Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Explosive Testing at the Middle Ground, 1910: Ship Sunk, Captain Court-Martialed, Cat and Chickens OK

This is the tale of Willard S. Isham, ordnance inventor/entrepreneur, and his attempt to convince the Navy to buy into his new high explosive mixture. Between the 1890s and the 1910s, Isham had invented an explosive mixture of nitroglycerin and nitrocellulose (a.k.a. guncotton), with a touch of marble dust. Instead of the traditional powder form of explosive, Isham mixed his volatile concoction into a gel. He believed gel had a faster chemical reaction than dry powder, thus creating more explosive force.

The first of two bombs explodes aboard Puritan.
Isham's first attempts to get the Army and Navy to adopt his explosive ended in major failures. He pulled few strings with friends in Congress, forcing the Navy to allow the inventor to go forward with a second test. This second test involved using a real ship, specifically the 6,000-ton monitor USS Puritan. Instead of using live shells fired from a gun, Isham placed two static bombs on the monitor, each filled with 200 pounds of his mixture. He placed one bomb up against a turret and the second on the waterline.
Post-test inspection noted Puritan's armor cracked.

The Navy moved Puritan to the Middle Ground (a place of shallow water in Hampton Roads, just south of Newport News) in early November 1910. Unlike his fellow officers, Captain Austin Knight believed in Isham’s invention, and even agreed to set off the bombs while on board the ship. One of the rising stars in the Navy, Knight had already published a standard text on seamanship and was serving as the Navy's inspector of special ordnance at the time of the test. He would not be alone on the ship. For reasons not known, the ship’s mascots, a cat and several chickens, were kept on board.

On the morning of November 10, several senior Army and Navy officers watched from shore as Knight set off both bombs. The resulting explosion felt “like an earthquake,” according to witnesses on shore. The test far exceeded anyone’s predictions. During the post-test inspection, observers quickly noticed that the first bomb successfully cracked Puritan’s eight inches of armor plate steel that covered the ship's turret. The second bomb created several cracks in Puritan’s hull, causing the ship to take on water.

With the ship now sinking, Knight made an emergency distress call to the Norfolk Navy Yard to send tugs. The tugs, however, arrived too late and Puritan sank. Fortunately, since the test took place on the Middle Ground, Puritan did not sink completely underwater. While the ship was swamped and the armor cracked, the newspapers happily reported that the ship’s mascots were in fine shape. 

The second bomb caused several cracks in Puritan's hull and
the ship began to take on water.  Navy Yard tugs arrived too
late to save the ship before she went down.
Facing a potential public relations embarrassment that two 200 pound explosives succeeded in sinking one of the Navy’s largest coast defense ships, Navy leadership quickly stated that the test was not a true combat experiment and that Puritan could take a standard shell fired from an opposing battleship. Secretary of the Navy George Meyer went as far as to court marital Knight twice for sinking the ship. Fortunately for Knight, a panel of several senior flag officers including Robley Evans, Albert Dillingham, and John Rodgers cleared the captain of any wrong doing both times.

Salvage teams eventually raised Puritan and took her to the Navy Yard for repairs. Knight went on to a distinguished Naval career and retired as commander-in-chief of the Asiatic Squadron. As for Isham, he continued to press for the Navy to adopt his invention until his death in the 1920s.
Four days after Isham's bombs rocked Hampton Roads, the cruiser USS Birmingham (CL-2) anchored a few miles east of Puritan to conduct the most revolutionary test of them all: flying a plane off of a ship.

Editorial Note: Thanks to Sarah Gath for correcting Mr. Isham's name. 

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