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