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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
The hit-or-miss method of inquiry was inefficient, but given the state of the art, it was perhaps the best way to proceed. It was natural, therefore, to apply it to the construction of new devices, to use what you thought you knew to make things—a propeller, a boiler, a gun, a whole ship—to see if these things would do real work. This was understood to be a down-toearth approach and was called practice. It may also have been the best way to proceed at the time, but it had its grave defects.
For one thing, practice required a great deal of time and money. During Haswell’s time an inventor named E. N. Dickerson had an ineradicable faith that the laws governing the expansion of gases could be directly applied to the design of steam engines. It took nine years and the construction of three new ships to demonstrate that Dickerson didn’t know what he was talking about. For another thing, practice was dangerous. Capt. R. E Stockton made for the Princeton a great gun—the “largest piece of wrought iron in the world.” On discharge it blew up, killing the secretary of state, the secretary of the Navy, the sometime chief of the Bureau of Construction, a member of the Congress from Virginia, a Mr. David Gardiner, and a servant of President Tyler.
And for yet another thing, practice was intellectually unproductive. Lt. W. W. Hunter thought that a fully submerged paddle wheel mounted horizontally beneath a ship’s hull would be a good thing. Three new vessels and six years later it was finally proved to be no more than a very inefficient centrifugal pump—a sort of churn. There were countless sterile occasions of this sort when the search for what might work degenerated into discovery only of what didn’t. As with all the others then engaged in mechanizing human activity, what the Navy needed was some effective control over the impulse to run almost anything up the flag-pole to see if it would fly. The problem, therefore, was to settle the raw impulse into more defined and ordered channels, to confine the random play of ingenuity within an intelligible process.
In the years immediately preceding the Civil War, the engineer John Ericsson gave some useful demonstrations of how this might be done. His process was a form of instruction in a novel field—the ways in which a proper concept of experiment and a judicious use of theoretical explanation could be applied to the making of new things.
Most engineers felt rational experiment was for dilettantes.
Such abstract matters did not appeal very much to the available student body. Most of the down-to-earth hard-nosed engineers considered rational experiment a doubtful exercise or, worse, a dilettante’s diversion. Such views made John Ericsson, who was never an easygoing man, absolutely exasperated. Carried to their logical conclusion, he said, they suggested that “experimentation should be conducted only by those who are incapable of constructing something.” The point of all his own experimentation, Ericsson said, was “to ascertain facts and effects, for guidance, in future practice,” so that new technical solutions could be derived from solid information and fuller understanding.
Time and again in making his new devices for the Navy, Ericsson demonstrated the effectiveness of this way of going at things. For example, he took seriously the views of those old salts who objected to steam warships on the ground that their paddle wheels would be “torn to pieces by exploding shells,” just when they were most needed. But he suggested that it was better to change the wheels than to give up the ship. So he designed a “rotary propeller,” determining the size and twist of the blades by a “geometrical construction.” Then he built from “theoretical calculation” a “small engine” for “imparting motion directly to the screw propeller shaft.” And then he built a small boat about two feet long that was powered by the engine and propeller he had designed. This he took to a large circular cistern, a public bath, beside which he placed a boiler. When he fed steam from this boiler into the engine in the boat, the little vessel started on a trip around the cistern at a speed of three miles an hour.
The country was sick of war after 1865, and the US. Navy stagnated for sixteen years.
This was the experimental stage in which he confirmed his “theoretical calculations” and acquired the information necessary to build, two years later, an “iron screw steamer” tugboat. Five years after that he designed all the machinery for the USS Princeton , the first propeller-driven steam warship in the world.