A 1984 oil painting by John Charles Roach, depicting the U.S. Navy's fast cruiser USS Wampanoag performing her designed mission, in an imaginary conflict with the British empire. The Wampanoag class was designed by Chief Engineer of the Navy Bureau of Steam Engineering Benjamin Franklin Isherwood during the Civil War as the world's fastest ships, able to interdict and destroy British commerce, in the event British support for the Confederacy led to war with Perfidious Albion. US Naval History and Heritage Command photo # NH 95699-KN
In 1842, Congress enacted a law establishing a Navy engineer corps and directing the Navy to include steam engineers as command officers. One of the people who responded was 20 year-old Benjamin Franklin Isherwood, who had worked as an assistant to civil engineers building the Utica and Schenectady Railroad, and the New York and Erie Railroad. In order to get the experience needed to be accepted as a Navy engineer, Isherwood went to work for Novelty Iron Works of New York City, one of the largest builders of marine steam boilers and engines. Finally, on May 23, 1844, not yet 22 years old, Isherwood was appointed as a first assistant engineer in the U.S. Navy. He served as second assistant engineer on the U.S.S. Princeton, the world's first screw-propelled steam warship, designed by Swedish inventor John Ericsson, then three years later was made senior engineer of the much smaller steam side-wheeler, Spitfire. In November 1852, Isherwood’s former boss at the New York and Erie Railroad, Charles B. Stuart, was appointed Engineer in Chief of the Navy, and immediately had Isherwood assigned as his aide.
From the beginning of his Navy career, Isherwood used his access to steam ships to begin collecting data on their operating characteristics and efficiency, looking for elements and principles of design that could be applied to building better engines. He contributed a number of articles to the leading science and technical magazine of the day, the Journal of the Franklin Institute. His experiments and data on Navy steam vessels would move the theoretical field of thermodynamics onto a solid foundation as a science. And like many scientific pioneers, he was often met with derision and hostility. Despite his detractors, Isherwood went on to play a key role in saving the Union by overseeing the wartime build up of a new U.S. Navy.
In 1851, Isherwood designed and supervised installation of replacement engines for the steam gunboat USS Allegheny. His design created great controversy among engineers: instead of the traditional placement of the engine so that the pistons moved fore and aft, Isherwood’s engines were placed so that the pistons worked perpendicular to the center-line of the vessel, with the pistons connected to the propeller shaft by horizontal jointed connecting rods. Despite the Allegheny having too weak a hull structure to make the engine design a success, this became a standard design for the American Navy, especially during the Civil War, and became known as the “Isherwood engine.”
Also in 1851, Isherwood designed a new feathering paddle wheel for the sidewheel gunboat USS Water Witch. The British and French had been using feathering paddles for years, but Isherwood’s was the first used by the U.S. Navy.
In September 1854, Isherwood was assigned to sea duty as chief engineer on the screw frigate USS San Jacinto for a three-year cruise with the East India Squadron. On this cruise, the San Jacinto served as flagship, and hosted American diplomat Townsend Harris, who negotiated the beginning of trade relations with Siam (today called Thailand), then Japan. During his time in foreign ports, Isherwood visited and examined scores of British and other ships, “checking their logbooks and indicator diagrams, and interviewing their engineers.”(1) He compiled careful records of the characteristics, performance, and other engineering data, of the steam machinery of these vessels.
Though there were some captains and fellow engineers who misunderstood and resented his single-minded quest for information as an unwarranted and unwanted intrusion on their commands, by 1859 Isherwood had became a recognized authority on steam power within the Navy, and “his superiors placed him on many experimental boards during 1859 and 1860 so that the Navy might utilize the encyclopedic knowledge Isherwood has at his command.” In September and October 1860, Isherwood was assigned to a Navy Department survey of all Navy sailing vessels to determine which ones could be converted to steamers. The panel concluded that “smaller warships—brigs, sloops, and frigates—should retain their full sail power; but ships of the line were now useless and should be razed and converted into first-class, screw-steam frigates.”(2)
In November, 1860, Isherwood was given command of a board of engineers assigned to perform experiments on the steam machinery of the only Navy warship on the Great Lakes, USS Michigan. He was ordered to determine the most efficient procedures and settings for operating the vessel’s steam plant. The results of these experiments carried Isherwood into a long and sustained controversy that dominated his career for the remainder of his life. Reading the details of this controversy today can serve as a much needed warning to avoid hasty judgments on technically complex issues, and especially to beware of the danger of public issues being misdirected by strong personalities.
Though Irish chemist and physicist Robert Boyle and English scientist and mathematician Robert Hooke had formulated, in the 1670s, Boyle's Law—that there is an inversely proportional relationship between the pressure and volume of a gas at a constant temperature—the science of thermodynamics was still in its infancy. A century and a half passed until Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, a treatise on heat, power, energy, and engine efficiency by the French scientist Sadi Carnot was published in 1824; Carnot is now called the "father of thermodynamics." In the six decades since James Watt had begun building a commercially useful steam engine, the operating efficiency of steam engines had increased only slightly. The first systematic text on steam-engine theory did not appear until 1858, when The Steam Engine and Other Prime Movers by Scottish physicist, mathematician, and mechanical engineer William John Macquorn Rankine was published.
Isherwood biographer Edward William Sloane III aptly summarizes the state of affairs in steam engineering at this time: “While scientists failed to deal with the practical application of theories, engineers generally failed to understand the principles underlying the operation of their engines. Steam engineering was a 'rule of thumb' profession, the work of unlettered, unscientific men who were no more than glorified mechanics.” The result, Isherwood himself wrote, was that steam engineering was in a “deranged state.” Isherwood, Sloan continues, had
developed an interest in engineering that went beyond the field of basic mechanics. When the material in available technical publications proved inadequate, he turned to the writings of the acknowledged masters in physics and engineering in order to find solutions to basic problems he had encountered in engine design and operation. The area which particularly intrigued him was the new field of thermodynamics, and Isherwood avidly studied the pioneering works of Tyndall, Joule, Mayer, Rankine, Clausius, and Hirn. As the writings of several of these scholars had been published only in French, Isherwood applied his skill in this language to good use, translating many articles which had never appeared in English-language journals.(3)Fearlessly, Isherwood began to systematically attack much of the "common wisdom" of steam engineering, initiating a series of controversies that lasted the remainder of his life. As Sloane explains, “With his deep suspicion of engineering practices based on theoretical postulates, he determined to question the theory of steam expansion, a concept which had so captivated the imagination of steam engineers of the 1850s that it had become elevated into virtually unassailable law.”
General practice for operating steam engines at the time was to cut off the admission of steam to a cylinder early, and allow the expansion of the steam to push the piston to the top of its stroke. This would supposedly make the steam plant "more efficient" since conserving the amount of steam required to run an engine, translating into less fuel burned to make the steam in the boiler. The theory behind this idea of steam expansion was known as Mariotte's law, after French physicist Edme Mariotte (1620–1684). It is simply a restatement of Boyle's law; Mariotte had formulated it independently of Boyle and Hooke at about the same time.
Isherwood's experiments and collected data showed that in practical application the theory of steam expansion was not making steam plants operate anywhere near as efficiently as expected by the theory. After a certain point, increasing the valve cut off of steam entering a cylinder resulted in rapidly decreasing efficiency, not more. To explain the results he found, Isherwood pointed out that not all the steam injected into a cylinder actually did work. Some of it escaped past the piston and valves. More importantly, some steam would condense from heat loss within the cylinder. Isherwood argued that the advocates of Mariotte's law overlooked the crucial fact that the metal walls of a steam engine cylinder were not perfect insulators, but actually acted to absorb heat from their inside surface and radiate it to their outside surface. This was especially a problem for steam engines designed for and installed in naval and maritime vessels, because insulating materials and technology of the time were inefficient and very costly, so were not applied in a marine setting. And, Isherwood explained, there was also considerable heat loss that occurred as the steam was conveyed through the boiler, pipes, and steam-valve chest to the cylinders.
Furthermore, Isherwood argued, there was considerable loss of heat in the act of expansion itself. Steam adjacent to the interior walls of a cylinder would lose heat rapidly enough to condense, but would immediately flash back into steam by absorbing the heat of the remaining steam. This process, of course, would work to progressively lower the average temperature of all steam in a cylinder, thus producing a continuous decline in the steam pressure.
In early 1859, Isherwood had published the first volume of the results of his research, Engineering Precedents for Steam Machinery, a series of technical essays and a methodically organized mass of data on British and American steam warships. In the autumn, he published Volume II, containing his critique of Mariotte's law and the expansive use of steam. He wrote in the book why he had been led to attack
the hypothetical law of MARIOTTE, which though rigorously true for the imaginary conditions upon which [steam engine operations have been] based, are yet subject to such wide modifications by the practical conditions actually encountered with steam machinery, that the predicted advantages may be lessened to any extent, and may even disappear under very unfavorable circumstances, while under the most favorable ones possible there will always remain an enormous discrepancy. (4)
Some reaction to the book was vituperative, especially from engineers and publications in Britain. But there were encomiums: Scottish physicist and mathematician William J.M. Rankine, one of the world's most recognized authorities on steam power, read a paper to his colleagues in Glasgow based on Isherwood's new book. And the editors of the Journal of the Franklin Institute, which had been publishing articles by Isherwood for a decade, wrote that the second volume of Engineering Precedents was far more valuable than the first precisely because of Isherwood's experiments on working steam expansively. The editors took note of how thorough and meticulous were his methods of experimenting and recording results. They also commended Isherwood for being "bold in enunciating his ideas and deductions," especially since his work conflicted with generally accepted theories.(5)
Isherwood's biographer, Sloan, writes
The results of the Erie experiments on the Michigan showed Isherwood that his techniques, as well as his ideas, had great value for the engineering world. He saw his Erie work as "an additional admonition of the extreme unsafety of depending upon inference in the physical sciences." Only experimental results, obtained under carefully controlled conditions, could be relied upon to solve scientific problems. He had gathered all the data possible at Erie; and what was more, he published all that he observed, presenting his entire experimental procedure step by step, describing his method of calculation, and carefully stating the physical laws on which he based his results. The inductive process, he concluded, was the only way to derive scientific laws; and for his day, this was a practice rarely observed with true fidelity.
....everywhere engines had been built on the theoretical principles of steam expansion, and it was universally believed that such engines were the most economical. Suddenly this young man, the Scientific American noted in its issue of May 4, 1861, comes forth with claims which "have somewhat startled the engineering world," since they "strike at the very root of opinions long and generally entertained." The steam trials at Erie were the first of their kind ever published, his critics admitted, and the credit for whatever new light they cast belonged to Isherwood.
In later years, the techniques Isherwood utilized at Erie excited more admiration than his results, valuable as the latter were. Robert Henry Thurston, the leading American writer and expert in steam engineering of the late nineteenth century, considered Isherwood's work on the Michigan to be the first systematically conducted investigation into this phase of steam-engine efficiency. Isherwood, he asserted, was the first to attempt to determine by a planned and systematic method the law governing cylinder condensation in relation to the degree of steam expansion. It was the first of a number of such investigations by Isherwood; and such was their thoroughness that, in 1889, they still could, as Thurston wrote, "constitute the principal part of our data in this direction.”(6)By now, the Civil War had begun. In March 1861, on the advice of Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, President Lincoln nominated Isherwood as the Chief Engineer of the Navy's new Bureau of Steam Engineering. But Isherwood's experiments had stirred up so much controversy that the Senate failed twice to take a vote, and Lincoln had to nominate him a second time before the Senate assented. In his massive and thorough 1896 history of The Steam Navy of the United States, Frank M. Bennett wrote Isherwood "was recognized as the foremost man of his corps in professional ability and zeal, while his indefatigable energy and intense patriotism brought to the head of one of the most important executive branches of the Navy Department a man well fitted for the Herculean task that the next few years had in store."
Still waiting for Senate confirmation, Isherwood speedily and resolutely took up his new duties. The first crucial test came quickly: Isherwood recommended to Secretary Welles that the forty-gun screw steam frigate USS Merrimack be moved from the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia, where the nearly completed ship was having its steam plant installed. The United States Navy continued to control the facility, but every day that passed made it more likely that Confederate traitors would be able to seize the ship for themselves, complete the work, and use her against the Union. There was a steady stream of intelligence reports that Confederate sympathizers inside and outside the yard were delaying construction of Merrimack to give themselves time to organize their seizure of the ship and probably the rest of the yard. (7)
Welles immediately agreed, and when, a few day later, a report reached him that completion of the engine installation could not be done in less than four weeks, decided that Isherwood himself should go to Norfolk. The first major impediment to moving the Merrimack was the need to complete installation of her boilers and engines, and all their ancillary equipment. Who better than the Chief Engineer of the Navy to try to accomplish the impossible?
Within two days, Isherwood was on the scene in Norfolk, where he found that not only had the engines and other equipment been scattered and hid all about the yard, but that the engine braces in the hull had also been removed. More unsettling, Isherwood found that the commander of the yard, Commodore McCauley, was in his seventies, and simply unable to recognize, let alone deal with, all the intrigue and scheming being done by rebel traitors all around him—not just local citizens, but even some of his own senior officers.
Fortunately, the Chief Engineer of the Merrimack, Robert Danby, who had been providing information to Isherwood and Welles, had some idea of who could and could not be trusted. The local laborers working on Merrimack had all quit in an organized effort to disrupt the work and keep the vessel immobile. Isherwood quickly hired replacements and divided them into three eight-hour gangs to work around the clock. Isherwood's determination and uncompromising spirit inspired herculean efforts from the men, and the work was completed in under three full days.
Isherwood now ordered the boilers to be fired and steam made, then went to Commodore McCauley and requested he give the order for Merrimack to cast off and depart Norfolk. To Isherwood's utter amazement, McCauley vacillated, and said he would decide within a few hours. Isherwood responded by pointing to the peremptory nature of Secretary Welles' instructions, but the aged Commodore appeared to be stunned by the discovery that treason had operated right under his nose, and further appeared to have sought solace in alcohol. Returning to Merrimack, Isherwood violated naval tradition and regulation and ordered the release of the chain cables holding the ship in place, replacing the cables with rope. Furthermore, he ordered sailors with axes stationed next to the ropes, ready to cut the ship loose at a moment's notice.
Then Isherwood waited, regularly approaching McCauley over the next few days and appealing for the order to take Merrimack out of the yard. Though he and the ship's new captain, who had accompanied Isherwood from Washington, discussed between themselves the possibility of simply ignoring McCauley, they reluctantly agreed that Navy regulations were very clear: no engineer could encroach on the command of line officers, and line officers were under the command of a yard's commanders when their vessels were in that yard.
Meanwhile, the Confederates had not been inactive. They were busily placing obstacles in the channels the Merrimack would have to traverse to leave the yard. And there was a group that had begun planning to kidnap Isherwood and hold him as a prisoner of war. Fortunately, a personal friend of Isherwood resided in Norfolk and learned of the plot. The friend warned Isherwood and helped him escape by buying a ticket in his own name for a berth on a steamboat returning to Washington. Isherwood was then smuggled out of the yard and hidden in a hotel near the steamboat dock, boarding only minutes before departure.
And so, the Merrimack did end up in rebel hands. She was clad in iron by the Confederates, then on March 8, 1862 steamed out to shatter the Union fleet blockading Norfolk and Hampton Roads. Without any damage to herself, Merrimack annihilated two 50-gun sailing frigates, USS Congress and USS Cumberland by the time darkness fell. The next day, the USS Monitor arrived to confront Merrimack in their historic, climatic battle.
In March 1863, Congress appropriated $20,000 for the Navy Department to conduct further experiments Isherwood had proposed. Isherwood collaborated closely with Horatio Allen, president of the Novelty Iron Works. In June, a board of nine experts convened at the Novelty shops in New York City, composed of three men from the Franklin Institute, three from the National Academy of Sciences, and three from the Navy Department, including Isherwood. Here is a clear, unambiguous action by the Congress taken to fulfill the Constitutional mandate to promote the General Welfare: how to push forward the design and operation of steam engines. This was direct funding of research that was not just military, but had direct civilian interest and involvement.
All the while, Isherwood was supervising scores of experiments, using the hundreds of steamers then operating in the Navy. The Congressional appropriation may have been in response to Isherwood's request to Secretary Welles the month before that the Navy fund publication of an annual volume containing all the specifications and performance on Navy steamers, plus the results of whatever special experiments the Bureau of Steam Engineering had concluded. Isherwood wrote Welles that such a publication would be of inestimable value not just to the Navy, but also “to all persons engaged in the manufacture or use of steam machinery.” Welles declined on the grounds the Navy had not enough funds. Isherwood then submitted his proposal to a number of publishers, without success. Then a number of civilian and Navy engineers familiar with Isherwood’s work came forward and provided funding to the Franklin Institute to publish, in late 1863, Experimental Researches in Steam Engineering. Note that there was no attempt to slap any sort of military secrecy on this work: Isherwood and Welles both undoubtedly understood that the technical knowledge acquired by the Bureau's experiments and data collection could, and should, benefit designers and builders of civilian commercial steam engines and equipment. (Three quarters of a century later, the same intent to deliberately seed new military technology into the national economy would be seen in the July-August 1946 Moore School lectures, Theory and Techniques for Design of Electronic Digital Computers.)
Isherwood’s new book immediately created new controversy: Isherwood had broken entirely with accepted engineering principles, and designed and tested steam equipment with large boilers and relatively smaller cylinders. As Sloane explain:
Most engineers of the 1860s designed their engines with small boilers and large cylinders, assuming that the increased power would depend on a large piston with its long stroke. Isherwood observed that their engines failed to develop sufficient power because the small boilers could not supply enough steam for the big cylinders, so that the engines could never work up to their full capacity…. Consequently the average steam pressure on the piston throughout the stroke would be low... Isherwood decided to design his engines by reversing the normal practice, using large boilers which would assure sufficient steam for the smaller engines. As a result, his machinery was among the first that had boilers capable of supplying all the steam the engines could work off. In this way, the engines could be driven at maximum speed for long periods of time….(8)
A half century later, an article in the Army and Navy Journal on July 3, 1915, stated that Experimental Researches in Steam Engineering remained “a storehouse of information to which for a long time there was no parallel.” And in an article in the January 15, 1918 issue of Power magazine, Dr. Ira N. Hollis, president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, said of Isherwood: “I think of him as perhaps the father of our great research laboratories in engineering, as his investigations in connection with steam engines and with boilers preceded all of our schools of mechanical engineering.” (9)
Important as Isherwood's scientific experimentation was for the development of steam engineering, it was not the major contribution he made to his profession. In his years of experimenting, Isherwood had shaped a philosophy of engineering that was to enrich his books and set a striking example for his contemporaries. At a time when neither he nor his professional associates had received formal training in research methods, Isherwood stood forth as the man who initiated a new era in steam engineering. By applying scientific methods and scientific apparatus to prove the relation of wastes in the steam engine to the limitations of thermodynamic theory, he became the first American engineer to "fix a settled principle of promoting professional knowledge and the solution of practical problems in engineering," according to R. H. Thurston.
Behind this work lay his firm conviction that his experiments should endure as an imperishable contribution to man's knowledge, and that any less exalted aim would make experimentation pointless. "Whatever your investigations," he counseled, "leave nothing omitted or imperfectly done. In establishing conclusions, make your experiments so exact that if under the same conditions they should be repeated by some other experimenter a hundred years hence the same results would be confirmed." It was this unequivocal stand which won him the admiration and obedience of his assistants, and inspired one to assert, in later years, that "in thoroughness, exactness and ingenuity as an experimenter no man has ever excelled Mr. Isherwood."
So convinced was Isherwood in the efficacy of the scientific method and the virtues of scientific knowledge that he viewed man's existence largely in these terms. His profession became for him a mighty instrument of power, far exceeding in scope any utilitarian benefits it might offer society. (10)One wonders how modern economists account for Isherwood’s determination to create new knowledge that would benefit society “a hundred years hence.” What marginal utility was accruing to Isherwood by the new knowledge he gained in thermodynamics? He certainly was not becoming a millionaire as a Navy engineer, even Chief Engineer. This line of thinking—this concern for promoting the General Welfare by driving forward scientific and technological knowledge—is emblematic of what was then known as the American School of political economy, and is intimately bound up in a general understanding of what it meant for the United States to be a republic. In his contribution to the 1867 Report of the Secretary of the Navy, Isherwood attributed the Confederacy’s defeat to the fact that they had "despised the mechanical arts and sciences."
For those interested, this annual report by Isherwood also contains his summary of experiments the Bureau of Steam Engineering had conducted in using petroleum as a fuel to replace coal. Here again, an example of the national government promoting new technology that would transform the economy.
Let the department consider for a moment what are the duties of its engineers and what they performed during the war. In the course of the latter, they had equal personal exposure in the pestilence, the battle, and the wreck, with the line officers. On them depended the efficiency of the numerous squadrons for service. For let it be asked of what use would the vessels have been with their machinery unreliable or disabled. They had not only to repair and operate, but to alter and invent and rearrange to meet the continued varyings of our unprecedented service. Of one, in fact, which maintained a blockade of three thousand miles of the most difficult coast in the world, while all the engineering talent and material resources of Great Britain were employed in attempts to run it. Yet so efficiently was it maintained that our final and complete triumph at the early date it took place will be largely ascribed by the historian of the future to the gigantic and admirably directed efforts of the Navy Department. Could the revolted States have sent their cotton to Europe, and with the proceeds of its sale, imported munitions of war, how much longer would the struggle have continued? Who can say when it would have ended, and after what ruinous sacrifices of men and
means? Fortunately, our antagonists had neither engineering skill nor resources in themselves, nor could they, owing to the efficiency of our navy, obtain them from others, and the want was fatal. They had despised the mechanical arts and sciences, and by those arts and sciences they fell. (11)
At the beginning of the Civil War, when Isherwood was appointed Engineer in Chief, and the Bureau of Steam Engineering was created to fully utilize his services, the U.S. Navy had 28 steam vessels. By the end of the war, the Navy had over 600 steam-powered ships. Their design and construction were all the responsibility of this remarkable man. In fact, he himself designed the propulsion machinery for 125 of these vessels. Many of these were designed to be fast enough to pursue and catch Confederate blockade runners.
And he did all this while designing and conducting his experiments, collecting and organizing the resulting data, and preparing for publication three major volumes on steam engineering which became foundation texts for mechanical engineers all over the world, being translated into at least six languages.
Isherwood's masterpiece, the USS Wampanoag, turned out to be his most controversial and heart-breaking design. This vessel was the lead ship of a new class of large commerce-raiding cruisers, intended to cripple British shipping if Her Majesty's government decided to extend full military assistance to the Confederacy, or even go to war with the United States.(12) In his history of The Steam Navy, Bennett includes an excerpt from something Isherwood wrote in response to one of his detractors, explaining the operational and strategic requirements the Wampanoag class was designed to meet:
... the vessel was designed for an exceedingly fast ocean cruiser, fast enough to capture any British mail or merchant steamer, as at that date a rupture with Great Britain was imminent, and we were wholly unprepared with any steamers that could be used against her commerce; that the career of the Alabama had shown the necessity of such vessels in war; and, finally, that in constructing the Wampanoag other qualities were to be necessarily sacrificed in a greater degree than usual to obtain unprecedented speed, as upon speed alone depended her utility, of which it was the direct measure. The speed was to be so great as to make any attempt to exceed it hopeless…. In the design of such a vessel the sails were a secondary consideration, the first being the durability, simplicity, and reliability of the machinery, combined with maximum power to be exerted continuously as long as the fuel lasted, and with extreme economy of fuel in the development of that power. It was proposed to construct a vessel having a greater speed by several miles per hour than any other ocean steamer; which should be able to go to the British coast in case of hostilities, and burn, sink, and destroy every vessel of inferior force, naval or merchant, that might be found there. Nothing she pursued could escape her, and nothing she fled from could overtake her. The more heavily armed but slower cruisers of the enemy could only follow her by the flames of the burning wrecks she left behind her. (13)The Wampanoag hull was designed and built by the leading ship designer and builder in the United States at the time, famed clipper ship architect Benjamin Franklin Delano, who had become close friends with Isherwood. The steam boiler, engine, and other machinery were designed by Isherwood himself, and he was aiming for the fastest vessel, naval or commercial, in the world. And with a length of 355 feet, a beam of 45 feet, and displacement of 4,215 tons, the ship would also be one of the largest in the world. (The largest warship in the world at the time was the Royal Navy's new HMS Warrior: length 420 feet; beam 58 feet, displacement 9,137 tons).
Wampanoag's keel was laid down in August 1863, and the ship was launched in December 1864. But by this time Isherwood's enemies had mobilized in an effort to remove him from office. And they were quite politically astute: they had enlisted the assistance of Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning, a political intimate of President Lincoln, and Congressmen Henry W. Davis of Maryland, a cousin of Judge David Davis, who had presided over the circuit courts in which Lincoln had practiced law in the 1840s and 1850s, had been manager of Lincoln's 1860 campaign, and had been appointed by Lincoln to the Supreme Court. In January 1863, this anti-Isherwood cabal had convinced Navy Secretary Welles to convene a special board to investigate all the steam engines Isherwood had designed. To the surface of this morass of backbiting and intrigue floated a proposal that would be difficult for Isherwood—with his penchant for experimenting—to refuse: use the Wampanoag hull design as a base to test Isherwood's engine against various designs of other engineers.
As a result of the delays, then of the drastic cost-cutting after the Civil War ended, the Wampanoag was not commissioned until September 1867. During her sea trials, she achieved a sustained speed of over 17 knots, some two to three knots faster than even the fleetest commercial Atlantic steamships.
Officers in the Royal Navy and the Admiralty had been keenly monitoring the new Wampanoag class, and the tremendous success of Isherwood's design, according to some naval historians, probably forced the British to improve their relations with the United States by, for example, agreeing to settle the Alabama claims.(14) They knew that the fastest ships in the Royal Navy were at least two knots slower, and it seemed unlikely that faster British ships would be built anytime soon: British engineers were still clinging to Mariotte's law. The Wampanoag world speed record remained untouched for over two decades.
The other engine designs placed in the Wampanoag class hulls failed to come close to the incredible performance of the Isherwood engines. In the case of one engine design, Bennett wrote, "So little engineering knowledge entered into the machinery designs of the Algonquin that when it was all placed on board it was found to make the vessel so lop-sided that a dead weight of about sixty-nine tons had to be applied to keep her on an even keel."(15)
But still there was controversy.
With the severe cost cutting following the war, Navy vessels were ordered to conserve coal by using their sails as much as possible, and using steam propulsion only when absolutely necessary. Not surprisingly, Navy line officers began to resent the immense amount of space the propulsion machinery accounted for in their vessels, especially since the machinery required specialists—the steam engineers and their engine room gangs—who were rarely needed, but who still had to be berthed and fed. In May 1868, Wampanoag was decommissioned. In April 1869, a special board calculated that of all the weight the hull could accommodate, 84% was taken up by engines, boilers and coal supplies, leaving only 16% for masts, sails, rigging, anchors, guns, provisions and water.(16) The board declared that the Wampanoag, which had been renamed Florida, was therefore unfit for service, and condemned her. The ship served as a receiving and store ship at the New London, Conn., naval station until it was sold for scrap in February 1885.
Bennett records that in 1892, Assistant Engineer Ira N. Hollis, U. S. Navy, gave a lecture on the development of marine engines, delivered at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. Among his remarks were these observations regarding the Wampanoag:
It was a stroke of genius which put geared engines with slow reciprocating parts and rapid rotating screw into a ship that would have been racked to pieces by the engines we construct today. She was condemned in 1869 by a board of naval officers for various reasons, among them the following: "Excessive weight of machinery and coal". The Minneapolis has 3,971 tons devoted to this purpose, about the displacement of the Wampanoag. "Enormous coal consumption." She burned 136 tons of coal a day, while our latest cruiser will burn 360 tons for her sustained speed.... "Relative length to breadth said to cause inordinate rolling and dangerous straining of ship." The latter cruiser has about the same relative dimensions and a lower coefficient of fineness. "Carried coal enough to last only five or six days at maximum power." The Minneapolis has the same endurance. "Four-bladed screw nullified the use of canvas. The substitution of a two-bladed screw recommended, and the removal of several boilers for the purpose of giving her full sail power." Her later sister carries no sails at all. Her speed was superior to that of most of our cruisers, and we have gained between two and three knots by building a ship of twice her size. (17)Despite the pain he must have felt at the condemning of Wampanoag—recall the October 1860 survey that had advocated moving to an all-steam Navy—Isherwood continued to serve both the Navy, and the engineering profession. Soon after the Civil War ended, he was tasked with creating a new scientific curriculum for steam engineering at the Naval Academy. According to the website of the American Association of Mechanical Engineers, "By 1874, naval engineers refined this curriculum to the point that it served as the model for mechanical engineering education at most American universities." Isherwood’s engineering curriculum at the U.S. Naval Academy still serves as the core of professional mechanical engineering education in the United States, and around the world.
Years after he retired in 1884, the Navy officially recognized that it had severely slighted Benjamin Franklin Isherwood, by making him a Rear Admiral, the highest rank given to an engineer in the history of the Navy up to that time.
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers website page on Isherwood ends, thus:
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers made Isherwood an Honorary Member in 1894 in recognition of his great contribution to the field of mechanical engineering.
This great engineering genius, whom George W. Dyson, in an article in the Naval Institute's Proceedings called "possibly the greatest engineer the U.S. Navy had developed," died in New York City in 1915 at the age of 91.
(1) Edward William Sloan III, Benjamin Franklin Isherwood, Naval Engineer: The Years as Engineer in Chief, 1861-69. Annapolis: United States Naval Institute, 1965. Page 82.
(2) Sloan, p. 19.
(3) Sloan, p. 81.
(4) Isherwood, Engineering Precedents, Volume II, page 76.
(5) Sloan, p. 89.
(6) Sloan, pp. 89-90.
(7) Frank 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, Warren & Co., Pittsburgh, Pa., 1897, p. 202.
(8) Sloan, pp. 93-94.
(9) Sloan, p. 252, notes 22 and 29.
(10) Sloan, pp. 96-97.
(11) Report of the Bureau of Steam Engineering, October 25, 1867, in Annual Reports of the Navy Department (1867), pp 179-180.
(12) In his 2014 book, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the Civil War, Don H. Doyle reveals that British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston decided, in September 1862, to dispatch a British army and fleet to Canada. This would create the northern half of a pincers to choke the American republic; the southern half of the pincers were the French and Spanish forces which had already landed in Mexico and the Caribbean, with British assistance, in December 1861 through January 1862. Palmerston hastily cancelled his plan for sending military forces to North America after riots by anti-monarchical forces in London and elsewhere, inspired by Giuseppe Garibaldi's "red shirt" revolutionary army in Italy. Doyle also revives the now forgotten historical detail that Garibaldi was offered a generalship in the Union Army at the beginning of the Civil War, but declined because the Lincoln administration was still insisting that the war was about preserving the Union, not about ending slavery. It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation that pro-American support in Britain and Europe was able to clearly dominate political discussions across the Atlantic.
(13) Bennett, p. 576.
(14) The Alabama was a Confederate commerce raider built for the Confederate Navy by the British shipbuilder John Laird Sons and Company. In the nearly two years after she was commissioned in August 1862, the Alabama was at sea for 534 days out of 657, boarded nearly 450 vessels, and captured or burned 65 Union merchant ships. She was sunk off Cherbourg, France in June 1864 by the USS Kearsarge. On behalf of shippers who had lost vessels and cargo to Alabama, the USA government in 1869 officially claimed direct and collateral damage against Great Britain for allowing the Alabama and other raiders to be built and sold to the Confederacy. After international arbitration endorsed the United States position in 1872, Britain settled by paying the United States $15.5 million. Originally, Senator Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wanted to demand $2 billion for damages, or alternatively, the ceding of Canada.
(15) Bennett, p. 517.
(17) Bennett, p. 577.
This is just one part of a series on How America Was Built. Here is the Introduction, which contains a chronological list of many other government projects and policies that promoted scientific and technological progress. You can support my efforts to tell this story by purchasing a copy of my abridged and annotated Kindle ebook edition of The Power to Govern: The Constitution -- Then and Now by Douglass Adair and Walton H. Hamilton W.W. Norton & Co., New York, NY, 1937. Here is my Introduction to the Kindle ebook edition.