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
One of the great adventures of the
late twentieth century was finding famous sunken ships.
We found the seventeenth-century Vasa in Stockholm Harbor and the
Edmund Fitzgerald in
Lake Superior. We found deep wrecks like the Titanic, the Bismarck,
and the SS Central
America. Another of those ships was the sunken
The story of the Monitor and the Merrimack
is often told in such a way that it seems to end with
their famous duel at Hampton Roads in 1862. It did not,
of course, but to understand what happened afterward, we
must know something about the ships themselves.
Although their battle was a draw, the ships weren't at
all alike. The South made its ironclad by hurriedly
rebuilding the captured Union steam frigate
Merrimack and renaming it the Virginia.
Swedish-American engineer John
Ericsson had designed the Union Monitor from the
bottom up. Its flat top rode thirteen inches above sea
level, and its
low rotating turret was a radical new concept.
Both were river gunboats, unable to navigate the ocean
outside Chesapeake Bay. When the South evacuated Norfolk,
they had to scuttle the Merrimack. The Union
Monitor also sank. It 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
one of the
The Monitor went down in 220 feet of water south
of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse -- too deep for scuba
divers to search. That's a vicious stretch of ocean. It's
littered with wrecks. All attempts to locate the
Monitor had failed before 1974. Finally a team led
by John Newton of Duke University armed itself with
side-scan sonar and high-tech photographic equipment.
They located twenty-one other wrecks in the search area
before they found the Monitor. It was further north than
it should've been -- wind-blown that dark night until it
finally carried sixteen men, and that black cat, to their
The Monitor finally revealed itself to the cameras
-- a metal hulk 170 feet long and 40 feet wide. The
famous pillbox turret was knocked off, and it peeks out
from under the stern. But there we gaze straightaway into
the beginning of modern naval warfare.
When the Merrimack sank, that was the end of it.
It'd been a successful and inventive stopgap, but little
more than a stopgap. The Monitor, however, 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 War.
Now the high technology of 1861
looms up from the dark ocean bed. There is the main
drive-engine, the turret-engine, the screw-propeller
drive, the rudder design, the well-conceived armor plate.
What Ericsson really did is finally revealed; and the
slow process of reclamation has begun. Now we see just
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 work.