|This Week in American History
October 24-30, 1814
Robert Fulton Launches the First Steam Warship
By 1810, the British Empire had embarked on an attempt to recapture the former colonies which had been lost to the Empire by the successful American Revolution. British ships were actively harassing American commerce, and the British Navy was kidnapping American seamen from their ships and forcing them into British military service. In this crisis, the leading American inventors who had been dealing with steam navigation advocated the development of steam-powered warships.
Oliver Evans, who had designed the first fully-automated flour mill, and was about to build steamboats for the Ohio River, proposed warships with armored decks. John Stevens, who had invented the screw propeller for steamships, proposed a sophisticated design that was eventually brought to fruition by his son just before the Civil War. And Robert Fulton, after the success of his steamboat on the Hudson River, began turning his thoughts to the designs for torpedoes and submarines which he had developed in France.
By early 1810, Fulton was giving a series of lectures in Washington, D.C. on the subject of the "Mechanism, Practice and Effects of Torpedoes. His talks were well-attended by U.S. Senators and Representatives, who subsequently allocated $5,000 for the Navy Department to conduct research on the subject. In 1813, Fulton patented the Columbiad gun, which fired below the surface of the water in order to hit enemy ships below the waterline. Fulton's largest project, however, was the design and construction of a massive steam-powered warship which could defend America's harbors.
When the War of 1812 began, the memory of the disastrous British occupation of New York City during the Revolution was still fresh in people's minds. Using the present technology, there seemed to be no way to defend the harbor and city against the awesome power of the British fleet. But Robert Fulton was instrumental in forming the Coast and Harbor Defense Association, which contracted to build a steam warship at the cost of $320,000, provided that Congress would reimburse the group when the ship succeeded. In March 1814, Congress so agreed. Fulton also contracted to build a similar ship to protect the City of Baltimore and its harbor.
Building a large ship of any kind was a very difficult undertaking, because the British Navy had blockaded the American coast, so no imported goods could reach America, and no material could be moved up or down the coast by water. All supplies had to move laboriously on wagons, utilizing the very primitive American roads. Nevertheless, Fulton worked night and day to gather the materials, and the keel of his new ship was laid on June 29, 1814. By Oct. 29, the warship, without its armaments and engine, was ready to be launched. Fulton named it the Demologos (Word or Spirit of the People), but the Navy christened it as the Fulton the First.
Fulton designed the first steam warship in the world with a double hull, measuring 167 feet long, 56 feet wide, and 13 feet deep, weighing 2,475 tons. He anticipated the basic principle of the ironclad by building her sides and deck of five-foot-thick lumber, which protected the paddle wheel between the twin hulls. For armament, he called for thirty 32-pounders shooting red-hot shot, and added a hose attached to a steam pump which could spray the enemy decks, forcing the sailors below and wetting the guns so they could not fire. The ship's engine was to have 120 horsepower.
The British were keeping a close watch on the development of the ship, and the exaggerated press accounts in Europe reflected their growing fears. The Edinburgh Evening Courant reported the warship's capabilities as follows: "Length on deck, three hundred feet; breadth two hundred feet; thickness of her sides, thirteen feet of alternate oak plank and cork woodcarries forty-four guns, four of which are hundred pounders; quarter-deck and forecastle guns, forty-four pounders; and further to annoy an enemy attempting to board, can discharge one hundred gallons of boiling water in a minute, and by mechanism, brandishes three hundred cutlasses with the utmost regularity over her gunwales; works also an equal number of heavy iron pikes of great length, darting them from her sides with prodigious force, and withdrawing them every quarter of a minute!"
Britain's naval officers were somewhat taken aback, as well. Lord Napier told the British Parliament that: "When we enter His Majesty's naval service and face the chances of war, we go prepared to be hacked to pieces by cutlasses, to be riddled with bullets, or to be blown to bits by shell and shot; but, Mr. Speaker, we do not go prepared to be boiled alive."
The British intelligence service utilized spies to watch Fulton's every move, and finally they were ready to pounce. Fulton was scheduled to spend the night at a house on Long Island, and that evening, the British launched a commando raid on the house, either to kidnap or kill Fulton. Fortunately, Fulton had been delayed by a slight accident, and he was still miles away.
The festive launching of the Demologos, complete with shore batteries booming in her honor, took place as scheduled on Oct. 29, 1814, and Captain David Porter, who had been appointed to command her, wrote to the Secretary of the Navy: "I have the pleasure to inform you that the Fulton the First was this morning safely launched. No one has yet ventured to suggest any improvement that could be made in the vessel, and to use the words of the projector [Fulton], 'I would not alter her if it were in my power to do so.'" Porter also said that Fulton had told him that the warship's machinery would be in operation in about six weeks.
That timetable could not be kept, due to the grinding effect of the blockade and dozens of unavoidable delays. Before the engine was finished, in January of 1815, Robert Fulton had to travel to Trenton to give testimony about his New Jersey patent on the steamboat. When he and his companions returned to cross the Hudson, it was partially iced over and the ferryboat had not been able to leave the Manhattan shore. So the group went to inspect the ships which were a-building at Fulton's New Jersey workshop.
Finally, they heard the ferryboat's whistle signalling that it was entering the slip, and Fulton led the group in a shortcut across the ice. His close friend and lawyer, Thomas Emmet, the brother of Irish patriot Robert Emmet, fell through the ice and Fulton successfully rescued him. But Fulton's doctor recorded that: "In this moment of great peril, Mr. Fulton was exceedingly agitated, at the same time that his exertions to save his friend left him much exhausted." By the time Fulton reached his home in New York, he could hardly speak and had to take to his bed.
But three days later, a problem arose with equipping the Demologos, and Fulton, against everyone's advice, left his bed and took a carriage and ferry to the workshop. Severe lung symptoms developed, and he died on Feb. 23. Although his death stopped the work on the Baltimore warship, the Demologos was continued by his superintendant Charles Stoudinger. Fulton had trained his employees well and had planned and recorded every step of his design so that others could carry it out.
On July 4, 1815 the warship, with all her armament on board, reached a speed of five and a half miles an hour, well above the four miles an hour that Fulton had guaranteed to Congress. But the war was now over, and the Navy ordered her moored at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In 1821 she became a receiving ship, and in 1829, the Demologos was accidentally blown to pieces, with much loss of life, by the condemned gunpowder which had been stored in her hold.
In 1815, three commissioners of the Coast and Harbor Defense Association had tried in vain to convince the U.S. Navy to use the Demologos to train its sailors in the new steam technology. They wrote to the Secretary of the Navy on Dec. 28: "After so much has been done, and with such encouraging results, it becomes the Commissioners to recommend that the steam frigate be officered and manned for discipline and practice. A discreet commander, with a selected crew, could acquire experience in the mode of navigating this peculiar vessel. It is highly important that a portion of seamen and marines should be versed in the order and economy of the steam frigate. They will augment, diffuse, and perpetuate knowledge. When, in process of time, another war shall call for more structures of this kind, men, regularly trained to her tactics, may be dispatched to the several stations where they may be wanted."