Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2013:
THE BATTLESHIP TEXAS

by John H. Lienhard

Today, Battleship Texas. 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.

My wife and I are out on a hot summer Saturday. Our heuristic wanderings take us to the Lynchburg Ferry. We pause there to visit the Battleship Texas. We've seen this old relic of another century many times; but, like an old friend, she catches the light differently today. She reveals another persona.

When the Texas was launched in 1912 she carried more firepower than any ship ever had. Each of her ten, 14-inch guns could hurl a 3/4-quarter-ton shell fourteen miles. This was to be the great dragon of world navies. But any new technology creates an unknowable future. Things never work out quite the way they're planned.

Aft guns on the Texas

Battleships had been evolving ever since the Civil War. Long-range rifled guns had come into being right along with the new iron-clad, steam-driven ships. And this is their spawn. The shiny new Texas saw service even before her shakedown was complete. In 1914, she was sent to Vera Cruz on a saber-rattling mission in support of American troops, during civil unrest in Mexico.

That was an omen of her future. She never did join the great naval battle that her designers had envisioned. Her only combat in WW-I was evading a single enemy torpedo. In WW-II, she did important service against shore batteries during troop landings, first on D-Day, then at Iwo Jima. She protected convoys. She suffered her one combat death when a German shell struck her near Cherbourg.

At the last, American troops fondly dubbed her Magic Carpet. That's because she ferried over four thousand of them back home when war ended. She was retired in 1946 at the age of only 34. Her history might seem anticlimactic when we look at all those guns. But look again. There's more to the story.

From the beginning the Texas was a floating laboratory. The ship we saw is far different from the one launched so long ago. That launch, by the way, was the first one ever recorded on a new moving picture camera. Seven years later, she became the first battleship from which an airplane took off A Sopwith Camel did so from a short "run-off platform" sloping downward across the two forward gun turrets. Unfortunately, it still had to land on dry ground.

In 1939, the Texas became the first ship with commercial radar. She was retrofitted with antiaircraft guns, a tall command tower, still fancier radar, and cranes for launching and retrieving two reconnaissance seaplanes. Torpedo tubes on the original ship were removed after WW-I and never put back. The form of war changed, and the Texas changed with it. Even before WW-II, the Navy had been turning from battleships to more versatile weaponry.

So we walk around the grand old lady with her gun-metal scowl framed against a cloud-puffed blue sky. This Edwardian anachronism served in two wars, trying out various roles during each of them.

Maybe the greatest of those roles was simply that of a weather vane -- sensing and reacting to the turbulent winds of change during the chaos of war at its worst.

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

(Theme music)


USS Texas BB-35: Warship Pictorial #4. (ed. Steve Wiper, layout by T. A. Flowers) (Tucson AZ: Classic Warships Publishing, 1999).

Listener Mike Cosgrove writes to point out that, while the Texas was the first battleship from which an airplane took off, "The first U.S. Navy flights off of and onto ships took place in late 1910 and early 1911. On November 14, 1910, Eugene Ely took off from a flight deck installed on the USS Birmingham. On January 18, 1911, he landed and then took off from a deck on the USS Pennsylvania. In 1915, the first catapult was installed and used on a ship, the USS North Carolina. ... The Birmingham was a cruiser and the Pennsylvania was an armored cruiser. In the case of the North Carolina, she was a battleship, but the launch was from a catapult, not the deck." Thus the Texas's claim on this count is pretty thin.

All photos below by John Lienhard

Midsection of the Texas
Front view of the Texas
Sopwith Camel on the Texas
Photo of museum lable showing the Sopwith Camel on its Texas runway


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H. Lienhard.