Category Archives: History

Naval and maritime history section.

Landing Gear is for Pansies

The following is part of Dead Ends Week at CIMSEC, where we pick apart past experiments and initiatives in the hopes of learning something from those that just didn’t quite pan out. See the rest of the posts here

Despite (or possibly, because of) Washington Naval Treaty cutbacks in the 20s and the Depression-induced budget troubles in the 30s, the U.S. Navy experienced quite a period of experimentation during the interwar decades. Without a doubt, the most glamorous example was the airship program, which featured yet another ship called Shenandoah, and culminated in the rigid airships USS Akron and USS Macon (ZRS-4 and ZRS-5).

Imagine riding this up to Fleet Week.
Imagine riding this up to Fleet Week.

But we are not here to talk about those, strictly speaking – we’re here to discuss their parasites. Parasite aircraft, that is. Akron and Macon were flying aircraft carriers, each carrying three or four scout aircraft to serve as the long-range eyes of the fleet below.

The Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk originated in a 1930 Navy requirement for a small carrier-based fighter. It ended up not performing too well in that role, but was retained in service as the only aircraft small enough to fit through the hanger doors of Akron, then under construction.

Here’s the dead end – the truly daring, truly paradigm-shifting dead end. How many planes have you ridden in that possessed some form of landing gear? I trust that it was every single one. So what do you do with a plane that takes off and “lands” via a hook above the fuselage? If you’re the Navy in the 1930s, you ditch the landing gear. No fixed gear, no retractable gear – simply no wheels at all. The Goodyear company would have been very fearful at the lost business, if they weren’t also the ones building the giant ships carrying the tire-less biplanes. All in all, probably a good deal for them.

Hooking into the trapeze aboard the Macon… the parallel parking of the skies.
Hooking into the trapeze aboard the Macon… the parallel parking of the skies.

But aircraft that never kissed ground were not long for this Earth. The Navy’s lighter-than-air fleet followed the general trend of rigid airships, in which they died violent deaths. Akron went down in a storm in the Atlantic (killing Rear Admiral William A. Moffett) in 1933, and Macon went down in the Pacific while operating out of Moffett Field just two years later. Sparrowhawks lost their niche and paradigms were brought back to normal.

Still, it is worth pondering the lesson of the Sparrowhawk. It took something that every single aircraft must have in some form or another, and just did away with it when the need disappeared. It didn’t end up working out – but it deserves to be admired.

Matt McLaughlin is a Navy Reserve lieutenant who doesn’t usually discuss parasites as frankly as he does here. His opinions do not represent the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or his employer.

Happy Birthday John Harrison!

In the midst of dead-end innovation week, an innovative success beyond compare.


Today marks the 321st Anniversary of the birth and the 238th Anniversary of the death of John Harrison, the inventor of the marine chronometer.

During the age of sail, accurately establishing your position at sea could be a dangerous problem. North/South coordinates were easy; east/west coordinates were difficult. When approaching land, sailors would use dead reckoning to ID known points or landmarks. However, many times positions were wrong, or navaids could not be seen, and many times were incorrectly identified. Errors like these often led to shipwrecks and wasted time; ship owners were losing cargo and great sums of money.

After a major shipwreck that accounted for over 200 deaths along with many other ships, the British Parliament offered a prize for the person who could accurately measure longitude; it was called quite simply, “The Longitude Prize,” which had a reward of 20,000 pounds (4.25 million today).

John Harrison was a self-taught carpenter and clock maker; he made it his life’s work to solve the problem by creating a reliable time piece unaffected by changes in temperature, humidity, or pressure. It would also keep accurate time during long distances, resist corrosion, and keep working on a moving ship in all weather conditions. The front runner to win the prize was an astronomer who would use celestial navigation to calculate a ships longitude. John understood that a reliable, easy-to-use time piece was the best method of measuring time, and thereby knowing longitude.

John created five versions of his chronometer, H-1 thru H-5. With H-1 being the largest and H-5 the size of a pocket watch; each kept very accurate time. John died without being awarded the prize, but he did receive funding from the English Parliament to continue his work on after the success of H-1.

His story is not as exciting as other great people in history, but more than most, his contribution in navigation made possible those exciting sea voyages that discovered other far off lands. Reading his story, he became one of my heroes. So if you would please, lift a toast to a great man on his Birthday. Cheers!

Erek Shanchez currently resides in Central Florida and is the Director of Operations for the Central Florida Warriors Rugby League. Retired from the US Navy in 2007 as a Rescue Swimmer and crewman on a 11m RHIB (SWCC).

Circular Hulls: Dead Ends that Sound Awesome

The following is part of Dead Ends Week at CIMSEC, where we pick apart past experiments and initiatives in the hopes of learning something from those that just didn’t quite pan out. See the rest of the posts here.

By Mark Hay

Where have we seen a similar map lately?
Where have we seen a similar map lately?

Throughout the 1860s, the Russian navy felt lost and more than a smidgen inadequate. The recent Peace of Paris in 1856, after their trouncing in the Crimean War, had banished Russian warships from the Black Sea, making much of the nation’s naval strategy obsolete and leaving Russia open to bellicosity from its southern neighbors in the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, the rise of monitors, first in America but then closer to home in Sweden, gave a shape to the fear that Russian technology was falling too far behind the curve to handle any future naval engagements. The Russian navy needed raw firepower, something so innovative in its brutality and strength that it could sit at the mouths of Russia’s rivers and utterly destroy any foreign notions of picking away at Russia via internal waterways.

The man with the plan.
The man with the plan

Fortunately, the Czar had a man with a plan. Andrei Alexandrovich Popov, the newly minted rear admiral in charge of dry docks and ship design, had served in the Crimean War and knew well the existential fear his nation faced. In his search for answers, he became obsessed with a design being floated by the Glaswegian shipbuilder John Elder: circles. Circles would solve everything. Circular hulls, that is. In a fit of simple, geometric brilliance, Elder had pointed out—and Popov had readily internalized the fact—that a shallow, circular ship design would offer the greatest level of displacement on the water, allowing for the highest ratio of gun weight to ship area. As a bonus, the ship’s rounded edges would expose only slivers of the hull to direct fire at any point, deflecting the brunt of a shell’s impact and requiring minimal armor. Sitting low in the water, not much would be exposed anyway, so the small target’s large guns could rotate with ease in any direction and launch intimidating salvos from the Kerch Strait of the Dnieper River, mutilating any Turkish incursion into Russian waters. Popov ordered the construction of ten perfectly round ships, plated in metal armor and based on Swedish monitor designs, to create a solid blockade. In the end the ailing Russian treasury was only able to fund two: the Novgorod and the eponymous Admiral Popov. Commissioned in 1871 and launched in 1873, the two ships bore some subtle differences, but for the most part they shared the same design: 2,491 tons when empty, 30.8 meters in diameter, a 3.7 meter draught and 7-knot best speed, and a ring of armor 12 to 16 centimeters thick. Each sported two 26-ton 11-inch guns on revolving turntables, capable of moving independently or in unison, using wood wedges and hydraulic frictional compression devices to stabilize their fire. Aside from the big guns, each ship carried two 4-pound and sixteen 37 mm guns. Each ship ran on the power of six engines, each connected to its own propeller shaft—the engines and boiler took up half of the hull of the ships. They were truly imposing monstrosities.

We’d be remiss if we failed to make a UFO joke – Unidentified Floating Object
We’d be remiss if we failed to make a UFO joke – Unidentified Floating Object

Unfortunately they were green-lit with almost no testing. Popov offered a 24-foot model for inspection in the placid Neva River in 1870, but did not test the propulsion or gunnery on the toy ship. His sole intention was, single-mindedly, to demonstrate the visual allure, displacement potential, and novelty of the round hull.

The problem with a circle, though, is when one fires a shot with a massive gun, there’s something called centrifugal rotation. With no keel to cut and hold water, the lore goes, the first shots fired by the ships—nicknamed popovas after their inventor—sent them careening off wildly down the river. This dim view is overstated. While the first gunnery test revealed what should be deemed—at minimum—severe problems, coordination with the rudder and contra-rotation of the propellers helped to stop the ships from spinning off like tops in the field. However, the underlying problems of mobility could not be overcome. The rudder and propeller were undersized compared to the task of handling the unmoored disc, which rolled and pitched about in the waves of any river choppier than the Neva.

The result was poor aim, a 12-minute reload time, and a top speed less than half of that predicted by Popov and his acolytes. Not to mention that the designers had thought little of the crew, boiling in the poorly ventilated hull in the midst of brutal Ukrainian summers. Not even the compensations for the spin of the guns could salvage the round ship design.

The monitor Novgorod, in happier days
The monitor Novgorod, in happier days

Eventually the Peace of Paris lapsed and the Russian fleet moved back into the Black Sea, taking the fight on the offensive. In the next confrontation with the Turks, the popovas were taken to shore and anchored taut to prevent their spinning off. With too little endurance to make the trip across the waters to plot and fire at Turkey, they became defensive batteries never used in the conflict. After their failed service in the Danube Flotilla during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8, they were put into storage in 1893 and finally scrapped in 1912.

None of this was inevitable, nor was it the fault of the round ship design inherently. Even with news of the follies and failures of the popovas, British shipwrights continued to extoll the virtues of the round ship in naval conferences well into the 1870s, drawing lessons from Russia on how to overcome the mobility and stability issues of the shape. Popov and John Elder’s company (he died in 1869) even collaborated in 1879 to build the Czar’s new yacht, the Livadia, on the round ship design, elongating the stern and bow to help break the rotation of the ship, elegantly eliminating almost every flaw of the popovas.

The problem of the popovas was Popov and his obsession with a magic bullet solution to every problem of the Russian navy. His incessant belief in the power of fluid geometry (even after his brainchildren’s spectacular failure, he suggested building a larger ship with 16-inch guns that could reach 14 knots, but scrapped the idea when he realized he’d need five times normal horsepower to make it move) led him to ignore basic physics and easily intuited complications. And perhaps the design would have worked, if the money for ten had existed and the strategic importance of the Kerch Strait remained a constant for several decades. But the world is not ideal, strategic factors change, and while a circular peg may fit a circular hole, there are almost no such simple geometric equations to be filled in peace or war. 

Mark Hay is a freelance writer and University of Oxford graduate student who works on political, material and strategic history.

Dynamite Idea! USS Vesuvius’ Dead End

The following is part of Dead Ends Week at CIMSEC, where we pick apart past experiments and initiatives in the hopes of learning something from those that just didn’t quite pan out. See the rest of the posts here

These days, the Spanish-American War is mostly remembered for Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, “Remember the Maine!” and America’s emergence upon the world stage. Within the maritime domain, we also remember it as a showcase for the United States’ new steel navy and the technical innovations which laid the groundwork for the Great White Fleet and beyond. All the basics were there – steam power, electricity, large-caliber guns, and armor plating.

But they also had some things that didn’t quite make it.

Among them was the USS Vesuvius. Vesuvius was commissioned in 1890 as a unique animal in the navies of the world – a dynamite gun cruiser. The 900-ton ship’s main battery was composed of three guns that fired dynamite-filled rounds using compressed air. The rationale for the pneumatic system was a reduced chance of prematurely detonating the ordnance from the shock of firing. Depending on the weight of ordnance launched, Vesuvius’s range was anywhere from 2000 to 4000 yards. A major drawback was that the guns were fixed, so aiming required maneuvering the entire ship.

Dynamite gun muzzles aboard Vesuvius

Dynamite gun muzzles aboard Vesuvius

Despite the weapons’ short range and difficulty with targeting, Vesuvius still saw remarkable success during the war in Cuba. Although primarily used as a dispatch vessel, owing to her small size and high speed (21 knots!), Vesuvius still participated in eight shore bombardments of Santiago. It would quietly sneak near shore under cover of darkness and, with no more noise than a sound “like a cough,” would launch several dynamite rounds into the city. Because of the silence of the guns, there was no warning before the explosions came. It is doubtful the bombardments had much practical effect on Spain’s technical ability to fight, but it had a devastating psychological effect on Spanish troops in the city –troops who went on to lose the war at the Battle of Santiago.

The dynamite gun didn’t last past the war in the U.S. Navy, though. USS Vesuvius was removed from service in September 1898 and repurposed as a torpedo-testing vessel. Torpedo tubes replaced the pneumatic tubes, and the ship enjoyed a happy life plying the waters off of Newport, Rhode Island, into the 1920s.

The three dynamite guns below deck on Vesuvius

The three dynamite guns below deck on Vesuvius

And with that, the dynamite gun’s brief chapter in naval history was closed. But, whether intentional or not, it still managed to demonstrate two principles that would only grow in importance as time passed.

At a technical level, the same basic pneumatic technology that launched rounds packed with dynamite is also what launches torpedoes today, from both surface ships and submarines – just one of a myriad of systems to which compressed air is critical.

Vesuvius underway in 1891

Vesuvius underway in 1891

At a strategic level, the dynamite gun’s employment in the Spanish-American War anticipated, at a very small scale, the use of terror weapons such as the Paris Gun, area bombing, V-1 and V-2 in later decades. Vesuvius clearly had no ability to hit a specific target, but its ability to impact a general area was unrivaled due to its “stealth” qualities. Whether any Spanish troops were actually killed by Vesuvius is tough to say – but without a doubt, the city of Santiago feared the night.

Matt McLaughlin is a Navy Reserve lieutenant who has fired air guns before, but none quite this big. His opinions do not represent the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or his employer.