Today, we find the first modern warship -- on the
ocean floor. 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.
I used to wonder why the
story of the Monitor and the
Merrimack didn't go beyond their
famous duel at Hampton Roads in 1862. Why didn't
these first steam-powered, iron-clad ships go on to
carve out Civil War history? To understand what
happened afterward, we should know something about
the ships themselves.
Their battle may have been a draw, but they weren't
at all alike. The South made their ironclad by
hurriedly rebuilding the steam frigate
Merrimack. But the Union's
designed from the bottom up by the immigrant
Swedish-American engineer, John Ericsson. Its flat top,
riding a foot or so above sea level, with a low
rotating turret, was a radical new concept.
They were both river gunboats. They couldn't ride
the ocean outside of Chesapeake Bay. When the South
evacuated Norfolk, they had to scuttle the
Merrimack. The Union
Monitor went down while it was being
towed along the North Carolina coast in a terrible
storm ten months later. At first, water sloshed in
faster than the pumps could get rid of it. When the
boiler went out, the men bailed while the ship's
black cat sat wailing on the main gun.
The Monitor went down in 220 feet of
water South of Cape Hatteras lighthouse -- too deep
for scuba divers to search. It's a vicious stretch
of ocean -- littered with wrecks. All the attempts
to locate the Monitor had failed
before 1973. Finally a team led by John Newton of
Duke University armed itself with side-scan sonar
and high-tech photographic equipment. They located
21 other wrecks in the search area before they
found the Monitor. It was further
north than it should have been -- wind-blown that
dark night until it finally carried 16 men and a
black cat to their deaths.
Now the Monitor reveals itself to the
cameras -- a metal hulk 170 feet long and 40 feet
wide. The famous pillbox turret has been knocked
off, and it peeks out from under the stern.
Suddenly we're gazing straightaway at the beginning
of modern naval warfare.
When the Merrimack sank, that was the
end of it -- it was just a successful and inventive
stopgap -- only that and nothing more. But the
Monitor was copied with little basic
improvement until WW-I. The Union built a whole
string of Monitor gunboats and made
very good use of them during the rest of the Civil
Now the high technology of 1861 looms up from the
dark ocean bed. We make out the main drive-engine,
the turret-engine, the screw-propeller drive, the
rudder design, the well-conceived armor plate. We
see what Ericsson really did. We come away
understanding in far clearer terms why that
strange, inconclusive duel 130 years ago changed
naval history forever.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For more detailed accounts of Ericsson and of the
Monitor, with references, see Episodes 695, 795,
This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1632.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H.
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