices, servants, or slaves. Work was sporadic, and accidents, sometimes fatal, were common. Yet from such facilities came 40 percent of Great Britain's oceangoing tonnage on the eve of the Revolution. After Independence, shipbuilding stagnated until European wars in the 1790s enabled American shipyards to launch neutral vessels for their countrymen and merchant ships or privateers for French and British buyers.
During the Golden Age of American shipbuilding, from the mid-1790s through the mid-1850s, shipping reached its highest proportional levels, the navy expanded, and the clipper ship became a symbol of national pride. New technology entered the shipyard: the steam engine supplied supplementary power for some sailing vessels and the sole power for others; iron first reinforced and then replaced some wooden hulls. Many shipowners, attracted to the promised economy of size, ordered larger ships that required more labor, raw materials, and technology. Meanwhile, a transportation revolution compelled coastal vessels to connect with and compete with canal
barges, inland river trade, and railroads. At this time, many New England merchants turned to manufacturing for higher and steadier returns.
By the late 1850s, the glory days had begun to fade. Maine and Massachusetts shipyards launched more tonnage than anyone else, but they did not construct steam-ships, while builders outside New England recognized that the future belonged to steam, not sail. The Civil War promoted naval construction, with both sides making remarkable innovations, but the war devastated commercial shipbuilding. Confederate raids on Union ships convinced some Yankee merchants to sell their ships to foreign owners. By 1865, American tonnage in foreign trade was half that of the late 1850s; at the end of the decade it was down to a third.
In 1880, Pennsylvania shipyards launched almost half of what the top ten states constructed. Iron, not steam, now represented the future; most shipyards could not afford the transition from wood to iron. Massachusetts build-ers held on by mass-producing small boats for offshore fishing schooners. Capital investments per yard many times greater than those of other states allowed Pennsylvania and Delaware yards to succeed. With yards in six of the ten states producing at a rate of less than two vessels per year, many establishments did not survive the introduction of iron.
Two successful shipyards of the period, William Cramp and Sons in Philadelphia and Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company of Virginia, embraced the new technology and benefited from the naval modernization program of the 1890s. Naval contracts proved vital to these builders' success, and the strength of the navy depended upon such shipyards.
When the United States entered World War I, it undertook an unprecedented shipbuilding program. After the war, builders watched maritime trade decline through
the 1920s as the coastal trade gave way to trains and trucks and quotas restricted the once profitable immigrant trade. The Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company survived by performing non-maritime work such as building traffic lights. Relief did not come until the 1930s, when the U.S. government began ordering aircraft carriers to serve the dual purpose of strengthening the navy and providing jobs for the unemployed.
At the outbreak of World War II, Great Britain asked the United States to mass-produce an outdated English freighter design that had many deficiencies but possessed the all-important virtue of simplicity. Thanks to new welding techniques and modular construction, the "Liberty" ship became the most copied vessel in history. More than 2,700 were built—many completed in less than two months, some in a few weeks. This remarkable feat, accomplished by a hastily trained workforce using parts produced across the nation, was directed by Henry Kaiser, who had never before built a vessel. American shipyards also produced 800 Victory ships (a faster, more economical freighter), more than 300 tankers, and hundreds of other warships. American shipbuilding, a key factor in the Allied victory, increased 1,000 percent by war's end, making the United States the world's undisputed maritime power.
Following World War II, America abandoned maritime interests and focused on highways, factories, and planes. During the 1950s, Japanese, European, and Latin American shipbuilders outperformed American shipyards, while American Atlantic passenger liners succumbed to passenger jets. A nuclear-powered freighter, Savannah, proved both a commercial and public relations failure. While Americans pioneered development of the very economical container ship, it was quickly adopted by foreign competitors. Despite technical advances, shipbuilding continued to decline in the face of waning public and private support.
Today, Japan, Korea, and China build over 90 percent of the world's commercial tonnage; the U.S. share is only 0.2 percent. Since 1992, U.S. shipyards have averaged fewer than nine new commercial ships per year of 1,000 tons or more. Submarines and aircraft carriers are still under construction, although in reduced numbers; guided-missile destroyers and support vessels are on the rise. Modern maritime technology requires significant resources and expertise. Unlike the colonial years, when every seaport, however small, had a few shipyards, today the nation has just half a dozen major shipyards in total. The United States still enjoys an abundance of materials, skilled labor, and engineering ingenuity. It requires only large-scale public and private support to reignite interest in this once flourishing industry.
Chapelle, Howard I. The National Watercraft Collection. Washington, D.C.: United States National Museum, 1960. 2d ed., Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976.
Goldenberg, Joseph A. Shipbuilding in Colonial America. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1976.
Hutchins, John G. B. The American Maritime Industries and Public Policy, 1789–1914. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1941.
Pedraja, René de la. The Rise and Decline of U.S. Merchant Shipping in the Twentieth Century. New York: Macmillan, 1992.
"Shipbuilding." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/shipbuilding
"Shipbuilding." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved July 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/shipbuilding
The Clyde was a latecomer as a major shipbuilding river. The main hull-builders were downriver at Greenock and Port Glasgow. Deepening the river served both commerce and industry, for Glasgow's engine-builders came to dominate British shipbuilding. Labour costs in the new shipyards were lower than on the Thames, and technical innovations gave the Clyde major advantages. In 1813–14 this region produced only 4.5 per cent of the British tonnage, and this market share remained relatively constant until the 1840s. In the production of iron river steamers the Clyde falteringly led the way in the early 19th cent. but between 1840 and 1870 produced two-thirds of British steam tonnage. Early marine engines used fuel prodigally; Glasgow engineers solved this problem and also improved boilers and methods of construction and propulsion: the screw propeller replaced the paddle in the 1840s; compound engines were installed from 1853, dramatically cutting coal consumption; iron hulls increased the scale of shipping, reducing freight costs and encouraging the growth of international trade. Glasgow became the home base for many shipping lines, including Cunard, and their orders tended to go to Clyde yards.
Steam and iron eclipsed wood and sail in the 1850s. Steam tonnage, which in 1850 represented under 7 per cent of British output, accounted for 70 per cent by 1870. About 24,000 of 47,500 men working in shipbuilding in 1871 were resident in Scotland, all but a few employed in the Clyde yards. They produced at least one-third of British tonnage—mostly specialist vessels—every year from 1870 to 1914. The Wear initially challenged the Clyde, producing about one-third of Britain's merchant tonnage in the 1830s, but the north-east increasingly specialized in lower-cost tramp shipping. Belfast was essentially an extension of Clyde capacity, and by 1914 one firm, Harland and Wolff, dominated its shipbuilding just as Cammell Laird on the Mersey and Vickers-Armstrong at Barrow controlled regional output.
The integration of iron, steel, coal, and shipbuilding as major exporting industries explains why the economy which made shipbuilding regions prosperous before 1914 should be a source of economic weakness after 1920. The long decline of shipbuilding had a downward multiplier effect on these regional economies which became the depressed areas of inter-war Britain.
Demand for capital goods declined rapidly after 1920, but shipbuilding suffered most. World capacity had been grossly inflated during the First World War, but peacetime demand was reduced by the decline in world trade. In 1933 launchings from British yards fell to 7 per cent of the 1914 figure. Foreign orders for new ships were markedly reduced. Britain was slow to move into the production of motor vessels which were most in demand; foreign governments provided subsidies to retain orders within their own boundaries. In 1930 ‘National Shipbuilders' Security Limited’ was formed to reduce the number of shipyards and excess capacity. By 1937, 28 firms had been bought and closed, with a capacity of about 3,500,000 tons. The government in 1935 sponsored an ineffective ‘scrap and build’ scheme whereby owners were subsidized to scrap 2 tons of shipping for every new ton they ordered.
Rearmament and the Second World War revived shipbuilding, and after 1945 the world dollar shortage drove shipowners to order in Britain. World trade expanded and kept the boom going, but increasingly foreign yards benefited from this exceptional demand. The Clyde produced a third of British tonnage in the early 1950s (although demand was greatest for tankers and cargo ships); the Wear and Tees a quarter and the Tyne about one-sixth; Belfast, the Mersey, and Barrow nearly one-quarter. In 1956 Britain was third in export sales behind Germany and Japan; by 1977 she produced 4 per cent of world output (compared with 60 per cent in 1910–14), and British owners were ordering ships from overseas. Asia, with its low labour costs and modern equipment, became the most significant continent for ship production. The government responded by further rationalization under British Shipbuilders (1977), a public corporation. Technically backward, the industry was faced with closures and redundancies until the government returned firms to private ownership and a process of private investment in the 1980s. Shipbuilding survives but subject to intense foreign competition. See also merchant navy.
"shipbuilding." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/shipbuilding
"shipbuilding." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved July 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/shipbuilding
"shipbuilding." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/shipbuilding
"shipbuilding." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved July 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/shipbuilding