The Chester class was experimental, each ship being built with different types of engines. Chester was the first U.S. Warship built with reaction-type steam turbines, making her one of the fastest ships of her time. The Navy authorized the construction of three scout cruisers in 1905. These were the Salem, Birmingham, and Chester. All three were delivered to the Navy in 1908. They were to have Curtis and Parsons engines respectively. Both the Salem and Birmingham had two screws. The Chester had a Parsons turbine with four screws and was actually completed at Bath Iron Works, Bath, Maine before delivery to the Navy. All three vessels were extensively tested by the Navy in order to compare the efficiency of their power plants. The Salem proved to be the best of these third class cruisers, though the Curtis turbines did not live up to expectations.
The well-known reciprocating engine derives its energy from the expansion of steam. This is likewise the case with the turbine engine. The reciprocating type is so-called because it delivers its is delivered in a rotary manner. On board the steamship, the propeller-shaft or the side-wheel-shaft is rotary driven. Only in a few situations is a back-and- forth motion desired. Thus in a certain pumping apparatus for mines, it is advantageous to receive the power in the form of a reciprocating motion. But this is not the case in the vast majority of cases. Almost universally power is desired in the form of a turning movement. With the reciprocating type of engine, the back-and-forth movement of the piston-rod must be converted into the desired rotary motion. With the turbine engine, on the contrary, the movement is generated in a rotary form.
With her sister ships, Chester and Birmingham, Salem was built as a fast "scout cruiser" for fleet reconnaissance, corresponding to the light cruisers being built at the time for foreign navies. Lessons learned from operating the three competing machinery plants in ships of the same characteristics proved valuable, although relatively poor performance of turbines in Salem and Chester demonstrated that considerable improvement was required before the newer engines would be fully suitable for naval use.
They were the subject of a significant experiment; in an effort to produce better propulsion plants for its new ships, the Navy built Salem with Curtis turbines. Chester had the earlier Parsons turbines, while Birmingham received the long-established reciprocating engines. Fore River shipyard had acqiored exclusive rights to manufacture the Curtis marine turbine, and hoped that this engine could successfully compete with the Parsons turbine. Most experts felt that the Curtis engine was too high speed to be economical. Because of its beginnings as a marine engine manufacturer, Fore River shipyard felt equal to the challenge. The United States Navy was interested too.
The Birmingham represented well nigh the utmost limit of perfection along one particular line of development. The steady throb, throb, throb of her magnificent engines, whose energy is equal to that of 15,000 horses, marked the to-and- fro movement of a wonderful piece of apparatus. It was the outcome of a tremendously intense and marvelously sustained effort of human genius. But little more was to be expected of the reciprocating engine.
The power equipments of the Chester and Salem, on the other hand, represented a new rival. The turbine steam-engine as a practical prime mover was a thing of but a few years. The original invention, indeed, dated back two millennia. But no real effort at its development was made until quite recently. The fact, then, that the turbine engine has, in the space of a very inconsiderable number of years, placed itself in real, active competition with the older and very highly developed type could scarcely mean anything else than that it involves fundamental principles of the highest value.
The turbine engines on the Chester were of British design-those on the Salem were the fruit of American genius. So, then, in a sense, these trials were not only a struggle of the old type of engine against the new, but of the Old World against the New. Each of the turbine ships has thus had a double contest on her hands. The Birmingham, on the contrary, has had to represent but a single idea-the reciprocating engine.
The final race and the preceding contests represent, then, the struggle of the youth against the seasoned veteran-of a David against a Goliath. The combat on the Palestinian soil three thousand years ago was short and decisive. Not so the battle of the engines today. One fight will not irrevocably decide the issue.
The final contest which began at 10:45 A. M., April 12, 1905 and continued for twenty -four hours was a trial of speed. The ships were known to be fast, the B irmingham having previously averaged 24.33 knots on a four-hour run, the Sjj I e m 25.95 knots, and the Chester 26.52 knots. The turbine vessels had thus a speed rating very similar. The Birmingham's record was considerably lower. There was this to be said, however: The coal used when this latter vessel's speed trial was made was "run of the mine," while that consumed on board the turbine vessels was "hand picked." The weather was fine overhead and the sea moderate. The start was made from the entrance to Newport (R. I.) harbor, the vessels being separated from each other by intervals of about three miles. A southerly course was then pursued until the fortieth parallel was reached, when the ships turned westward until they came off Atlantic City on the New Jersey coast. They then ran back and forth.
When about half the race had been run, the Birmingham was compelled to drop out. her starboard engine having become disabled. The race from then on lay between the two turbine vessels. The Chester, on which were installed the English turbines, Parsons' design, had already confirmed her previous record by leading both her competitors. And so the race went on between her and the Salem, on which were the American turbines, Curtis' design. When the final moment of the twenty-four hours came, it found the Chester far in the lead. The exact distance ahead was 12.8 knots. It is to be regarded as a great victory, and while it may not definitely settle the relative- merits of the Parsons and Curtis designs, it did so, apparently, for the time being.
The first Chester (CS-1, later CL-1) was launched 26 June 1907 by Bath Iron Works, Bath, Maine; and commissioned 26 April 1908. Chester was decommissioned on 20th June 1921. She was renamed York on 10th July 1928 and sold for scrapping on 13th May 1930.
On 14th November 1910, Eugene Ely made the first takeoff from a ship by an aeroplane from Birmingham at Hampton Roads. She was decommissioned on 1st December 1923 and sold for scrapping on 13th May 1930.
Between 1917 and 1918 the armament of all ships was changed to 5 x 5"/51, 2 x 3"/50, 1 x 3" guns and two 21" torpedo tubes above water. Due to high fuel consumption, Salem was refitted with two General Electric steam turbines producing a total of 20000shp between April 1917 and March 1918. She was decommissioned on 16th August 1921 and sold for scrapping on 11th February 1930 to D.G. Seagraves.
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