Three Inventions that Changed Seafaring Forever

In the February issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s magazine, Proceedings, the question was asked “What foreign invention or innovation do you think most affected the U.S. naval service?” It is a very interesting question and three inventions come to mind.

The first is the reciprocating steam engine invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712. It turned steam into up and down motion that could be connected to a shaft. His device was improved upon by another Brit, James Watt and his version enabled factories to be located away from rivers and helped facilitate  the Industrial Revolution.

Number two is the marine chronometer. Until John Harrison, another Brit, used bi-metallic strips to control a spiral spring and make the first, accurate marine chronometer in 1761, ship navigators couldn’t precisely determine longitude because there was no means to accurately measuring time over long periods. Harrison’s H4 chronometer was the first practical in terms of both size and utility. You can read more about Harrison and the marine chronometer in an earlier blog…mining-longitude/ .

The third is the screw propeller which has a mixed heritage, i.e. British, Czech, and Swedish and American. The concept dates back to Archimedes and what is known as the Archimedes screw. It was originally designed to move water uphill in a trough for irrigation. The first person to adapt the Archimedes screw in a vessel was David Bushnell. He used a crank to turn a small version in the first submarine called the Turtle during the American Revolution.

An American inventor by the name of John Stevens tried four bladed propellers and in 1802 but decided that paddlewheels were a safer alternative. It was not until 1827 that a Czech forester, Josef Ressel living in Austro-Hungarian Empire attached an Archimedes screw to a long shaft turned by a steam engine. It worked, but was banned by the Austro-Hungarian as dangerous.

Meanwhile, in England, Swedish inventor John Ericsson and a Brit, Francis Stevens were hard at work trying to perfect a practical screw propeller. Both patented their designs six weeks apart in 1835, with Stevens being first. The Royal Navy was not impressed with either Steven’s boat demonstrated on a canal or Ericsson’s demonstration on the River Thames.

However, U.S. Navy Captain Robert Stockton was impressed by Ericsson Francis B. Ogden. Stockton ordered a larger ship named the Robert Stockton. It sailed to the U.S. using both its steam engine/screw propeller and sails. After arriving in the U.S. and Stockton was demonstrated to the U.S. Navy, Ericsson was commissioned to design and build the U.S. Navy’s first screw propelled warship. Named the U.S.S. Princeton, and commissioned in 1843, it carried two 12-inch smooth bore cannons and 12 42-pounder carronades. Not surprising, its first commanding officer was Captain Robert Stockton.

Combined, these three inventions made trips across large lakes and oceans possible without having to depend on currents and wind. The steam engine provided power and the propeller turned it into thrust while the chronometer enabled precise navigation possible. Combined, they changed seafaring forever.

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