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19th Century Technological Revolution

Between the 15th and 18th centuries the development of naval weapons was hardly perceptible. Ships remained platforms for carrying infantry and, later, as basic gun platforms. Sail and wood construction limited the role of the ship and greatly reduced the number and caliber of guns that could be placed upon them. In the 1800s a new form of propulsion, the steam engine, began to change the role of the ship. The first steam-powered naval ships were produced in the 1820s, but the need for side paddlewheels and huge engines still limited the ship's role as a gun platform. By 1850, the first screw propeller made the side-wheeler obsolete, and freed deckspace necessary to carry more guns. The modern artillery shell, however, had already made the wooden-hulled vessel obsolete and, in 1855, the French introduced iron plating along the wooden hull for increased protection. Even so, the need for heavy modern guns and large steam engines placed too much strain on wooden-hulled ships and, in 1860, the British launched H.M.S. Warrior, the world's first iron hulled warship.

New technologies such as the screw propeller, steam engine, rotating gun turret and iron-sided ships with watertight compartments were making existing fleets obsolete. The American government could not afford an arms race so it was decided to wait and see how the gun versus ship race progressed before investing in changes.

The outbreak of the Civil War and rapid technological advances of the industrial revolution put coastal fortifications to severe test. Their strategic locations placed them in the forefront of numerous crucial battles of the next four years, from the first guns at Fort Sumter, to the siege of Fort Pulaski, the running of the guns at New Orleans and Mobile Bay, and the stand at Fort Fisher. Steam propulsion, ironclad warships, and rifled cannon combined to spell finis to the predominance of thick masonry walls and expensive permanent fortifications in lieu of more flexible, repairable and cheaper earthworks, which, paradoxically, better absorbed the shock of repeated hammering from large-caliber smoothbore and rifled siege artillery.

With the end of the Civil War there came a time to assimilate the lessons learned on the battlefield and to apply them to future construction of fortifications. As formalized in 1869 by the Board of Engineers for Fortifications, the essence of those lessons was that only large rifles and 15-inch Rodman smoothbores were effective against armored vessels, that masonry works were vulnerable to such weaponry, and that earthwork barbette batteries were not only the most resistant to such fire but also the most cost-effective to build.

The government purchased 322 of the model 1861 15-inch Columbiads, known as the Rodman Gun, between 1861 and 1871. These mammoth, 25 ton pieces were the primary weapon of coastal defense system for over thirty years. They also represent the beginning of a new era of ordnance and metal manufacturing in the United States. The largest guns which were deployed in any number was the 15-inch smooth-bore, which weighed over 25 ton. The 15-inch gun was finally tested at Sandy Hook, NJ in 1883. It was found that 130 pounds of black-powder created 25,000 pounds pressure in the chamber and at 20 degrees elevation the gun could send a 440-pound shell over 3 miles. At 1,000 yards the round-ball projectile could pierce 10 inches of iron. No warship, regardless of how well armored, could afford to trade shots with a 15-inch Rodman at close range.

A battleship of the old type of the first rank was armed with 120 guns,weighing 480 tons. The first ironclad carried only 32 guns, but these weighed 690 tons. On the ironclad Italia, built in 1886, were carried only 4 large and 8 small guns, yet they weighed nearly double as much as the 32 guns of the first ironclad, namely, 1150 tons. Thus since the days of sailing ships the weight of guns has increased more than 150 times.

The size and weight of ammunition has,of course,correspondingly increased, and also the destructive force of explosive shells. The diameter of the shells of the ironclad Warrior was approximately 6 inches, its weight 70 pounds; on the armour-clad Italia the diameter was increased to 17 inches, and the weight to 2000 pounds. In the course of twenty years the power of a shell, taking only its weight into account, had increased 30 times.

After 1875, technical developments in the field of artillery began to proceed at such a rapid pace that the building of fortifications could not, or could not afford to, keep up. Briefly summarized, these technical developments consisted of: improved casting techniques which presaged the manufacture of stronger guns in longer calibers; the continued perfection of rifling; breech-loading weapons becoming practical; better recoil systems and disappearing carriages; and higher quality, variable- burning powders becoming available. Now, artillery could theoretically be made safer to operate, easier to protect, and more deadly at ranges four times greater than ever before.

For employment against armor, steel projectiles were made, and the force of the impact increased ; thus in turn calling for stronger armor, against which still more powerful projectiles are employed. A rivalry in invention began. Sometimes armor was uppermost, sometimes projectiles. But no one listened to the voice of the economists who foretold the consequence of this rivalry. To illustrate this one may cite some figures as to the cost of vessels of war. The cost of a first-class line-of-battle ship, impelled by sails, did not exceed 115,000. The building of the first English ironclad Warrior in 1860 entailed an outlay of 350,000. But this was but the beginning in the growth in the cost of warships. The German ironclad Koenig Wilhehn, built in 1868, cost 500,000,the Italian Duilio}in 1876, 700,000, the Italia of 1886, 1,000,000. Thus in twenty years the cost of iron-clads increased three times. A great part of this outlay was swallowed up by armour. Of 840,000 spent on one ironclad, Magenta, 600,000, that is, 71 per cent, was spent upon armor.

The armored turret was first used on ships in 1868, and gradually the advances in artillery weapons -- quick firing, fixed ammunition, breech-loading, rifled guns -- were seriously applied to naval guns. Ships began to mount multiple turrets, first with one gun per turret and, finally, by 1900, a standard four guns per turret. The caliber of guns grew from 12-inch guns (1908) to 15-inch guns as standard by 1914. The last decade of the 19th century saw the introduction of steel construction for naval vessels. By 1913, naval vessels were powered by oil instead of coal boilers, greatly increasing propulsive power while reducing space. All of these advances culminated in the production of the dreadnought-class warship, the first modern battleship. In less than 100 years, naval ships of the line had gone from the first simple iron-clads to modern battleships. H.M.S. Dreadnought was launched in 1906 and displaced 17,900 tons, was 527 feet long, and 82 feet at the beam. She carried ten 12-inch guns, twenty-seven 12 pounders, and five 18-inch torpedo tubes. Powered by 23,000 horsepower engines, she could make 21 knots. In less than a decade she had become obsolete.

The invention and improvements in mines and, later, the guided torpedo, made even the largest warships vulnerable. The controlled mine was developed by the United States in 1843, and was detonated by electric current from wires leading to shore. Chemically triggered contact mines were in use as early as 1862. By World War I, the mine had become a potent defensive weapon capable of sinking the largest ships. The torpedo -- called the "locomotive torpedo" because it proceeded under its own power and did not have to be towed like earlier models -- made its appearance in 1866. The first models, developed by the Austrians, had a range of 370 yards at 6 knots, and packed an 18-pound explosive warhead. By 1877, the contra-rotating propeller was fitted to a torpedo, an innovation that kept the torpedo steady on course. Soon the torpedo was fitted with a horizontal rudder to keep it at constant depth as it ran to its target. By 1895, the invention of the gyroscope improved the torpedo's accuracy, and by the turn of the century a torpedo could carry a 300-pound warhead to 1000-yard range at 30 knots. This weapon called into existence a new class of cheap, fast, and destructive naval vessels, the torpedo boat.

In 1903, Orville Wright made the first sustained powered flight, twelve seconds, in a heavier-than-air flying machine powered by the new internal combustion engine. In just 2 years the Wright Flyer had improved to the point where it could stay airborne for 40 minutes at a speed of 45 miles per hour. In 1907 the pusher biplane was flown and, by 1908, the Wright airplane was staying in the air for 2.5 hours. The invention of ailerons to control the aircraft around its roll axis greatly increased the maneuverability of the machine. For the most part, however, military men saw the airplane as performing the limited functions of the old balloon, observation and reconnaissance.

In 1910, the American Eugene Eli took off in an airplane from a platform erected on the deck of a naval cruiser and, a year later, it was proven possible to land the aircraft back on the flight deck. In 1911 another American, Glen Curtis, became the first man to carry out a practice bombing run against a naval ship touching off a fierce debate about the vulnerability of ships to air attack. In the same year two-way radio communication from an airplane to the ground was accomplished, an invention that made possible aerial artillery observation and fire direction. Also in 1911, Glen Curtis manufactured the first seaplane and foresaw its use as a weapon against the submarine. In that same year the U.S. Army dropped the first live bombs from an airplane, and the first machine gun was mounted on an aircraft, the French Nieuport fighter. A year later monocoque construction was introduced, a method of arranging stress points in aircraft construction that made possible greater loads on aircraft structures. In that same year airplane flying speed increased to over 100 miles per hour. In April 1912, the establishment of the Royal Flying Corps in England gave birth to the first official air force.

In 1913, speed (127 mph), distance (635 miles), and altitude (20,079 feet) records were set as the airplane began to improve its capability as a weapon of war. The Russians introduced the world's first heavy bomber, the Sikorsky Bolshoi, with a wingspan of over 90 feet. During the Turko-Italian War (1911-12) in Libya the world witnessed the first military use of the airplane in war. The Italians first employed the airplane for artillery observation, and were the first to introduce aerial photography. Italian pilots were the first to drop bombs against an enemy force in combat. The age of the modern strike and bomber airplane as major implements of modern war was underway.

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One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias

Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:40:42 ZULU