There is, to begin with, some difficulty in deciding what exactly a cruiser is. A moden cruiser is a large warship capable of engaging multiple targets simultaneously. A cruiser is, by definition, the smallest ocean-going warship capable of independent operations, meaning operations in which the cruiser is the largest capital ship.
Cruisers in the Age of Sail
The term "cruiser" was an 18th century invention. The necessity for this setting apart of a special class of ships to fight in the line of battle was fully admitted by the middle of the 18th Century. And by the end of the 18th Century the differentiation of naval force into three classes : (1) the line-of-battle ship, (2) the frigate or heavy cruiser, and (3) the light cruiser, seemed to grow naturally out of the conditions of naval warfare.
Originally, vessels of this class seem to have been designed to act as the eyes of the fleet, and generally to perform the duties which fell to frigates and sloops in the past. Between the frigate and the line-of-battle ship, however, there was a great gulf fixed, so that even in the opinion of Nelson two frigates were not a match for a 64-gun ship, though three, with a corvette, he considered, had a great superiority. We do not find frigates of 74 guns, or even 64. There was then a sharp line between the two classes.
Just as the line-of-battle ship was thus differentiated and parted from every other sort of war-ship, it followed that the fleet would require adjuncts in the shape of lighter ships to serve the purpose of look-outs or scouts. These ships would naturally be of much weaker force than the line-of-battle ship, for they would not take part in the fight; but they would require to be of good size so as to be able to keep company with the fleet, and so as to have a speed greater than the fleet itself in order to out-sail it and return to it in the exercise of the functions of the look-out. These duties pointed to the heavy frigate, but to a ship as far below the line-of-battle ship in force as would allow of her carrying out the special role of attending on the fleet. Lastly, there was the much lighter attendant on commerce either by way of attack or defence, and if the practice of large convoys should fall, as it might, into disrepute, the tendency of these lighter and smaller vessels - not of the smallest size, but still low down in the scale of force - would be to grow.
There was an immense fall in the strength of the strongest cruiser, with perhaps 50 guns, below that of the weakest battle-ship, seldom of less than 60 guns. Thus the strongest cruiser had her place as the eyes of the fleet, even as set forth by James Duke of York in his instructions. Then came another heavy fall in the strength of the light cruiser, seldom of more than 24 guns, of which the special function was guarding commerce and attacking that of the enemy.
Cruisers in the Age of Steam
By the middle of the 19th Century the designation "cruiser" had superseded the terms frigate and corvette altogether. When warships were made of wood and had sails, frigates were small, fast, long range, lightly armed ships used for scouting and carrying dispatches. The first ironclads also had only a single gun-deck, and were referred to as frigates. Thus the definition of a frigate changed. Ships which carried out the original frigate role were called "cruising ships", which was rapidly abbreviated to cruiser.
Towards the end of the 19th Century a Cruiser was considered to be a military vessel designed to keep at sea for extended periods. Such scantlings are fixed and type of machinery selected as will insure exceptional seaworthiness. It is a war vessel in which the protection against gun fire is more or less sacrificed for speed or long radius of movement.
By the end of the 19th Century, no ready distinctions were possible among types of ships, given the rapid progress in naval architecture and evolution in warship design. There were battleships of 6200 tons as well as 14,900; and cruisers of 14,200 tons as well as 1,580. Tonnage and size were, then, evidently, no longer the bases of division. Nor did the possession of armor afford any criterion : there are cruisers, such as the Rurik and Dupuy de Lome, which had vertical plating, while there were battleships, such as the Italia, almost destitute of it.
The only real distinction between the battleship and cruiser lay in this- in the former, speed was a less important factor in the compromise than in the latter, or, to state the matter more simply, in the cruiser armament and defensive qualities are sacrificed to high speed. Even the largest cruisers usually lacked monster guns, and where they carry armor, it was thinner than in the battleship of corresponding date. On the other hand, their trial speed was commonly superior by two or three knots to that of the vessel built expressly for the combat. A convenient subdivision would be into cruisers of 2000 tons and under, or scouts, and those of over 2000 tons, or fighting cruisers.
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