Shipping Wonders of the World

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Novelties in Ship Design

Inventors with revolutionary ideas in naval architecture were responsible, particularly in the nineteenth century, for the construction of many strange and remarkable types of ships, but the ambitions of the designers were seldom realized


THE FAMOUS ‘'CIGAR” SHIP, built in 1866 by T. & W. L. Wynans in London, was named the Ross Wynans. This vessel had an overall length of 256 feet, with a maximum beam of 16 feet. Her engines worked at a pressure of 200 lb. to the square inch and were designed to give a speed of 22 knots. Despite the failure of her trials, a sister ship was built, the Walter Scott Wynans.

ALL through the history of shipping there has been a succession of freak designs in naval architecture. They represent attempts to produce a revolutionary ship that will overcome all the difficulties of the shipping industry and put its inventor in the way of a huge fortune. When the object is to eliminate certain excessive costs or other handicaps to trade, the inventor is often successful enough until the circumstances change. When, however, the inventor has attempted to evolve a hull form that will cope more successfully with the resistance of the water or with the effect of waves, he has never been entirely successful, because it is only the slow and studied development of existing features that proves of any avail.

Such freaks of naval architecture have existed from the earliest times, but large numbers of them have gone unrecorded or else are nothing more than a legend. Many of the pioneer steamers, for instance, might justly be described as freaks, for until the basic principles of steamship design were appreciated everybody had to work from entirely original ideas. The nineteenth century produced the-greatest crop of unconventional designs. This was due to the rapid development of mechanical technique and to the expansion of overseas trade. There were always, therefore, some people trying to beat the clock and advance ship design by decades at a step.

One of the most interesting freak sailing ships dates from the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Transit was built in 1800 by Captain Richard Gower of the East India Company’s service. The war with France had shown that the ordinary lumbering merchant ship was handicapped through not being able to sail as close to the wind as the fine-lined French privateers, it was Gower’s idea to evolve a ship that would not only sail faster with a beam wind, but one that could also be easily manoeuvred closer to the wind. He also intended his new ship to be built and maintained more cheaply, to be run by a smaller crew and to be less liable to dismasting. The Transit was a four-masted fore-and-aft schooner of 200 tons burden. She fulfilled the claims of her inventor and beat some of the smartest ships in the Navy, but she did not obtain the recognition that had been expected. She was wrecked in 1810 and her design was not repeated.


THE ONLY SEVEN-MASTED SCHOONER IN THE WORLD was built in 1902 by the Fore River Shipbuilding Co., at Quincy, Massachusetts, U.S.A. Named the Thomas W. Lawson, she was a vessel of 5,218 tons. Her overall length was 375 ft. 7 in., her beam 50 feet and her depth 22 ft. 11 in. She was owned by the Coastwise Transportation Co., of America, and was registered at Boston. She proved extremely awkward to handle. Her short and disappointing life came to an end in 1907, when she was wrecked.

In 1814 William Doncaster patented what was described as “the first hydrostatic ship which has ever appeared upon the habitable globe”. This vessel had five torpedo-shaped hulls. These hulls reduced the wetted surface area and with it skin-friction, but unhappily also reduced the carrying capacity. A pair of paddles forward and another pair aft supplied the propelling power. The ship was a failure from the first; but many other strange vessels were built, and still more were designed but never reached the building stage.

In the early nineteenth century there was a heavy tax on timber imported into Great Britain, even from the Canadian colonies, but ships built of timber were exempt from the tax. To evade this tax, John and Charles Wood, the shipbuilders who were responsible for the early Cunarders and for many other noteworthy vessels, had the idea of building a “solid” ship in British North America, so that she could be broken up on arrival in Great Britain, when her timbers would be undamaged and saleable.

The Columbus was built near Quebec in 1824. She was a ship of 3,690 tons, with a length of 301 feet, a beam of 50 ft. 6 in. and a height of 22 ft. 6 in. She crossed the Atlantic with difficulty and reached Blackwall on the Thames after many adventures. There her owners, against the Woods’s advice, attempted to send the empty shell back to Canada for another cargo. Disaster soon followed. In the meantime the Baron of Renfrew, 304 feet long, with a 61 feet beam and a height of 34 feet, was built in similar fashion and rigged as a four-masted barque. Her tonnage of 5,880 made her the biggest vessel in the world at that time. She was driven ashore on the French coast at the end of her voyage and, breaking-up before she was intended to, she scattered her timbers for many miles along the coast. These ventures, however, yielded a handsome profit to the owners.

A similar scheme attracted attention at the end of the war of 1914-18. The submarine campaign was sinking many British ships that carried timber to Britain from Scandinavia. The Admiralty needed supplies and built a huge raft, in solid ship shape, at Trondhjem (Norway). It was 360 feet long with a beam of 42 feet and 10 ft. 6 in. Draught. The raft contained 1,292 standards, or 4,200 tons of timber. It was duly registered as a ship under the name Merakerbrug - and was towed across the North Sea by the tug Rada single-handed. The experiment was a complete success, principally because of the remarkable skill and gallantry of the tug men.

The ’forties and ’fifties of the nineteenth century produced a great crop of freak inventions. The gold rushes to California and Australia had worked up a huge volume of passenger trade and the steadily improving economy of steam machinery allowed steamers to take part in trades which had been regarded as possible for sail only. In the Caloric of 1852 John Ericsson tried to dispense with steam and used heated air instead. The cylinders were to be suspended over the furnace fires. Large sums of money were spent without achieving the speed intended. The unconventional engines were finally replaced by ordinary ones. In 1854 Frederick Sang attempted to float a raft on a series of cylinders whose sides were fringed with narrow paddle floats. As the cylinders revolved the ship would be propelled forward with the minimum of resistance. It was an ingenious idea, but it proved to be a failure.

Similar to Sang’s ship was the Ocean Palace, the invention of an Australian named Wilcox. This vessel had a double cigar-shaped hull with a huge caterpillar belt running from end to end, furnished with paddle floats. The Aqua Aerial was a screw ship built on the principle of the hydroplane, but several decades before its time. She was to run from London to Melbourne in less than a month. Her peculiar hull rested on compressed air instead of on the water.

The advent of steam in the coal trade during the 1850s led to the building of many freaks in the following decade. The best remembered is perhaps the Connector, a ship built in three sections loosely joined together with hinges after the fashion of a toy snake. She was designed to ride comfortably in the roughest weather, undulating over the waves as if she were a sea serpent. On arrival at port with her cargo of coal she was to be divided into three sections for rapid discharge. The ship was built, but she was not a success.

THE THREE SECTIONS of the Connector were loosely hinged together to enable the ship to ride comfortably through heavy seas

THE THREE SECTIONS of the Connector were loosely hinged together to enable the ship to ride comfortably through heavy seas, with an undulating motion. The Connector was built about 1850. The three sections were designed with the intention of separating them, when the ship was in port, to facilitate the loading and discharge of cargo at different wharves.

In the same period the Civil War in America and the introduction of ironclads saw many abnormal fighting ships. The Confederates especially found it difficult to obtain materials for men-of-war, and some of their makeshifts were very strange indeed. The famous Merrimac, which under their flag was named Virginia, was certainly a freak, and resembled a floating haystack. She had been a U.S. steam frigate abandoned by the Federals in the Norfolk Navy Yard and burned to the water’s edge. The Confederates contrived to raise her, and over the remains of her hull they built an extraordinary structure armoured with railway iron about 4 in. thick and having eight guns.

Apart from these warships the most interesting sea-going freaks of the ’sixties were the “cigar ships” built in the United States and in Europe. The most important was the Ross Wynans, bulk in London by T. & W. L. Wynans. Her hull was built in the shape of an elongated cigar, with a short deck amidships. She was 256 feet long, with a maximum beam of 16 feet; the deck was 130 feet by 10 ft. 6 in., and less than 5 feet above the water.

Engines of novel design, working at a pressure of 200 lb. to the square inch, were estimated to give her a speed of 22 knots. She was a failure, however, although she aroused much attention and interest at the time. Undeterred by the failure of her trials, the brothers Wynans built a second ship, the Walter Scott Wynans. As soon as their owners died, these vessels were scrapped.

Chief among the freaks of the ’seventies were the circular ships or “ popoffkas,” and the weird ships built for the Dover-Calais service. The “popoffkas” were designed by a Russian admiral named Popoff. Popoff was an officer of considerable professional attainments, but his views were unorthodox. They secured, however, the support of Mr. E. J. Reed, head of the constructors’ department of the Navy.

An Imperial Failure

Popoff’s idea was to build a circular ship to provide an absolutely stable gun platform. The first of the type to be built, the Novgorod, was almost circular. She had a displacement of 2,490 tons. Her extreme diameter was 101 feet, and her draught was uniform at 13 ft. 2 in. Her sides were well protected and she mounted two big breechloaders. She was provided with six compound steam engines, each driving its own screw. The total indicated horse-power was designed at 2,400. In theory she should have handled more easily than any other ship afloat, for her numerous screws gave just the right touches of power on one side or the other. In practice, however, she spun round and round in the water, and her engines had to be worked up to 3,000 horsepower to attain seven knots. The design was followed fairly closely in the Russian Imperial yacht Livtdavia of 1880. She was not quite circular, as she was 235 feet long and 135 feet beam, but these proportions were considered sufficient to make her steady enough for the Tsar and Tsaritza. She had three funnels abreast and three screws, and although she managed to make 15·7 knots on trial, and rode out a heavy gale, she proved too uncomfortable for an Imperial yacht, and was soon handed over to the Russian Navy to make what use they could of her. She was not scrapped until 1926.

A CIRCULAR SHIP the Vice-Admiral Popoff

A CIRCULAR SHIP. The Vice-Admiral Popoff was named after her designer, who was a Vice-Admiral in the Russian Navy. The vessel was launched in 1875. She was propelled by six screws driven by six compound steam engines, which gave a total indicated horse-power of 2,400. The six screws caused her to spin round in the water, and the maximum speed attained was only seven knots. The Vice-Admiral Popoff, 3,590 tons, was 120 feet in diameter, with a depth of 13 ft. 6 in. She was armed with two 40-pounder guns.

The freak Channel steamers were even more interesting than the warships. The Paris Exhibition of 1867 had greatly increased the volume of cross-Channel traffic, but the crossing was dreaded by travellers. The crack ship, for instance, was at that time a little vessel with a yacht-shaped hull, having a speed of 15 knots on a gross tonnage of 340. On the Newhaven service the ships were as large as 483 tons, with rather less speed, but all the packets were lightly built and uncomfortable in a choppy sea.

Captain Dicey, formerly of the Indian Navy, had been impressed by the catamarans in Eastern waters. These craft were able to sail in heavy seas because of their double hulls. Dicey designed the Castalia to be a double-hulled Channel steamer. She was built by the Thames Ironworks at Blackwall for the English Channel Steamship Company, Ltd, and had two distinct hulls, 290 feet long and 20 feet beam. They were provided with stout decks and superstructures at a sufficient distance apart to make either act as an outrigger for the other. The arched girders that joined them were of immense strength, and the passengers had a comfortable deck and superstructure overall. The hulls had a draught of 6 feet, with a freeboard of 14 feet. Either hull contained an engine between two boilers, and the paddles worked in the central waterway between the two hulls. As far as steadiness was concerned, the Castalia was a success, but she was deplorably slow. After two seasons’ work she was taken off service to become a hospital ship in Long Reach. She was eventually broken up in Holland.

THE BESSEMER had a saloon which was not fixed to the hull but was allowed to swing free

THE BESSEMER, 1974 tons, had a saloon which weighed 130 tons. It was not fixed to the hull but was allowed to swing free. The intention was that it should counteract the rolling motion of the vessel in heavy seas.

Contemporary with the Castalia was the Bessemer, built at Hull from the ideas of the steel magnate Sir Henry Bessemer and of Mr. E. J. Reed, the naval constructor. Her dimensions were 349 feet by 40 feet, and she had a gross tonnage of 1,974. Her seaboard was low at either end, and amidships the superstructure rose to a considerable height. She was given two pairs of paddles for a speed of 20 knots, but in practice the after pair raced round in water that was already rushing astern, and 13½ knots was the most that she ever attained on service.

The most original feature of her design was due to Bessemer’s theory that the hull might be allowed to roll freely provided that the passenger accommodation was kept stable.

The “Calais-Douvres”

With this idea in mind, a large saloon, 70 feet long, 35 feet wide and 20 feet high, weighing 130 tons, was built separate from the hull and set on gimbals in the same way as an old-fashioned oil lamp was set in a sailing ship’s saloon. The original idea was that it should be allowed to swing free, but later it was fitted with hydraulic operating gear. The effect was appalling, for while the ship took one motion, the saloon took a different one, and it was far worse than the natural motion of an ordinary ship. The saloon was then locked in position, but the ship was never a success and soon went to the scrappers.

Soon afterwards the Express was laid down on much the same lines as the Castalia. The Express had a gross tonnage of 1,924 and engines of 3,600 indicated horse-power, designed for a speed of 14 knots. She was built for the Channel Steamship Company, which soon went into liquidation. The builders took her over and, under the name Calais-Douvres, she went on to the Dover-Calais service. Her two hulls were each 302 feet long by 183 feet beam, and she had two 24-ft. paddles, placed between the hulls. Her steam steering gear was of unusual type, and was constantly causing trouble. She was much faster than the Castalia, and in the worst weather she would roll only about five degrees, although she pitched heavily. She was bought by the London, Chatham and Dover Railway in 1878, transferred to the French flag in 1880 and laid aside in 1887. She was afterwards used as a hulk, and in 1899 was broken up on the Thames.

Numbers of freak underwater craft were built during the second half of the nineteenth century. Simon Lake built his Argonauts to run along the sea bed on huge wheels and discharge divers to examine sunken wrecks. Several other inventors worked on similar lines.

After the ram’s success in the American Civil War, the Polyphemus was projected for the British Navy in 1873, laid down in 1878 and launched in 1881. She was designed as a “torpedo ram” and was the first vessel to which a submerged torpedo tube was fitted. Apart from that, her only armament was a few light quickfirers to defend herself against torpedo craft. The upper part of the hull was built in the shape of a whale, and the exposed section was protected with armour so thick that most shells would glance off. She was the only vessel of her type to be built for the British Navy.

The Polyphemus was an uncomfortable ship, and spent most of her life in the Mediterranean. It was soon realized that she was far too slow to be used for ramming. Soon afterwards the Americans built a somewhat similar vessel, named the Katahdin, but she also was too slow for her purpose and was later used as a target.

In the early ’eighties, Robert Fryer completed twelve years’ experimental work by building his roller ship, Alice. In this ship a triangular deck rested on three huge wheels. These supplied the buoyancy, and had a series of buckets round their sides to act as paddle floats when revolved by the steam engines on deck. The edges of these circular floats were of heavy iron, so that when the ship reached land they would serve as wheels. The idea failed in practice. Following a similar scheme, a French inventor built the roller ship Ernest Bazin in the 'nineties with high hopes of revolutionizing naval architecture, but she lasted only for a few years.

In the ’nineties the whaleback steamer was evolved on the Great Lakes of America. She was a particularly ugly ship, and looked as if she really were a whale as she lifted her almost cylindrical hull, with its blunt snout bow, out of the water. It was claimed that this hull would save forty per cent in first cost and sixty per cent in fuel, but at sea it was a failure and was scarcely more successful on the Great Lakes.

Seven-Masted Schooner

One of the last attempts to build a sailing ship that could compete satisfactorily with steam was made in North America at the beginning of this century. In 1902, at Quincy, in the state of Massachusetts, U.S.A., the Thomas W. Lawson was built by the Fore River Shipbuilding Company. She was a huge schooner of 5,218 tons gross, and she had seven masts. At the time there was a craze in America for many-masted sailing vessels, and in the Thomas W. Lawson this craze was carried to an extreme. With an overall length of 375 ft. 7 in, she had a beam of 50 feet and a depth of 22 ft. 11 in. She was registered at Boston, U.S.A., and was engaged in the coastal cargo services of the Coastwise Transportation Co. Her great bulk was so difficult to handle that she earned a bad name among the American sailors. She was wrecked after a life of only five years.

Many more ships of revolutionary design have been planned during the last hundred years, but have never been built. In his book, From Sail to Steam, for instance, Admiral Fitzgerald mentions a design by a distinguished naval architect for a novel warship. For the sake of economy, it was suggested that the vessel’s size should be limited to about 5,000 tons. She was to be low in the water, and her whole armament, her searchlights, signal mast, boats and navigating bridge were to be embodied in a single turret amidships, with the funnel running through the centre of this turret.

In recent years some ships of revolutionary design have been built and put into service. Among these is the successful “Arcform” ship, whose outstanding feature is a hull semicircular in section, with riveted instead of welded plates.

Another successful recent design is the “Maierform” ship, one salient characteristic of which is the yacht-shaped bows, planned to give better speed in bad weather.

The Transit was built in 1800 by Captain Richard Gower

A FOUR-MASTED FORE-AND-AFT SCHOONER of 200 tons, the Transit was built in 1800 by Captain Richard Gower. She was designed so that she could easily be manoeuvred close to the wind. Although this ship fulfilled many of her inventor’s claims, her design was not repeated. She was wrecked in 1810.

You can read more on “The Biggest Sailing Ship of Her Time”, “The Famous Great Eastern” and “Rotor Ships” on this website.