Unless they study U.S. Naval history, most Americans do know who have Joshua Humphreys is. They should. It is also odd that the man who designed the ships that made the modern American Navy possible has had only one ship – a replenishment ship with a civilian crew – U.S.N.S. Joshua Humphreys (TAO-188) named after him.
Joshua Humphreys was a naval architect and ship builder born in 1751. Early in his apprenticeship at the Wharton Shipyard in Philadelphia, the owner died and the promising Humphrey’s took over what became known as the Wharton Humphreys Shipyard. When American Revolution broke out, Humphrey’s converted merchant ships into warships. The frigate Alfred, the brigs Andrea Doria and Cabot were all modified under his supervision.
The Marine Committee of the Continental Congress recognized that these modified merchantmen were a stopgap. The were no match for the average Royal Navy frigate and Humphreys was commissioned to design a larger, 32-gun frigate named Randolph.
When the American Revolution ended, Humphreys’ yard went back to building merchant ships. In 1794, Congress appropriated money to build a new class of warships.
Humphreys, based on his and the Continental Navy’s experience during the American Revolution, successfully argued that a new class of frigates should be built. Besides carrying heavier cannon – 24 and 36 pounders – than the standard Royal Navy frigate with 30 – 36 guns, his ship would be rated for 44 guns they had three innovations.
One, they were longer and narrower than prior frigates. To get the strength to carry 24 and 36 pounders – larger than the Royal Navy’s standard frigate’s 12-pounders – the ship’s structure had to be much stronger.
Two, length meant the bending moments from the pitching movements at sea might break the hull in two. Humphrey’s innovative solution was to install eight beams that ran diagonally from one side to the other. They provided the necessary strength and reduced the twisting motion of the hull caused when the ship pitched and rolled.
Three, in what is probably one of the first applications of layered armor, he specified that a layer of live oak planking would be sandwiched between layers of layers of white oak planks. The “softer” white oak would “give” when hit by cannon balls. This innovation prevented the hull from being pierced as well as reducing the danger from splinters.
Six frigates – Chesapeake, Congress, Constellation, Constitution, President and United States – were built to Humphreys’ design. United States was constructed by Humphrey’s yard in Philadelphia. All six frigates served this nation well and performed as Humphreys intended.
In battle, one crew member on board Constitution saw cannon balls from H.M.S. Guerriere bounce off the ship’s sides. His comment led to Constitution being nick-named “Old Ironsides.”
Kelly Johnson was one of the most innovative aircraft designers of our time. He designs – the P-38, the P-80 – the U.S.’s first jet fighter, the U-2 and SR-71 all broke new ground. In the late 18th Century, Joshua Humphreys was probably the most innovative ship designer of his time and in many ways, the Kelly Johnson of his time.