Tag Archives: featured

Confederate Aft End Was a 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

Looking for whalers - CSS Shenandoah under sail
Looking for whalers – CSS Shenandoah under sail

The history of the American Civil War has very little to say on the Confederate Navy. What it does say focuses on commerce raiding, mostly by the CSS Alabama, which is well-known enough to be in high school history texts. But others were out there, too, such as the CSS Shenandoah.

Shenandoah was most notable for raiding whalers in the Pacific for months after the war was over (the news travelled to them slowly), and its flag was thus the last to fly in the Confederacy’s name. But for our purposes here the ship’s propulsion, not its politics, are our concern.

As was common in the mid-19th century, Shenandoah had a hybrid sail/steam system. When winds were good, the crew hauled up sails, and when the wind ceased, they lit off the boiler. What made this ship unique was a retractable propeller that (theoretically, anyway) reduced drag and increased the ship’s speed while under sail.

CSS Shenandoah drydocked
CSS Shenandoah drydocked

Did it work any more effectively than opening (or was it closing?) the tailgate on a pickup truck helps fuel efficiency? Apparently sailors of the time thought it did. Whatever the answer, it soon became a moot point as sails disappeared entirely from merchant and military fleets around the world. The retractable propeller truly was a dead-end technology, designed to address what turned out to be only a transient problem. As other technologies and procedures developed, the propeller “hoist” became a solution without a problem to solve.

A note on sourcing: While I did find online references to the propeller hoist, this post is mostly based on my memory of “Last Flag Down,” an account of Shenandoah’s cruise by John Baldwin and Ron Powers – a book I cannot recommend highly enough. For a short description of the voyage, see the family history of the XO, Lt. Conway Whittle (near the bottom of the page).

Matt McLaughlin is a Navy Reserve lieutenant who never quite figured out the tailgate thing and ended up selling his pickup. His opinions do not represent the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or his employer.

These Dead Ends Go To Eleven

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

Dead ends aren’t always failures of the innovation. Sometimes good ideas are drowned by bureaucracies. In the 1994 paper “The Politics of Naval Innovation” released through the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College, contributor Jeffery Sands states that military organizations are large, conservative, and hierarchical. Resistance exists because: 1) the free flow of information is restricted in hierarchical organizations; 2) leaders have no interest in encouraging their own obsolescence by introducing innovations; and 3) organizations such as the Navy, which are infrastructure-intensive and where changes to that infrastructure are both expensive and lengthy, need some modicum of stability.

The failure of leadership to innovate can be found through two nameless British dockyard models from the Henry Huddleston Rogers Collection at the United States Naval Academy Museum, which has the second largest collection of dockyard models outside of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.

Waiting for an outboard motor...
Waiting for an outboard motor…

The model pictured at right is a Royal Navy Board hull model of a three-masted, 24-gun Sixth Rate with a pinched (or “pink”) stern, a design not seen in any other known age-of-sail model. The sterns of most English rated warships of the 17th and 18th centuries were burdened by heavy, overhanging square sterns and quarter galleries attached to the hull only at the ends and supported by a series of horizontal transoms. This made the ship difficult to maneuver, particularly in following seas, much like a small car towing a U-Haul in windy conditions. The stern was, of course, where the cabins were located for the captain and, in larger ships of the line, an admiral.

The pinched stern arrangement transferred the weight of the stern on vertical timbers that were taken down to the keel.  That made the stern much sturdier. The designer proposed this innovative ship to improve the ship’s maneuverability, survivability, and speed advantages in a fight. The design would, however, have eliminated the precious cabin space for the senior officers. Although two pink stern hulls were eventually built, the Admiralty demonstrated its resistance to this innovative design simply because of the loss of their comfort and cabin space.

“But there’s no room for the pool table!”
“But there’s no room for the pool table!”

HRR Model No. 14

In the 1984 mock rockumenatory “This is Spinal Tap,” lead guitarist (portrayed by Christopher Guest) explains to the interviewer that his amps “go to eleven” because they’re “one louder.” The interviewer asks him why he doesn’t just adjust the amps so that “ten” is louder. The perplexed Tufnel pauses for a moment and then simply reiterates: “These go to eleven.” The similar befuddled intransigence to a naval modification is exhibited in HRR Model No. 14, an English Fifth Rate 32-Gun ship.

The ship was proposed in 1689 or 1690. British ships of that period fell into one of three classes: ships-of-the-line generally with three decks of guns, frigates with two gun decks, and smaller ships with one gun deck. Model No. 14 is the grandfather of what became the true British frigates in the late 18th century.

Lurking in there somewhere is a second gundeck…
Lurking in there somewhere is a second gundeck…

Arthur Herbert, Earl of Torrington (incidentally the first person to use the term “fleet in being”), was a battle-scarred veteran of the Dutch Wars and realized that the Royal Navy needed large numbers of a new kind of robust and maneuverable cruiser capable of remaining at sea for long periods of time. To be truly effective, they should be able to employ their main battery of guns even in regions of rougher weather since heavy guns on the lower deck were normally too near the waterline to be used in battle except in optimal weather conditions. The original concept was that the lower deck was to be left completely unarmed without any gunports. The Admiralty board balked.  The debate likely went something like this:

Torrington: “We’ve improved the design by having the guns on the upper deck.”

Admiralty: “But a frigate has two gundecks.”

Torrington: “Yes, but by having all the guns on the upperdeck she has better seakeeping.”

Admiralty: “But a frigate has two gundecks.”

(Fast forward as Torrington modifies the dockyard model to add one small gunport on each side of the stern pictured below.)

Torrington: “Here’s your second gundeck.”

Admiralty: “Ah, a frigate has two gundecks!  Well done!”

Yep, there it is.
Yep, there it is.

This evolution became symptomatic of the British for the next century to build light originally but then modify the ships with more guns than for which they were originally designed. Ultimately it would be another century before the Admiralty adopted a frigate that had a seven-foot freeboard as the standard.

Claude Berube is the Director of the Naval Academy Museum and instructor in the Department of History. He is the author of several books and more than forty articles. The author notes the extensive research on the dockyard models done by specialist Grant Walker at the Naval Academy Museum.

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).