Naval Technology

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Technological developments during the latter half of the eighteenth century allowed sail-driven warships to reach their apogee. Ironically, within another three decades an invention would end the Age of Sail. In a time of tremendous innovation, billowing canvas would begin to give way to clouds of soot, naval mines would first be seeded, and Americans would take the first tentative steps toward destroying their enemies from below the waves.

technology and sailing warships

By 1754, warship design seemed to have reached the limit of existing materials. If hulls were lengthened much beyond two hundred feet, they tended to hog (sag at each end), reducing the seaworthiness of a vessel or even breaking its keel. Hull width was a matter of function, with room to operate the iron cannon evenly spaced along each side of a warship to hurl broadsides at an enemy (with a "chaser" or two at bow and stern) and space to store the supplies and munitions for an extended voyage weighed against the need to keep a low width-to-length ratio for the sake of speed. Similarly, the thickness of the beams and planks armoring a vessel, the size of its cannon, and the weight of its top-hamper (mass at the top of the ship) had been optimized to prevent the capsizing of the ship. Though a myriad of mast and sail plans existed, they had become quite standardized within ship classes.

No matter the correctness of design, all warships suffered deterioration while at sea. Though strategy and tactics could somewhat compensate for the vagaries of wind, current, and tide, they could not stop sea life—barnacles and weeds—from attaching themselves to the bottom of a vessel in warmer waters. Within a few weeks, long strands of weed reduced the speed of a ship to the point of ineffectiveness. The only cure was to dock or careen the vessel and manually scrape the barnacles and weeds from the hull. Each careening took days from sailing and carried the risk of damaging the vessel as it rested on the sand, listing to port or starboard so the crew could reach its bottom. Aside from reducing a vessel's speed, many forms of sea life, especially the shipworm Teredo navalis, actually bore into the wood, thus reducing the overall life of a wooden vessel by years.

The continual battle against wind and sea also wore upon the human component of ships. Communicable diseases ripped through the crowded and less-than-hygienic decks. Scurvy, caused by a shortage of vitamin C, ravaged entire fleets, debilitating and killing sailors by the thousands. Water quickly turned green in wooden barrels, spreading the "bloody flux" among crews. During the French and Indian War (Seven Years' War in Europe) of 1754–1763, any admiral keeping ships at sea for more than a few weeks found losses to natural causes in both ships and men constantly mounting. The lessons of the French and Indian War would lead to technological change as surely as that war led directly to the American Revolution of 1775–1783.

The rebellion in thirteen of its North American colonies challenged the Royal Navy even before France, Spain, and Holland joined the conflict. With few secure naval bases (notably Halifax, New York, and Jamaica) in or near the colonies the hundreds of ships of the Royal Navy and its supply train quickly began to suffer from foul bottoms. In the early 1770s, the British Admiralty had ordered experiments with coppering, a process introduced in the civilian sector to increase the speed and lengthen the life of ship hulls. The process of coppering called for a layer of forty-eight-inch by twelve-to-fourteen-inch thin copper sheets to be overlapped and fastened to the bottom of the hull. The copper, poisonous to aquatic plants, slowed the growth of seaweed, while the thin metal protected the wood from shipworms. Though the process proved very expensive, its benefits outweighed the cost, and so the Admiralty ordered all new warships to be coppered and began refitting existing vessels. Because of the need to increase the production of copper sheets, the refitting did not approach completion until the end of the war. Though Britain's enemies quickly began to copy the new technology and though it would become standard in all navies after 1783, the Royal Navy gained a brief advantage over its enemies.

A second technological breakthrough, this time in armament, provided unexpected benefits to Britain. The Carron Iron Company of Falkirk, Scotland, designed a gun that the Admiralty adopted in 1779. The carronade was a third of the weight of similar cannon while firing the same size shot. It required a much smaller crew and less powder per round. Though its range was only two-thirds of the equivalent cannon, it could fire faster and with the same deadly effect at that range. These smaller "smashers," as the Royal Navy called them, found a deadly place on the upper decks of larger warships. More important, when placed on smaller warships, they not only reduced the number of crew needed for gunnery, but carried the broadside of a ship two to three times their size. Though the United States would adopt the carronade, it would not prove popular with other European nations.

With the addition of coppering and carronades, the Royal Navy managed to better than hold its own against the rebellious colonies and their European allies. In action after action from 1779 onward, logs and journals alluded to the British superiority in both maneuvering and gunnery, while small warships, coppered and armed with "smashers," ravaged American coastal traffic in the last year of the war. Though the United States won its freedom, the new technology, coupled with advances in naval medicine (the use of citrus fruits to prevent scurvy, as well as improvements in shipboard hygiene and quarantine procedures) gave the Royal Navy the extended cruising time and the heavily armed small ships to institute year-round blockades of its enemies and to defeat France in wars that spanned the years from 1793 to 1815.

In 1794 the U.S. government saw the need to create a navy to protect its constantly expanding merchant marine as well as its right to remain neutral in the worldwide conflict then raging between Britain and France. It commissioned Joshua Humphreys (1751–1838) to design six forty-four-gun frigates for its navy. Four of these frigates—the Philadelphia, Constitution, United States, and President—would eventually be built, incorporating the last major design improvements of the late Age of Sail. Humphreys used extremely close framing as well as stress-bearing diagonal riders and thick, load-bearing planks to strengthen his ships. Between framing and oaken planks, some thirty inches of wood guarded their sides. The strength of the frame allowed the gangways that connected the quarter-deck to the forecastle on most frigates to be replaced by a spar deck capable of carrying the weight of additional cannon. In fact, though rated for forty-four cannon, these vessels often carried as many as fifty-six guns. The Philadelphia ran aground and was burned in 1803 during the first Barbary War and the President fell prey to a British squadron in the last days of the War of 1812, but the Constitution and the United States shocked the British people with a string of impressive victories against the Royal Navy, including its seemingly invincible frigates. The Royal Navy quickly copied Humphreys's design from the captured United States in order to build its own "superfrigates."

submarines and mines

The American David Bushnell (1742–1824), a graduate of Yale, invented a submersible vessel dubbed the Turtle in 1775. Driven by a hand crank connected to a simple propeller and featuring dials lit by phosphorescent witch moss, its single crewman used a periscope to guide the partially flooded craft to an enemy ship. Ideally, he would then use a hand drill to attach a torpedo (a keg of powder with a time fuse) to the bottom of the vessel. Sergeant Ezra Lee attempted to do just that on 7 September 1776, but the hull of his target proved too hard for the drill. (Some accounts blame this on the coppering, but the sixty-four-gun Eagle was probably not refitted by that date.) After releasing the torpedo, which created consternation if not harm when it exploded one hour later, Lee made a successful escape. Subsequent missions of the submarine would also fail, but the concept had been firmly planted.

Robert Fulton (1765–1815), a leading inventor of the early American nation, designed and built a submersible in 1801. With a folding mast and sail to travel on the water and a propeller hand-cranked by its two-man crew while submerged, the cigar-shaped Nautilus is evocative of modern submersibles. Fulton demonstrated his vessel to both the British and the French navies. When they refused to purchase the machine, he abandoned the concept for more lucrative pursuits.

During the War of 1812, Fulton designed naval mines with both timed and contact fuses. Though the American government found the torpedoes to be barbaric, numerous local governments and private individuals thought otherwise and numbers of the mines appeared protecting local harbors or aimed at British warships. The Royal Navy called these devices "Fultons," and though none ever damaged a ship, they certainly increased the anxiety of British admirals.

the coming of steam warships

Fulton also designed the Clermont, the first American steamship, which opened operations on the Hudson River in 1807. Though Great Britain had developed and refined the steam engine, in 1814 the American government commissioned Fulton to build the world's first steam warship, the Demologos, in New York Harbor. Thirty thirty-two-pounders provided a powerful broadside, while wooden sides five feet thick and the placement of its vulnerable paddle wheel between two catamaran-style hulls protected the vessel. However, the Demologos proved chronically underpowered, and eventually lateen-rigged masts supplemented its steam engine. Completed shortly after the War of 1812 and renamed the Fulton in honor of its inventor, the warship had never fired a shot in anger when a powder explosion destroyed it in 1829.

As civilian use of steamships increased, only the first captain of the Fulton, veteran commander David Porter (1780–1843), seemed to realize the military potential of steam power. In 1822, he convinced the navy to allow him to purchase the one-hundred-ton Hudson River steamer Sea Gull for an anti-piracy squadron. Mounting three guns, its dual paddle wheels allowed the vessel to capture or destroy pirate craft with ease. The Sea Gull was the first steam warship used in combat by a navy. On 30 March 1824, the Sea Gull justified its purchase by recapturing the schooner Pacification.

It would be the 1830s before American interest in steam warships revived. By that date, rapid advances in ship design, protection, ordnance, and propulsion made possible by the industrial revolution would make the changes of the years before 1830 seem tiny by comparison.

See alsoBarbary Wars; Revolution: Naval War; Shipbuilding Industry; Steamboat; War of 1812 .


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Wade G. Dudley