Wednesday, July 10, 2013

1853 View of Gosport With the New and Old Navy on Display

(click to enlarge)
This is an 1853 engraving in the museum's collection of the Gosport Shipyard that appeared in the Boston-based Gleason's Pictorial Room Companion. In contrast to the 1820 print shown in the previous blog post, this illustration shows the Yard for what it was: an active industrial site and military base. The ships in the illustration are interesting mix of old and new ships and is good representation of how the U.S. Navy was slowly changing and modernizing its fleet. On the far right is the White Elephant that was the 120-gun ship-of-the-line USS Pennsylvania. To her left is second generation 44-gun frigate USS Columbia. Her sister ship USS Savannah can be seen on the far left. Also on the far left is the remains of the historic first generation 44-gun frigate USS United States. At this point in her career, the old frigate, best known for her War of 1812 operations, was being allowed to have a quiet retirement.

Mixed among these grand sail ships of war are three steam warships, USS Powhatan, Princeton, and Allegheny. While each of these ships had a coal-fired boiler, they were very different ships. Each of them had a different form of propulsion. We often assume that widely used technology must have been obvious choice when the inventor first created his invention. But that is often not the case and was especially true when it came to figuring out what type of propulsion should go on U.S. Naval warships. Powhatan represented the first and oldest concept for steam propulsion: the paddle wheel. When Robert Fulton commissioned the first steam ship, he used this technology and the Navy adopted it for its first steam warships such as USS Mississippi and Missouri. But paddle wheels present a serious problem for warships in that they are large and above the water line, thus making the ship an easy target to immobilize.

So, the Navy went looking for a propulsion system that operated below the water line. It received two other options: Princeton with a "screw propeller" designed by the Swedish inventor John Ericsson, and Allegheny that came equipped with a horizontally mounted paddle wheels that were placed below the water line. This radical idea came from U.S. Navy lieutenant William Hunter. After building a small prototype vessel named Germ, the Navy provided the funding to try the experiment on a larger scale with Allegheny. In the end, the Navy went with Ericsson's idea after discovering it was twice as energy efficient as Hunter's design.

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