- Historic Sites
Inventing A Modern Navy
Chaos and farce and catastrophe played a big part. But so did a few men of vision.
June/July 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 4
For sixteen years Charles Haswell helped the Navy sort out these confusing quantities. He taught himself a great deal through that hands-on experience that is so highly recommended and so rarely obtained today. In the 1840s it was usually the only way to learn. When Haswell designed the boilers for the Mississippi , for instance, he went to the mold loft and laid out the size and shape of each plate. From the knowledge he acquired by such means, he eventually built a series of substantial, long-wearing, and, for the period, reasonably efficient marine steam plants. He also learned along the way that the power in engines, when let loose among people who neither understood nor respected machinery, could create difficulties—professional, political, social, and personal. He discovered this the hard way, as two incidents may suggest.
When Haswell was the only engineer in the Navy and first went to sea in charge of the engines he had built for the Fulton , no one knew where to put him in the ship’s company. After a good deal of debate, it was decided that he should dine in the wardroom with the other officers, whatever view was taken of his engineering duties, because he seemed a man of some background and his father had been a member of the British diplomatic service. From that day forward Haswell worked hard to define the duties performed by engineers, to establish tests of competence, and to provide those selected with an appropriate place in the structure of naval society. And his efforts bore fruit. Congress, in 1842, passed an act establishing a corps of engineers—then about twenty in number—under the direction of a “skillful and scientific engineer-in-chief.”
In obtaining this legislation, however, Haswell had received significant assistance from a man named Gilbert L. Thompson, a lawyer and rather dashing man-about-town who knew how to influence the political process. Haswell considered Thompson a “benevolent and influential gentleman” interested in the cause “simply because it was right.” Then, after the act had been passed and the corps of engineers established, the secretary of the Navy appointed none other than lawyer Thompson as the “skillful and scientific engineerin-chief.”
Thompson came to his new office with an idea for both concealing the smoke and increasing the draft of a steam engine. What he had in mind was to run the smoke pipes through the housing of the paddle wheels where the “centrifugal action of the [turning] wheels would … force air up through the pipes.” He took this idea to Haswell, who had supervised the design and construction of the machinery for the Missouri . Haswell said the scheme was absurd and resisted it vigorously. Thompson insisted on a test and ordered the Missouri modified in accordance with his specifications. This was done in the spring of 1843.
When the changes had been made, Thompson invited members of the President’s cabinet to attend a demonstration of how his new scheme worked. As it turned out, nothing worked at all. The investigation that followed found Charles Haswell to be the source of all difficulties: he had not used “sufficiently inflammable material in lighting the fires.” Haswell was relieved of his duties until more thoughtful heads prevailed and recommended that he should return to the Missouri for her voyage to the Mediterranean—if he would apologize for not having used more volatile stuff to light off his boilers. When Haswell replied that he would “rather suffer injustice from another than be unjust to myself,” he was reassigned to shore duty and put to work designing four new revenue cutters. It took a little longer to get everything back in its right place, but in July 1843 the machinery of the Missouri, before her cruise to the Mediterranean, was changed back to accord with Haswell’s original design. Six months later Haswell relieved Gilbert Thompson as the engineer in chief of the Navy.
His appointment as engineer in chief did not eliminate all future problems; the second incident had to do with the San Jacinto . She was one of four “war steamers” authorized in 1847 by Congress and the only one to be driven by propeller instead of by paddle wheels. A board composed of line officers, naval constructors, and Haswell himself was appointed to determine the ship’s characteristics. After a good deal of discussion, the board specified that the San Jacinto should be built of wood; that the propeller should not infringe on any existing patents; that to reduce the length of the unfamiliar propeller shaft, the engines should be placed in the extreme afterpart of the hull; and that to avoid putting a large hole through the sternpost, the opening for the propeller shaft should be located twenty inches off the center line of the keel. Haswell disagreed with every one of these recommendations and argued long and hard against them. But in the end he had to yield to the other board members.