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No. 1267:
The First American Navy

Today, a secret American navy for the War of 1812. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Writer Roger Archibald quotes an 1812 London newspaper: "America certainly can not pretend to wage war with us. She has no navy to do it with." In the years after the American Revolution, France, England, and pirates from the Barbary Coast had all harassed our merchant vessels. They'd robbed us and kidnapped our sailors.

By 1812 England was only vaguely aware that, in 1794, our leading shipbuilder, Joshua Humphreys, had convinced George Washington that we should build a navy of six warships.

That left the question, "What form should a six-ship navy take?" Conventional navies had huge floating gun platforms, called ships of the line, that carried seventy-four guns and plodded along at five knots. The navy workhorse was the frigate, with thirty or forty guns and a speed of eight to ten knots. Then there were a variety of sloops, brigs, and smaller service vessels.

It seemed fairly obvious that our new navy should be made of hit-and-run frigates. We could never hope to slug it out with British ships of the line. But Humphreys wanted to have his cake and eat it too. He proposed a very ambitious ship design -- large as ships of the line and fast as frigates.

A larger ship can generally move faster than a smaller one with the same shape. But big ships of the line, loaded with cannons, bent under their own weight. They could never keep a smooth hydrodynamic form. Once in the water they lumbered inefficiently.

Humphreys had a way around that. His ships, made of American live oak, were to have an unusual array of interior transverse bracing, below the waterline, to make the lower hull rigid.

The result was a new ship with greater speed and firepower than a British frigate, and easily able to outrun a ship of the line. The first one was launched in 1797. The third of the six was the Constitution, or "Old Ironsides," as it was later called.

The new ships first flexed their muscle off the Barbary Coast of North Africa in 1803. They took an American frigate back from the British, right under Admiral Nelson's nose. Nelson called those ships "a nucleus of trouble for the ships of Great Britain."

But North Africa was far from London, and England soon forgot what America had done there. During the War of 1812 the English Navy came up against those six ships and was subjected to a series of humiliations. After that, the United States was an international force to be reckoned with.

One of those ships, the United States, actually saw service on both sides during the Civil War. And the Constitution, restored to her full glory in Boston Harbor, is still a U.S. Navy ship. Her captain takes visitors below and shows them how those radical braces meet at the keel. He tells them that that structural nexus is the very point were America first joined the global community.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Archibald, R., Six Ships That Shook the World. American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Fall, 1997, pp. 24-37.


The Constitution in combat
From the August, 1895, Century Magazine.