Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2326:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, ocean warships struggle to come of age. 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.

The American Civil War was an odd interlude in the development of modern ships. The hornet's nest of controversy that arose over what elements should go into a modern steam vessel, reminds me of a certain WW-II drill sergeant. Frustrated by all the disruption of war, this fellow finally cried, "I'll be so glad when this damn war is over -- I want to get back to soldiering."

It was very hard to sort out what good ship design would look like, with war raging. That's why, in 1863, with guns still blazing, the Navy decided to build the Madawaska and the Wampanoag -- identical steam frigates 355 feet long. Their nominal purpose was to hunt down and sink enemy merchant ships. Their real purpose was to test two different engine systems. A naval architect named B. F. Delano, who later went on to design the purely sail-driven clipper ships, gave those two steam vessels long narrow hulls meant for speed.

The famous engineer John Ericsson designed the Wampanoag engine. He was the radical inventor who'd developed the hot air engine, then designed the Union ironside Monitor. A much younger Benjamin Isherwood designed the Madawaska's power system. Ericsson used a conventional direct drive between engine and propeller, so both turned the same speed. Isherwood built a slower engine. Then he used a transmission to make his propeller turn twice as fast as his engine.

The sustained cruising speed was to be 15 knots or 17 miles an hour. Both ships were coal eaters; both gave far too much hull space to their mighty engines. Ericsson's Madawaska was ready for speed tests two years after the War ended; and it failed. Worse yet, his fast-running engine subjected the hull to a beating and it took on water. Isherwood surpassed the tests a year later, but not without his own problems. Delano's narrow hulls left little room for anything other than engines, boilers, and coal. The engines in both ships crowded out the crews as well as materiel.

These weren't perfect vessels. Still, when we look at photos of the Wampanoag we no longer see a modified steamboat. This is the beginning of the modern ocean ship. So what of their fate?

Ericsson and Isherwood had developed a destructive fury toward one another. Ericsson saw to it that his Madawaska was scrapped to protect it from further criticism. The Navy soon mothballed Isherwood's Wampanoag in the face of all the opposition it'd stirred up. Then they scrapped it as well.

And we're left with an oft-repeated story of invention. Isherwood had built the ship that others would have to improve upon. Its tall smokestacks now got in the way of its vestigial masts, but no matter. Sails were a disappearing relic; and Wampanoag's top speed of almost 20 miles an hour would now be the mark modern ships would strive to meet.

We all owe a huge debt to the many inventors that fail while they set the direction of our future. Yet we continue, for some inexplicable reason, to waste all our adulation on mere winners.

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

(Theme music)

F. M. Bennett, The Steam Navy of the United States: A History of the Growth of the Steam Vessel of War in the U.S. Navy, and of the Naval Engineer Corps. (W. T. Nicholson Press, 1896): (reprinted: Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, Pubs., 1972). Both images from this source.

E. W. Sloan, III, Benjamin Franklin Isherwood, Naval Engineer: The Years as Engineer in Chief, 1861-1869. (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute, 1965.)

For a large schematic drawing of the Wampanoag, Click on the Thumbnail Below
Wampanoag schematic thumbnail

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.