Today, let's talk about battleships. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
A capital ship
For an ocean trip
Was the Walloping Window Blind.
No wind that blew
Dismayed her crew,
Or troubled the captain's mind.
So goes an old children's rhyme. A capital
ship was a major warship - an 18th century
ship-of-the-line or a more modern battleship. When
I was a child, singing this song, battleships were
the grandest machines afloat. All the major nations
built them. Some weighed over 70,000 tons. The
British named one, Dreadnought, and that
name soon applied to all battleships. Surely such
an engine of war had naught to dread from anyone.
As many as nine of its big guns might be as much as
eighteen inches in diameter.
Now historian Garcia Rodriguez y Robertson looks
more closely at battleships. They've joined only a
few great battles. In 1898, the American Navy
scored a one-sided victory over the Spanish at
Santiago, Cuba. They destroyed a Spanish squadron
with no loss of American life and the battleship
was hero of the day.
But records of shots fired and hits scored tell a
different story. The Americans fired 6000 rounds.
Only 130 of those hit anything and only two hits
out of 6000 rounds came from big battleship guns.
Those two did only topside damage. Similar stories
come out of other modern naval artillery duels.
My 1970 Encyclopaedia Britannica says those
big guns could hit a target with great precision at
twenty-five miles. They could not. Consider the
problem: To do damage, a shell must land
perpendicular to a ship's armor. A big shell coming
in twenty degrees off perpendicular wouldn't
penetrate the nine-inch armor protecting most
battleships at the water-line. At long distances
shells come down in an arc. The chances of hitting
anything become vanishingly small, and long-range
hits necessarily deal glancing blows.
Battleships are vulnerable to
torpedoes. When they explode outside the
hull, below the waterline, water focuses the
explosion into the hull. A quarter-million tons of
battleships were lost to torpedoes in WW-I. And
battleships did more damage blundering into
friendly small craft than they did shooting at
enemy torpedo boats.
In 1921 British and American representatives met in
Washington where they agreed to call a moratorium
on capital ship building. The traditional military
cried out its objections. Later, the conference was
blamed for leaving us unready in 1941. In fact,
what we'd done was turn our attention to aircraft
carriers and submarines. The conference may've
That capital ship on an ocean trip really was a
child's dream. We've always imagined sitting off at
a safe distance and pounding an enemy into
submission. In the end, that dream has always been
no more than the sound of the walloping window
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds