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Steam Propulsion

One change was the use of steam. The Navy entered a new era, an era of the "steam-driven warship." Harnessing the power of steam was the most important development in the surface Navy during the first half of the 19th century. Steam began to replace wind as a means of propulsion. It promised to eliminate some of the hazards and delays caused by ships being blown off course or left dead in the water.

Steam engines had been around since 1712 but in 1769 the Scotsman, James Watt (1736-1819) patented a new, much more efficient design for them which ushered in the Industrial Revolution. Despite legal attacks on his patent, it was upheld until 1800. Mine owners in the Cornwall region of England used steam engines to pump water out of mines, sometimes using illegal copies of Watt's design. Mine owners and steam engine makers resented Watt's unwillingness to license the invention cheaply. James Watt's invention of the steam engine in Britain launched the Industrial Revolution. Americans were quick to adopt Watt's new technology by applying steam power to water transportation and the other needs of their country.

The idea of using steam power to propel boats occurred to American inventors soon after the potential of Watt's new engine became known. John Fitch (1743-1798) is generally conceded to have been the United States's pioneer in steam navigation. He successfully launched and operated a steam powered vessel on the Delaware River on August 22, 1787, in the presence of members of the Constitutional Convention.

Robert Fulton was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, on November 14, 1765. His early education was limited, but he displayed considerable artistic talent and inventiveness. At the age of 17 he moved to Philadelphia, where he established himself as a painter. Advised to go abroad because of ill health, he moved to London in 1786. Fulton had a distinguished career as a painter before patenting his first invention, a double inclined plane to replace locks in canals, in England in 1794. His lifelong interest in scientific and engineering developments, especially in the application of steam engines, supplanted art as a career. Fulton secured English patents for machines with a wide variety of functions.

In 1797, European conflicts led Fulton to begin work on weapons against piracy, including submarines, mines, and torpedoes. He soon moved to France, where he worked on canal systems. In 1800 he built a successful "diving boat," which he named the Nautilus. Neither the French nor the English were sufficiently interested to induce Fulton to continue his submarine design.

ClermontHis interest in building a steamboat continued. Robert Fulton successfully used steam to power a commercial steamboat, after making a number of important modifications to James Watt's basic steam engine. In 1802 Fulton contracted with Robert Livingston to construct a steamboat for use on the Hudson River; over the next four years he built prototypes in Europe. He returned to New York in 1806. On August 17, 1807, the Clermont, Fulton's first American steamboat, left New York for Albany, thus inaugurating the first commercial steamboat service in the world. Fulton navigated 150 miles of the Hudson River from New York City to Albany in only 32 hours -- the trip had previously taken four days by sailing ship. This event is one of the most important events in the history of navigation. With the power to go up and downstream, the steamboat transformed American rivers into highways. Clermont, named for Livingston's estate in New York, proved to a nation of farmers and craftsmen that the US could compete technologically with Europe. Clermont revolutionized river travel and played an important role in the development of the South. Fulton's Clermont transformed naval warfare, and fostered international relations by facilitating trade and travel across the oceans.

Fulton's numerous ingenious and influential inventions included a prototype submarine, Nautilus, amphibious boats, and the first commercially successful steamboat, Clermont. In 1814 and 1815, he built the first war steamer, known both as Fulton and Demologos. He died in New York City 24 February 1815.

Robert Fulton designed the first steam powered paddlewheel warship, which was the first Navy ship to use steam. Fulton called it Demologos, or "The word of the people." But the Navy called it, variously, the Fulton Steam Frigate, the Steam Battery, and Fulton the First. It was originally intended to defend the port of New York during the War of 1812.

The Fulton, with her clumsy central wheel, concealed from shot by the double hull, with such thick scantling that none but heavy guns could harm her, and relying for offensive weapons not on a broadside of thirty guns of small calibre, but on two pivotal 100-pounder columbiads, or, perhaps, if necessary, on blows from her hog snout -- the Fulton was the true prototype of the modern steam ironclad, with its few heavy guns and ram.

The Fulton was not got into condition to be fought until just as the war ended; had it continued a few months, it is more than probable that the deeds of the Merrimac and the havoc wrought by the Confederate torpedoes would have been forestalled by nearly half a century. As it was, neither of these engines of war attracted much attention. For ten or fifteen years the Fulton was the only war-vessel of her kind in existence, and then her name disappears from the lists.

Fulton's idea was to make his vessel invulnerable with a perfectly protected paddlewheel. The first necessity was to protect the propelling arrangements. This he did by having twin hulls, side by side, as in his ferry-boats, with the paddle-wheel in the space between the hulls and protected by an upper deck with bulwarks and stanchions. This deck also sheltered the engine, which was in one hull, and the boiler, which was in the other. What he'd created was a catamaran. It was a hundred and fifty feet long, sixty feet wide, and it had a slot, fourteen feet wide, down its center.

During the War of 1812, Robert Fulton proposed to build such 20 steam frigates. Shortly after the War of 1812, the Navy launched Demologos. The "floating steam battery" (steam ship) was designed and launched for the Navy on October 23, 1814. Built by Robert Fulton, it was equipped with 20 guns and could do five knots. She was later rechristened Fulton in honor of the builder of America's first steamboat. The first Fulton (or Demologos), a catamaran steam frigate, was completed after Robert Fulton's death, and made successful trial runs in the summer of 1815. With the close of the War of 1812, it was decided not to fit her put for service, but she was delivered to the Navy in June 1816. Many old-time Navymen, however, could not picture steam-powered machinery replacing wind and sail. Fulton was later equipped with sails by leaders of the old school and was not very active during her short career. She was used as a receiving ship until June 1829 when her magazine exploded and she was destroyed.

Despite Fulton's understandable enthusiasm, the Demologas proved underpowered and poorly designed as a warship. Not until the development of better engines and the screw propeller were practical steampropelled fighting ships built. Demologos laid the foundation of the American Steam Navy, but was not followed by other vessels till after the lapse of many years.

In the decades after Robert Fulton's success with the Clermont, the steam engine came into widespread use as a means of propulsion. Beginning in the second decade of the 19th century, however, there was a series of shipboard boiler explosions that resulted in huge losses of life. Almost immediately there were two opinions regarding how to ensure commercial vessel safety. There were those who favored strong federal regulations and those who opposed government interference into transportation.

In this, as in so many other innovations, Americans led the way. The first steamer to cross the Atlantic was an American-built and American-manned craft. This pioneer was the Savannah, built in New York and bought for service between Savannah and Liverpool. She was a full-rigged sailing-vessel, of 300 tons, with auxiliary steam power furnished by an engine built in New Jersey. Her paddles were removable, so fashioned that they could be folded fan-like when the ship was under sail only. She made the initial voyage, from Savannah to Liverpool, in the Summer of 1819, and accomplished it in twenty-seven days, eighty hours of the time under steam. Afterwards she made a trip to St. Petersburg, partly steaming and partly sailing, with calls at ports along the way. Her gallant performance attracted wide attention, but upon her return to America she finally brought up at New York, where her machinery was removed and sold. An English-built full-fledged steamer made the next venture, but not until a decade after the Savannah's feat.

Through the efforts of far-seeing men like Commodore Matthew Perry, USN, the Navy became steam-conscious. Perry, who is referred to as the father of the steam Navy, had been enthusiastic about the possibilities of steam while in charge of construction and in command of the Navy's second steam frigate Fulton II. The second Fulton, a side wheel steamer, was launched 18 May 1837 by New York Navy Yard; and commissioned 13 December 1837, Captain M. C. Perry in command. Fulton cruised the Atlantic coast, aiding ships in distress, conducting ordnance experiments, and training officers in gunnery. A major event of her early service came on 23 November 1838, when she bested the British steamer Great Western in a speed contest off New York. Decommissioned at New York 23 November 1842, Fulton lay in ordinary until 1851, when she was rebuilt and her machinery completely replaced.

Within four years after Fulton II, came the 1,700-ton side-wheelers Mississippi and Missouri, the US Navy's first ocean-going side-wheeled steamers and first ocean-going steam driven capital ships. USS Missouri, a 3220-ton steam frigate of the Mississippi class, was built at the New York Navy Yard. Commissioned early in 1842, over the next year she demonstrated the then-new steam propulsion technology in the Washington, DC, area and operated in the Gulf of Mexico. In August 1843, Missouri left the U.S. to convey a US diplomat to Alexandria, Egypt. While at Gibraltar on 26 August 1843, she was accidently set afire, exploded and sank, fortunately without loss of life. Missouri's sunken hulk was later demolished to clear the harbor.

Compactness and simplicity, were the grand objects in all inventions, and the great inprovements that were made in steamboats during the 1840s, it was in the substitution of a great deal of wrought iron work for cast iron, bringing the propulsion system into a smaller space. For vessels that are intended for long voyages, this was a great advantage.

In the 1840s, with steam propulsion increasing in popularity as a method to propel ships, the US Revenue Marine Service built eight steam vessels. Most were built with innovative machinery and propulsion systems. Nonetheless, the building program was a disaster. None of the ships worked well, the were exorbitantly expensive, and all were converted, sold, or transferred to other services within several years of their commissioning. The quest for innovation and progress, in this case, ended in complete failure. Although the service failed in this instance, the quest to develop a safe, efficient and cost effective steam-powered revenue fleet continued.

In the War with Mexico in 1846, steamers were used in war for the first time; but the enemy was so destitute of naval resources that their overwhelming importance was not fully recognized. The operations of the US Navy were confined to the attack of imperfectly fortified points on the seaboard, and to blockading a country that had no commercial importance.

John Ericsson (1803 - 1889), originally from Sweden, moved to England in 1826 where he pursued an engineering career. In England he began the construction of a number of his new inventions, and in order to bring them before the public he associated himself with a mechanical house in London. Invention after invention soon followed in rapid succession, among which was the steam boiler on the principle of artificial draft, a feature now applied to all locomotive and marine engines where anthracite coal is used. He next produced the steam fire engine and the famous caloric engine. He was then persuaded to move to the United States, where he teamed up with Robert F. Stockton of the US Navy. John Ericsson had entered naval technology in the mid-1830s interested in radical changes in naval warfare.

John Ericsson's "caloric ship" Ericsson proved unsuccessful. The basic principle of the hot-air (Ericsson preferred the term caloric) engine was to use the expansive force of hot air directly, without heating steam first. Laid down in April 1852, Ericsson made her first trial run only nine months later, on January 4, 1853. The initial estimate of the machinery's worth quickly proved unfounded. Ericsson was resigned to the fact that the engines would not perform as predicted.

It was easy to fall into error, and that which was most to be guarded against was the popular demand, the prevailing mania for high speed, for which single advantage there was such a proneness to sacrifice every other warlike quality. That measure of speed or power which will enable a ship to stem the currents of rivers, to enter or leave a port in the face of a moderate gale, or to meet the dangers of a lee-shore, should, it is conceived by many, be sufficient; and for these exigencies a ship, which, with four months supplies on board, can in calm weather and smooth water make nine to ten knots under steam, has ample power.

This moderate rate was far below the popular mark; but, in considering this important question, it should not be forgotten, that, unlike the paddle, the screw will always cooeperate with sail,--and that, if a ship would go far under steam, she must be content to go gently. The natural law regulating the speed of a ship is, that the power requisite to propel her varies as the cube of the velocity.

As the power applied to the propulsion of a vessel is only that which acts upon her in the direction of the keel,--and as, of the gross indicated power developed by her engine, one portion is absorbed in working the organs of its mechanism, another in overcoming the friction of the load, while still other proportions are expended in the slip of the propeller and in the friction of its surfaces on the water,--only that portion of the gross power which remains is applied to propulsion; and it is this remainder which varies in the ratio of the cube of the speed.

Hence a steamer, that with five hundred horse-power can make eight knots per hour, will require rather more than one thousand horse-power to drive her at the speed of ten knots -- the law being thus modified by the increased resistance consequent upon the greater weight of the large engines; and thus a limit to speed is imposed, depending upon the weight of machinery which, relative to her dimensions, a ship can carry. A ship, that at the rate of ten knots under steam may run twelve hundred miles, could, at the speed of eight knots, and with the expenditure of rather less fuel, run the distance of eighteen hundred miles; and therefore it is, many contended, that a man-of-war for distant service should not be laden with large engines, whose full power can rarely be wanted, and which monopolize so great a space and displacement as to render it impossible to carry fuel for their proper development.

It was true, that, with large power of engine, the vessel may command, so long as her coals last, the advantage of high speed, and her large cylinders would enable her, by working the steam very expansively, to use her fuel with great economy; but there still remained the disadvantage of the increased first cost of the machinery, and its greater weight and bulk, to be permanently carried, whether used or not, and which, by increasing the displacement of the vessel, proportionally diminishes her speed.

A maximum speed of thirteen knots might be obtained from the machinery initially employed for a maximum speed of ten knots with great economy, by the simple introduction of artificial draft, and the use of steam of higher pressure, when requiring the highest speed. At first the boilers were proportioned for natural draft, burning about twelve pounds of coal per square foot of grate per hour, and for a steam-pressure of fifteen pounds per square inch. If, then, the boilers be proportioned to burn at the maximum, with blowers, say twenty-two pounds of coal to the square foot of grate, and to generate steam of forty pounds to the square inch, this would double the power developed by the machinery, and consequently derive from it the same speed that could be attained without blowers from double the machinery; while the natural draft and the usual pressure of fifteen pounds would give sufficient speed for ordinary service. The inconvenience of the higher pressure with blowers could well be endured for the short and occasional periods during which they would be required.

True forced-draft engines [first introduced by Ericsson on the Monitor in 1861] were still a thing of the future, so steamers depended heavily on the design and condition of their smokestacks. As smoke and gases were drawn out of the stack, it created a low pressure in the fireboxes into which fresh air was drawn. If a smokestack were perforated or shot away, the draft to the engine was reduced and the ship lost power.

Benjamin F. Isherwood, first Chief of the Bureau of Steam Engineering, designed and built engines rugged enough to withstand the shock of combat, as well as ill-treatment by poorly trained operating engineers. He also designed and constructed a well-armed cruiser which was faster than any abroad. Benjamin F. Isherwood was born in New York City 6 October 1822, and was appointed First Assistant Engineer in the Navy 23 May 1844. While on a cruise of more than 3 years on the Asiatic Station, Isherwood served as Chief Engineer of the steam frigate San Jacinto. Shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War, he was appointed Engineer-in-Chief of the Navy, and the Bureau of Steam Engineering was created under his direction. He was a pioneer in the production of fast cruisers, producing this class against strong opposition.

In 1861, he was appointed Engineer-in-Chief of the United States Navy and in 1862 became the first Chief of the Bureau of Steam Engineering, a post he held for eight years. When the Civil War began, the Navy had 28 steam vessels, and during the war, the number grew to 600. The design and construction of the machinery necessary to accomplish this was done by Isherwood. He designed ships that were fast enough to pursue the blockade runners.

In 1863 and 1865, Isherwood published the first and second volumes of Experimental Researches in Steam Engineering, which were translated into six languages and became a standard engineering text upon which future steam experimentation was based. In 1870 to 1871 Isherwood conducted experiments that resulted in a propeller that was used by the Navy for the next 27 years.

The early engines were low-powered, unreliable, inefficient, and were used chiefly as an auxiliary to sail. The Navy could easily recruit engineers from civilian life to operate these engines. Engineers were given no military duties as these were the preserve of the line officer, the aristocrat of the Navy. Therefore, from the beginning there was a gulf between the line officer and the engineer who operated the engines. The line officer detested the greasy engineer and his smoking boilers that blackened the sails. Not until 1842 did Congress authorize an engineer corps for the Navy. The selection of the first engineer-in-chief was evidence of the low prestige of naval engineering. Gilbert L. Thompson combined the talents of law, scholarship, and diplomacy, but lie knew no engineering. He could not speak for the engineers in the Navy, nor could he judge engineering problenis.

Engineering, both in operating the shipboard machinery and in the design and construction of ships, became critically important with the outbreak of the Civil War. The Navy had to blockade a 'coastline stretching over 3,000 miles from the Potomac to the Mexican border. It had to support the Army on the rivers; it had to search out and destroy Confederate raiders. For all these purposes, the steam engine and the engineer were indispensable. On the day of battle, steam engines drove the Monitor and the Merrimack, the Kearsarge and the Alabama, as well as the gunboats which supported Grant before Fort Donelson and Vicksburg. In 1862, Congress recognized the importance of engineering by creating the Bureau of Steam Engineering.

But for some time one form of power was not demonstrably superior to the other. It was not clear which power source or combination would prevail, and this ambiguity was reflected in the persisence of sail. The change to steam power was not linear, as sails were largely given up on paddle-wheel ships, and then re-introduced on screw-propelled vessels.

In the American navy, away from the American coast, sail was of necessity the rule, and steam the reserve or special power. Without abandonment of an anti-colonial policy -- with the depots of rivals upon every sea, yet not a ton of coal upon which America could rely -- the US Navy would not dare to send abroad a single ship which, whenever she gets up her anchor, must needs also get up her steam.

Intimately connected with sailing-power was another branch of the equipment of a screw-ship, which required the most earnest, patient, and intelligent consideration. Prepared to endure all the wear and tear of a sail-ship, she should at the same time be ready for transmutation into a steam-ship; namely, when, for any urgent service, her best powers of steaming are required, she should be able to divest herself speedily of yards and top-masts, and, the special service completed, resume all her perfection as a sail-ship. In naval affairs nothing is improvised, and a satisfactory conclusion upon these points was arrived at only through long experiment, and frequent disappointment. Yet it is not doubted that the same ship may exhibit a handy and efficient rig, develop a high velocity canvas, and, without great power, a sufficient speed under steam.

The late 19th and early 20th-century shipping industry experienced a transition in ship technology from sail to steam propulsion. Despite the advances of steamship technology, some countries not only continued but also expanded their use of sailing ships. Even by the the late 19th century, when sail and steam co-existed in the shipping industry, sail remained as profitable as steam by carrying larger cargoes on each voyage. Sailing ships' cost per ton-mile of cargo was independent of the distance traveled, while steam vessels' costs increased with distance. Longer voyages carried greater volumes of deadweight in the form of coal, which also occupied valuable cargo space. Reduced coal consumption through more efficient steam engines was the technological advancement in steam vessels that enabled them to overtake sailing ships in the shipping industry. Though steam vessels' greatest benefit was their speed of delivery, cargo capacity proved to be a more important factor for choosing a ship type than speed.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:42:54 ZULU