More ASME History and Heritage


Gerard Hillenbrand, P.E.

For the third time in the spring of 2011, ASME’s Metropolitan section hosted a technical dinner meeting on the subject of our distinguished record of Mechanical Engineering History and Heritage. That meeting was held on Thursday June 16, 2011 at Con Edison Headquarters on East 14th Street in Manhattan. The guest speaker at this meeting was John Laurence Busch, a prominent author and historian, who detailed the development of the Steamship “Savannah”, the first such ship to successfully cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1819. Mr. Busch summarized how the proposal to use a steam propelled ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean was met with opposition based on fear and skepticism, and how creative engineering design and construction overcame these negative concerns. Professional engineers attending this technical lecture qualified for one hour of credit toward satisfying their continuing education requirements as mandated by the N.Y. State Department of Education. This meeting also continued Metropolitan sections recently adopted policy of offering these lectures at no cost to ASME members, both dues paying and students. Metropolitan section hopes to continue this policy as long as finances permit and make it a permanent feature of our sections service to the Metropolitan Engineering community.

Mr. Busch began his lecture by reviewing general travel conditions in the earliest years of the 19th century. Transportation was universally difficult. For example, travel by horse driven wagons was limited to about 30 miles before horses had to rest or be replaced. River travel was somewhat better – flatboats could travel 700 miles down river propelled along by the current. But going up river was a challenge where flatboats had to be propelled by hand against the current and limited to 155 miles of practical range. These boats ranged from 250 to 400 ton capacity with rates averaging $9.00 per ton in costs. Obviously, the search was on for a more powerful and efficient means of transport.

Mr. Busch’s next showing was a copy of the Philadelphia Mercantile advertiser, 1814 edition, which was typified by hard to read small print with advertising on the outside pages and brief news reports inside. There was no United States paper money at the time, only metal coinage. Common business and transport transactions were conducted by a variety of money types. These included a multiple of private bank notes, private company bonds, promissory notes and IOU’s, turnpike and road based fees, and wolf notes (based on the value of traded livestock). A large number of advertised transactions were in foreign coins, which were backed by gold and silver deposits in regional bank vaults. Common among these was the Spanish “Royal” (a silver coin having a value of one-eighth of a U.S. dollar), and the Mexican “Copper” (a metal coin with a value of seven U.S. cents). It is amazing that business and trade thrived in this era of financial potpourri.

Mr. Busch next proceeded to describe how interest in steam powered ship propulsion increased significantly in 1806 when Robert Fulton returned to America after an extended visit to Napoleonic France, where steam ships were fairly common on French rivers. By the fall of 1807 a Fulton designed steamboat made its first trip on the Hudson River. Financing for this development was prominently organized by Robert R. Livingston, a leader in the independence movement, a delegate to the constitutional convention of 1787-1788, and United States Minister to France. Incidentally, steam propulsion for French River boats did not occur overnight. Starting in 1780 there were at least a decade of failures before even modest local success was achieved.

By 1811 the North River Steamboat Company had expanded to the operation of several steamboats the largest of which was the Paragon, a 331-ton vessel with both sail and steam power. It used an imported watt engine with one cylinder, 32 inches in diameter, double acting with a four-foot stroke. This Watt engine generated steam from a tubular boiler and powered wooden paddle wheels 16 feet in diameter. This riverboat was frequently out of service for repairs. Ferry service between Brooklyn and Manhattan was started in 1814 but also proved to be quite unstable and dangerous with frequent fires and explosions, and difficult steering problems from variable wind and river currents acting against the single direction propulsion provided by the ferry outboard paddle wheels.

The first ocean voyage of a steamboat occurred in 1809 and by 1815-1816 the Savannah Steam Company was conducting frequent travels between Savannah Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina. One of the experienced boat captains of these trips along the 100-mile coastal waters between these two cities was Moses Rogers and he first proposed using a Steam-Powered vessel to cross the ocean between America and Europe. Experienced sailors did not believe it was practical and showed little enthusiasm for the venture. This opposition did not deter Captain Rogers, however, and he relocated to the north to procure support for his proposal. Among his original supporters was Commodore John Stevens, the founder, among other accomplishments, of the steamboat “Phoenix”, which was to travel from New York to Philadelphia along the Jersey coast and then enter the ship trade in Delaware Bay and along the Delaware River. Frequent breakdowns and rough seas dogged this trip but provided vital experience that enabled Captain Rogers to apply these lessons to the design of a superior steamboat capable of ocean travel.

Captain Rogers and his team of design assistants first had to decide on the type of vessel suitable for the mission. After considering sloops (too small for ocean conditions), schooners (two small for ocean conditions), brigs (two masts and poor performance in storms), and ships (three masts with strongest sailing rig) the team chose the ship format. The team toured the cities with the largest ship building facilities (New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia) before discovering a large ship with its hull under construction in an East River shipyard. They purchased the rights to this hull and planned the special feature needed to make this vessel ocean worthy. They mandated that the hull was to be finished with live Oak Wood (Strongest and most dense wood used in ship construction) and to be sheathed with copper sheet (good for speed, corrosion protection, and fastest to clean). The ship was to be outfitted with hemp and flax sails woven from Russian or Ravens duck material and including Jib sails extending from the vessel’s bow. Mr. Busch distributed samples of these construction materials for the audience inspection, including samples of those materials rejected as inferior.

The steam engine propelling the vessel was a team designed and built domestic mechanism powered by a large cylinder, double acting with a six-foot stroke, and an extra-strong crosshead design easy to build and repair. The drive train to the paddle wheels was constructed of wrought iron for strength. They cylinder was positioned 20below the horizontal toward the vessel’s bow to provide a low center of gravity for stability in rough seas. Steam was provided by two boilers, which were 6 feet in diameter and 24 feet long, located below the power cylinder. The boilers were constructed from high quality iron imported from England and Sweden (at a cost of $90-$105 per ton) rather than long lasting corrosion free copper imported from England (at a cost of $760 per ton). The wooden paddle wheels used iron arms for strength and had shaved corners on their outboard edges for maximum propulsion efficiency. These wheels were also collapsible so that they could be brought inboard during storms to avoid damage and reduce drag during sail only travel. The smokestack had a unique rotating mounting so that exhaust could be directed away form the sails. The completed engine was rated at 72 horsepower and the ship was named “Savannah” in recognition of Captain Rogers initial training and sailing experience with the Savannah Steamboat Company.

The question and answer session was equally informative and stimulating. Mr. Busch has written a book entitled “Steam Coffin”, recording a detailed history of the construction and unique developments of the steamship “Savannah” and of the contributions of its Captain Moses Rogers. Starting in June 1819 the Savannah’s voyage to Liverpool, England took 29 days, about the same as a sailing ship with favorable winds. The Savannah carried no passengers and used sail propulsion exclusively for part of the journey when wind conditions provided more rapid speed. After arrival in England the steam powered ship proceeded to London, Le Havre in France, and through the North and Baltic Seas to St. Petersburg, Russia, attracting great interest along the way. Subsequent trips reduced the crossing time to 21 days. Fuel for the boilers was a combination of coal and wood.

 The success of the Savannah developed high interest and much competition on both sides of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, the Savannah’s travels were not profitable and the original shareholders that invested in the venture were not paid. Robert Fulton died in 1820 and his heirs launched legal suits against the Savannah Steamboat Company and others on the basis of patent applications and exclusive licenses they had negotiated covering steam-powered water transportation. After protracted trials, the courts ruled against the Fulton family and free competition finally prevailed in Steam-Powered Ocean travel. Mr. Busch was asked why he chose “Steam Coffin” as the title of his book he answered that those words best summarized the widespread opposition to Captain Rogers proposal for the first steamship voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.

At the conclusion of his lecture Mr. Busch offered copies of his excellent and very detailed book for sale to attendees and sales were very brisk indeed. Great Book and Great Meeting!

 Posted by at 7:34 pm