Machines to Make Machines


The Foochow Arsenal, also known as the Fuzhou or Mawei Arsenal, was one of several shipyards in Qing China as part of the Self-Strengthening Movement.

Ding Gongzhen had complained in 1843 that he couldn’t make a full-sized steamship because he lacked “machines for making machines”. In the summer of 1863, Zeng Guofan addressed this deficit. He summoned to an audience China’s first graduate of an American university, Yung Wing (1828–1912). At first, Yung reacted with fear. At that point, the Taiping wars were still raging, and he’d recently offered to help the Taiping modernize their military and banking systems. What if Zeng knew and wanted to behead him for treason? Yung’s friends said Zeng just wanted help, so Yung went to the great official’s headquarters. In their first meeting, Zeng sat in silence for a few minutes, staring at Yung with a slight smile, and then asked a series of personal questions. When Zeng sipped his tea, Yung knew the audience was over. At a second meeting, Zeng asked Yung what China most needed at present. Yung, having been coached by his friends, replied that China needed “a mother machine shop, capable of reproducing other machine shops.”

Zeng liked this answer and liked Yung Wing. He gave him 68,000 taels of silver (about 2,500 kilograms) and full autonomy to buy a modern factory and transport it back to China, a task he could carry out wherever and however he saw fit. Yung went to America, arranged to purchase a machine shop, attended his tenth class reunion at Yale, volunteered to fight for the Union in the Civil War (his service was declined), and, finally, in 1865, returned to China on a Nantucket bark of dubious seaworthiness (the captain’s six-year-old son swore like a sailor). He was rewarded with an official rank in the Qing bureaucracy, and the factory he purchased became the heart of the famous Jiangnan Arsenal.

The Jiangnan Arsenal is often considered a failure, but in fact the strides made there were impressive. It produced steamers from scratch—every part, from the engines to the hulls to the screw propeller mechanisms. It produced guns of advanced designs, copying or reverse engineering Western models. Testing and experimentation were an important part of the production process, and high officials were closely involved.

It wasn’t the only modern factory in China. There were many such experiments. The most significant was started by Zeng’s contemporary, the great general Zuo Zongtang (famous in the United States for the chicken dish named after him). Working with the Frenchman Prosper Giquel (commander of the Sino-French Ever-Triumphant Army), General Zuo established an institution that historians usually call the Fuzhou Shipyard, although the term is too modest. It was a huge complex, occupying 118 acres of land, with forty-five buildings, including factories, workshops, a foundry, offices, and dormitories. It even had its own tramway system. Dozens of Europeans worked there as technicians, teachers, and foremen, as did scores of Chinese administrators and thousands of Chinese workers.

The Fuzhou complex also had schools. Most of China’s new arsenals did, too, but the Fuzhou Shipyard’s were particularly ambitious, and they focused on precisely the skills that had prevented Ding Gongchen and other would-be modernizers of the 1840s from achieving success: technical drawing, mathematics, and engineering. The French advisor Prosper Giquel explained, in a report on the first five years of the Fuzhou Shipyard, the rationale for such schooling:

In order to calculate the dimensions of a piece of machinery or of a hull, it is necessary to know arithmetic and geometry; in order to reproduce that object on a plan it is necessary to understand the science of perspective, which is descriptive geometry; in order to explain the pressure exerted on engines and ships as well as on still bodies, by gravity, heat, and other phenomena of nature, it is necessary to understand the laws of physics. Next in order come the increments a body undergoes under the impulse of the forces to which it is subjected; the resistances which it will need to overcome, the strain which it is able or ought to bear, which is the science of statics and of mechanics; and for these the calculations of ordinary arithmetic and geometry no longer suffice; it is necessary also to possess the knowledge of trigonometry, of analytical geometry, of the infinitesimal calculus, so as not to be any longer bound down to reason as to objects of determinate form and size, but be able to arrive at general formulae applicable to all the details of construction.

High Chinese officials were becoming cognizant of the close link between science and military production. As Governor-General Ding Richang (1823–1882) wrote, “The Westerners … have been expending their intelligence, energy, and wealth on things that were completely vague and intangible for hundreds of years; the effects are now suddenly apparent.’” Shen Baozhen (1820–1879), the director of the Fuzhou Shipyard, wrote in 1870, “The ships and guns of the West are making such extraordinary improvement that they almost defy imagination; this is the result of a capacity for computation that reaches smaller and smaller decimals; if the calculation is finer by the slightest degree, the performance of the machinery will be ten times more adroit.” He later recommended that Chinese students be sent to Europe so that they could continue mastering Western learning, and “peep into [its] subtle secrets.”

Fuzhou Shipyard students got a good opportunity to peep in 1877, when the first cohort was sent to France. Others followed, and the education programs were enormously important. As Hsien-chun Wang has recently written, “We cannot overemphasize the significance of the [Fuzhou Shipyard’s] School of Naval Construction. It was China’s first engineering school that systematically imported from the West a technology from its scientific principles to the engineering application.… Compared to other new educational institutions in China that introduced Western knowledge in the period between the 1860s and 1880s, the schools of the Fuzhou shipyard were much more technical.” Students learned about every part of steamship design, and graduates had careers lasting well into the twentieth century.

The Fuzhou Shipyard produced guns, ammunition, and steamships. At first the steamships were basic models: a 150-horsepower transport, an 80-horsepower gunboat. But the quality was high. A British merchant noted that the vessels were “admirably fastened and particularly well finished outside and inside. They could not be better finished in London or New York.” The third vessel to launch—an 80-horsepower gunboat—was even better, fast and solid, perhaps even a little too solid, according to the merchant: “somewhat unnecessarily strong for the tonnage and weight, but the faults are good and unusual.” Other early vessels were also considered effective. By 1873, the British observer noted, Fuzhou-produced gunboats were better than contemporary British vessels of the same type. “No navy,” he wrote, “has better vessels.” Other Western observers corroborated these judgments.

Yet steamer technology was changing rapidly. In 1853, the Scottish shipwright John Elder (remembered today as a master draftsman, among other things) had patented a design for a compound engine for marine use. Instead of a single condenser, Elder’s engine had two. The steam first entered a high-heat, high-pressure condenser. Then it was shunted to a lower-pressure, lower-heat condenser. At each stage it drove pistons. The result was a significant increase in efficiency, and by 1858 Elder patented a triple-compound version, even more efficient. By the 1870s, iron-hulled vessels driven by compound engines were being widely adopted throughout Europe.

The Fuzhou Shipyard followed. By 1877 it was producing iron-hulled vessels with compound engines. Its first success, a sloop launched in May 1877, was impressive: at 1,200 tons, it was driven by a composite 750-horsepower engine. By December 1880, the shipyard had built four such sloops. In 1883, it launched a powerful cruiser: 2,200 tons, with a 2400-horsepower triple-compound engine and a cruising speed of fifteen knots. General Zuo Zongtang ordered two more. In May 1888, a ship called the Longwei was completed, and it was the most technologically sophisticated vessel yet: 2,100 tons with twenty-centimeter-thick steel armor, and a turret whose armor was even thicker. It was driven by two 1,200-horsepower triple expansion engines, which enabled a cruising speed of fourteen knots. It featured electric lighting, a searchlight, and a telephonic communication system.

Yet still the pace of change accelerated. By the 1880s, European cruisers could reach nine thousand tons and cruise at twenty-two knots. Triple expansion engines of eight thousand horsepower were by then common, and hulls were made of steel. Never before had technology moved so swiftly. In 1903, a historian of the British navy wrote, “It may be said with little or no fear of exaggeration that the best ship existing in 1867 would have been more than a match for the entire British fleet existing in 1857, and, again, that the best ship existing in 1877 would have been almost, if not quite, equal to fighting and beating the entire fleet of only ten years earlier. By 1890, the ships of 1877 had become well-nigh obsolete; and by 1900 the best ships, even of 1890, were hardly worthy of a place in the crack fleets of the country.”

So when we assess the performance of the Fuzhou Shipyard and the Jiangnan Arsenal, we must keep in mind that China was not just closing a gap. It was embarking on a new phase of continuous revolutionary improvement, and that phase was not new to Asia alone: it was new in world history. To appreciate the rapid development of mechanical technologies, one can chart the number of specialized engineering societies that were founded in the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There is certainly a lag between East Asians and Europeans, but what is surprising is how new Great Britain’s were as well.

China and Japan were modernizing swiftly, but so were all their Western rivals, and it is the trajectory that is important. Within its first two decades of existence, the Fuzhou Shipyard had vaulted forward in technological capacity, able to follow the continual technological revolution. In fact, the Fuzhou Shipyard compares favorably to Japan’s famous Yokosuka Shipyard well into the 1880s. The Yokosuka Shipyard was smaller than that of Fuzhou, and its budget was lower, just a third of that of Fuzhou in 1871. It produced far fewer vessels—just thirteen between 1876 and 1894, whereas the Fuzhou Shipyard produced thirty-three vessels before 1895. The Yokosuka Shipyard also trailed the Fuzhou Shipyard in terms of technology, building its first iron-hulled vessel after Fuzhou. Experts now believe that the relative maritime performance of Japan and China was much closer than historians had tended to assume up through the 1880s. Moreover, China and Japan seem to have been unusual: with the possible exception of the Ottoman Empire, no other non-Western states mastered steamship technology so well.

Unfortunately, by the late 1880s the Fuzhou Shipyard ran into problems. The issue was not conservatism or lack of know-how or a supposed Chinese indifference to engineering and preference for Confucianism, as scholars have suggested. It was a lack of dedicated funding. Yokosuka Shipyard received clear and consistent allocations, having been placed under Japan’s Naval Department in 1872. The Fuzhou Shipyard didn’t. When Zuo Zongtang had set it up, he’d arranged for funding to be shared by several provinces, of which the most important was Fujian, where the shipyard was located. Other provinces were supposed to contribute, but their allocations weren’t automatic. Moreover, Zuo Zongtang hadn’t taken into account steam vessels’ high maintenance costs, which consumed an increasing portion of the budget. Each year, funding had to be cobbled together from multiple sources. The shipyard’s directors spent as much time wrangling funding and lobbying officials as directing operations.

For a time, powerful officials kept the shipyard flourishing. The great Shen Baozhen, for example, had supported it as viceroy of Liangjiang. But he died in 1879. Zuo Zongtang, the shipyard’s founder and greatest patron, died in 1885. Afterward, it became harder and harder for directors to cobble together the funding. Morale suffered, as evidenced by high turnover for the position of shipyard director: between 1875 and 1890, three resigned and four moved to other posts. By the late 1880s, the shipyard was faltering.

Japan’s Yokosuka Shipyard was on the opposite trajectory. Although its early years had been rough, by the late 1880s it had dedicated funding that allowed it to invest in multiyear projects and make continued capital investments, vital in this time of constant technological change. It increased its commitment to innovation, hiring Western experts to build the latest designs, although its advanced cruisers were less effective than once believed.

Indeed, on the eve of the war between China and Japan, many experts believed with good reason that China’s fleet had advantages over that of Japan and that China would win the war.




Carrack Santa Maria,with caravels Nina and Pinta.

Surprisingly, considering how much warfare occurred during the last two centuries of the Middle Ages, there was comparatively little naval warfare. The number of major conflicts at sea decreased, as did even the number of minor conflicts, i.e., single ship combat, piracy (both state-sponsored and not), skirmishing, trade disputes, and so on.

However, the fourteenth century did not start out as one of naval peace, with wars in both northern European seas and the Mediterranean continuing from the previous century. In the north, especially in the English Channel off Normandy and Flanders, the fleets of Edward I of England and Philip IV of France continued to spar against each other without decisive conclusion. Both had large treasuries, with which they could build a large number of their own ships and also buy the services of others, the English primarily using ships, captains, and sailors from the various Low Countries principalities, and the French using primarily those from the Iberian kingdoms. Edward and Philip were also powerful kings who saw negotiation and compromise with each other as weakness. They actually did not like each other personally, an enmity not helped even by the marriage of Philip’s daughter, Isabella, to Edward’s son, Edward (later King Edward II), a union that would produce the military headache of the next century and half: the so-called Hundred Years’ War.

In the Mediterranean, during the first half of the fourteenth century, Venice and Genoa continued to fight sporadically against each other, whether it was a new war, a continuation of the war (or wars) begun in the thirteenth century or a side-theater of the war that Venice was also then fighting with Byzantium. This matters only for historical interpretation, and for the fact that it is in this war that Marco Polo was taken prisoner, which allowed him to dictate his memoirs to fellow prisoner, Rustichello. However it is classified, the warfare ended in a draw, an indecisiveness that ensured the continuation of the fighting.

This continuation occurred in 1350 and again in 1378 (the third and fourth Venetian-Genoese wars, if counted separately). Ostensibly, the 1350 war was fought for the reason that earlier Venetian-Genoese wars had: Genoese trading in the eastern Mediterranean. Venice was allied with Aragon, which had its own conflict with the Genoese over trading in the western Mediterranean, Byzantium, and Pisa (although the latter would never be a naval factor after its defeat by Genoa at Meloria in 1284), and Genoa was allied with the upstart Ottoman Turks. But most of the actual fighting was between Venetian and Genoese ships. Both sides fought to a draw at the battle of the Bosporus in 1352, although the amount of destruction that had been done to its fleet forced Venice to withdraw from the region and restored Genoa to its trading monopoly with Byzantium. They then traded victories at the battles of Alghero and Zonklon in 1354 and signed a peace a year later.

Therefore it came as little surprise when fighting broke out again in 1378. Frequently called the War of Chioggia, it was started over possession of the island of Tenedos in the eastern Mediterranean. In the initial battles, Cape d’Anzio, Traù, and Pola, fought in 1378–79, little was decided, although the Genoese did claim victory, which perhaps gave them too much confidence, as in the following year they boldly took their fleet into the Venetian lagoon only to be defeated in a much larger battle fought off Chioggia. Their fleet almost completely destroyed, the Genose limped to the Peace of Turin (1381), their proud naval history essentially ended in a single afternoon.

Throughout the rest of the Mediterranean the seas remained peaceful during the fourteenth century. Part of this was certainly due to the natural disasters that paralyzed Europe—the Famine of 1315–17 and the Black Death of 1346–49—during which time maritime traffic declined markedly (especially as ships were thought to be primarily responsible for spreading the plague), and part also to man-made disasters—the Bardi and Peruzzi bank failures in the 1340s, the Hundred Years’ War, Flemish and Italian trade decline, and so on.

But also to be considered were the changes in design and construction of ships that made attacking these vessels no longer a simple feat. Piracy was ubiquitous; it always would be, and in fact it would significantly increase during the later fifteenth century with the rise of powerful Ottoman and Mamluk navies whose state-sponsored piracy against European ships would more than match the state-sponsored piracy of those ships against them. But it was harder and more expensive for smaller, non-state-sponsored ships (for they were rarely fleets—although that, too, would change in the early sixteenth century with, among others the Barbarossa brothers) to compete with the new, larger, and better-armed vessels. Perhaps economics could also be credited for the low number of national naval conflicts. As Pisa had proved in 1284 and Genoa in 1380, the loss of a fleet was difficult to recover from; building new ships was expensive and time-consuming, during which time other, non-military maritime activities, i.e., trade and fishing, ceased. Peace allowed for recovery, the building of larger fleets, and increased trade and prosperity. Even though there would be a slight resurgence in naval activity during the 1420s and 1430s, again between Genoa and Venice, the Mediterranean remained relatively calm until around 1480.

This peace permitted Venice, Aragon, and, at least until 1460, Genoa to strengthen their maritime empires and even to recover some of their previously lost territories. Venice especially grew strong during this period, with large mainland holdings along the Italian peninsula, on the Dalmatian coast, in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean islands, including Crete and Cyprus, and a fleet that grew to an estimated 80 galleys and 300 sailing ships, the largest in the Mediterranean. (Only Ottoman Turkey would eventually compete with Venice in the east.)

Venice’s strength in the eastern Mediterranean was nearly equaled by that of Aragon in the western Mediterranean. Naples, Southern Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Valencia, and Catalonia had been added during the long reign of Alfonso V the Magnificent (1396–1458); Castile was united to the kingdom by the marriage between Alfonso’s grandson, Ferdinand II, and Isabella in 1469; and Grenada was captured in 1492. This allowed Aragonese ships to travel virtually without danger around the Mediterranean between the Italian and Iberian peninsulas. Only Portugal competed with them in the Atlantic, which allowed Aragonese fleets free access to whatever lay to the west, and resulted, also in 1492, in Columbus’s voyage to the “new world.”

The Mediterranean peace also gave rise to new maritime powers. One of these, Florence, interestingly, did not lie on the sea but grew into a minor naval power after its conquest of Pisa in 1406. At the same time, the French, Burgundians (also landlocked), and the Knights Hospitaller also began to build their own fleets and to develop their own naval power. But no new naval power arose more quickly or had more impact than Portugal. With Aragon dominating the western Mediterranean, the Portuguese, under, among others, the able leadership of Prince Henry the Navigator, took a new approach to naval activity. Instead of venturing east into the Mediterranean, the Portuguese went south to the islands of the Atlantic, conquering Madeira, the Cape Verdes, and the Azores by 1410, and into Atlantic North Africa, conquering Ceuta in 1415 and adding to that throughout the century until, by 1471, Portugal had complete control of Tangiers and all the Moroccan ports south to Agadir. Traveling farther to the south along the African continent, by 1480 the Portuguese had reached the coasts of Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria, and the Congo, and, by 1487, Bartholomeu Diaz had landed at the Cape of Good Hope. Eleven years later, Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa and landed in India.

In the Indian Ocean the Portuguese encountered another European naval power, the Ottoman Empire, which had arrived there through a much more direct route, overland and down the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea, but had the same goal in mind: trying to find an alternative to the Silk Road, which had essentially, if not actually, been closed due to the bellicosity of the Mongol warlords who controlled it. A secondary, although also similar, reason for the Ottoman presence was to seek converts for their religion, in this case Islam, as it was for the Portuguese to seek converts for their religion, Christianity.

The rise of the Ottoman Turks had been meteoric. Little more than a small tribe led by a central Asian Minor Turkish dynast, Ghazi Osman, in 1300, by the time the Portuguese ran into them off Africa and India shortly after 1500 they had come to be one of the most dominant political, military, and naval powers in the world. They had conquered all of Asia Minor, although not completely defeating the Byzantine Empire until 1453 when Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople. By that time they had also captured Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, Montenegro, Bosnia, Albania, Herzegovina, and Serbia; soundly defeated two pan-European “Crusader” forces sent to stop their progress—at Nicopolis in 1396 and Varna in 1444; outlasted the Timurid Mongols under Tamerlane, after an initial setback at the battle of Ankara in 1402, where they had been defeated and their Sultan, Bayezid I, captured (after being paraded around the Timurid lands in a cage for more than a year, he committed suicide by banging his head repeatedly into the metal bars of his cage); and survived several inheritance crises. Only the Hospitallers on Rhodes, the Serbs in Belgrade, and the Hungarians had halted Ottoman progress, although they would not be able to hold out past 1527.

Before 1453 almost all of the Ottoman conquests had been land-based operations, with few ships needed, other than for transporting men and supplies. Indeed, the Ottoman navy before the middle of the fifteenth century probably had more riverine than open-sea vessels. It even had difficulty keeping European ships from running the very meager blockade they had set up around Constantinople in 1453. However, Constantinople’s conqueror, Mehmed II, was determined to change this and, within a decade at most, had built a navy that could compete with any others in the world. Quickly, Eastern Mediterranean islands began to fall. Rhodes held out through his and his two successors’ reigns, but, after being resoundingly defeated in the 1499–1503 war against them, Venice kept only Crete and Cyprus by submitting to the harshest, and most expensive, peace treaties. Mehmed’s grandson, Selim I, used an even larger and more powerful fleet to defeat the Mamluks and conquer Aleppo, Damascus, Cairo, Syria, Israel, and Egypt in 1516–17, and his great-grandson, Suleyman I the Magnificent, took an even larger and more powerful navy even farther, into the central and western Mediterranean, where he terrorized European and North African foes into the 1570s.

In northern Europe, the conflict of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries between France and England developed by the middle of the fourteenth century into the Hundred Years’ War. From its outset naval warfare became a prominent, if not frequent, feature of this war. The first major engagement, fought at Sluys in 1340, was a naval battle, with the navy of Edward III sweeping down on the moored French and mercenary Iberian and Genoese fleet with, as contemporary chronicler Geoffrey le Baker writes, “the wind and sun at his back and the flow of the tide with him.” The English prevailed and the French fleet was either captured or destroyed. They would prevail again over a much smaller French-employed Castilian fleet at the battle of Winchelsea in 1350. Together these victories allowed the English almost unhindered access to the Channel, and they used this freedom to transport large armies back and forth across the water, which helped achieve further victories at Crécy, Calais, Poitiers, and elsewhere. But the French eventually recovered and, again with the help of mercenary Castilian ships and sailors, at the battle of La Rochelle, fought in 1372, they responded with an impressive victory against the English, destroying most of the latter’s fleet, but also leaving their own fleet in ruin. This Pyrrhic victory for the French, coupled with the financial problems of both them and English—for example, after the death of Edward III in 1377 the English were forced to sell off many of their ships to pay the royal debts—essentially meant the end of the naval phase of the Hundred Years’ War. This decline continued into and throughout most of the fifteenth century, with neither France nor England desiring to engage each other on the sea, although piracy and privateering continued to be sponsored by the two kingdoms against each other until well past the end of the war.

The cog continued to be the most prominent ship of the late Middle Ages, especially in the north, both as a cargo vessel and as a warship. So dominant were cogs in England, for example, that they made up more than 57 percent of the vessels in that navy between 1337 and 1360. Their popularity also extended to the Mediterranean, but there the great galley continued to be a most favored cargo and warship, as it would into the eighteenth century. Its long, thin shape was perfect for the relative calm of the Mediterranean, its speed ensured by capable oarsmen—although these began increasingly to be replaced by enforced rowers—and lateen sails. Some galleys also had square sails. Galleys were also known in northern Europe, with several involved in the naval battles of the early Hundred Years’ War. One interesting reference to galleys comes from Burgundian Duke Philip the Good’s construction of five galleys in Antwerp to deliver a large dowry of arms and armor, together with his niece, for her marriage to King James II of Scotland in 1449.

By the fifteenth century, other vessels also began to appear. One was the balinger, a small-oared cargo ship of indeterminate design, although probably similar to a barge, which served as a coastal cargo transport primarily along the English, French, Low Countries, and Scandinavian coasts. A second was the extremely large northern European buss, the principal herring fishing ship of the growing Dutch fleet. And a third new ship was the caravel, a two-masted ship of Middle Eastern and North African influence, which used lateen and square sails together to allow for both speed and maneuverability. It was 20–30 meters long, 4–5 meters wide, with a shallow draft and a cargo capacity of 50 tons or more (150–200 tons by the end of the fifteenth century), and it could also travel long distances with relative ease. The caravel was favored by the Portuguese and Spanish for their lengthy voyages of exploration, with Columbus’s Nina and Pinta being the most famous examples.

However, the most important new ship of the fifteenth century, as both a cargo ship and a warship, was without doubt the carrack. Essentially a modification of the cog, the carrack (sometimes erroneously called a nef in the fifteenth century) was a large ship with two and later three or four masts. Its enormous size, sometimes as large as 38 meters long and 12 meters wide, with a previously unprecedented cargo capability of 1,000 to 1,400 tons, made it an excellent cargo ship, capable of carrying heavy bulk cargoes, while its carvel construction, sternpost rudder, and multiple sails allowed it to withstand both Atlantic and Mediterranean travel. Like the cog, primarily a cargo ship, the carrack was also capable of easily being both warship and cargo vessel, and was often outfitted with fore and aft castles on which could be set crossbowmen and cannon. By the end of the fifteenth century, the carrack, which counted Columbus’s flagship the Santa Maria among its number, had already replaced the cog as the ship of choice among late medieval admirals and sailors, and it would become the model of the great sailing ship-of-the-line of the early modern era.




Typical of the last generation of 64s, Lion (as it was usually spelt) was one of many of these small two-deckers built to make up battlefleet numbers during the dangerous days of the American Revolutionary War when Britain faced all the major maritime powers alone. After active service during the American War, mostly in the West Indies, the ship was chosen to carry Lord Macartney’s embassy to China in 1792. During the following wars the ship’s career was typical of many 64s, serving in secondary theatres like the North Sea in the 1790s and for much of the period after 1801 in the East Indies. Lion was decommissioned in 1814 but survived as a hulk until 1837.


Capture of the Dorothea, 15 July 1798 (HMS Lion is at centre right) Thomas Whitcombe, 1816

The 64 was an ‘economy’ battleship and by the mid-eighteenth century for major navies it was the smallest acceptable unit of the line of battle. The principal weakness of the type was the main battery of 24pdrs, whereas the rest of the line from the largest three-decker to the standard 74 were equipped with 32pdrs in the British fleet and 3 6pdrs in the French. This meant that any 64 would always be a weak link in the battle line and a source of concern to the admiral commanding. This had become recognised during the American Revolutionary War and neither Britain nor France built such ships thereafter. The type remained popular with second-rank navies, like those of the Baltic states and, especially, the Netherlands, and although France built no more of the type for her own navy she acquired others through the shipbuilding activities of her satellite states like Venice and the Netherlands. Therefore British 64s were often concentrated in the squadrons opposing those powers.

Because of a large building programme put in hand during the American War, there were still thirty 64s available in 1793. Natural attrition reduced the numbers gradually during the war, but many were captured – mainly from the Dutch, but three from Denmark and two originally built for the Knights of St John at Malta. But very few of these were acceptable cruisers, and those not hulked were usually reduced to duty as troopships or store vessels. However, such was the rapidly escalating commitments of British fleets that in 1796 five of the largest East Indiamen building on the Thames were purchased and converted into 64-gun ships. They had their ports rearranged to take twenty-six 24pdrs instead of the twenty-eight 18pdrs they were designed for, and unlike the 54/56-gun ships acquired in the previous year, they had a proper quarterdeck and forecastle. They were longer in proportion than purpose-designed 64s, but nevertheless were deemed inadequate warships, being slow and unwieldy, thanks to their capacious mercantile hull form. They were derisively dubbed ‘tea and sugar ships’ in the fleet, and when blockading Toulon in 1803 Nelson complained that as ships of the line, ‘Monmouth and Agincourt … were hardly to be reckoned’.

Because of the weak broadside of the 64 there was a tendency to keep them out of the principal battlefleets if at all possible. Even in 1794 when all manner of battleships were in short supply, Lord Howe’s Channel Fleet did not contain any 64s, and in the period of close blockade 64s were only very rarely assigned to such duties. As the country’s front line of defence against invasion, the Channel Fleet clearly had first call on the best ships, but the 64 also disappeared from other strategically important squadrons. By the middle of 1797, for example, the Earl of St Vincent’s Mediterranean Fleet had only one, and even when assigned to a particular command the 64 was often detached on convoy and other duties outside the battle line. At that time the greatest concentration of 64s was with Admiral Duncan’s North Sea fleet – ten ships, or exactly half his nominal line of battle – followed by Rear-Admiral Rainier’s East Indies command of six, with four 74s and four 50s. Both were expected to face Dutch rather than French opponents, Duncan off the coast of Holland itself, and Rainier concentrating on Dutch colonies at the Cape, in the Indian subcontinent and Indonesia. The Dutch navy’s ships tended to be smaller, since it was essentially a trade protection force, and at the battle of Camperdown in October 1797 there were seven 64s on each side.

Probably the last campaign in which 64s took part in large numbers was Copenhagen in 1801: nine were originally allotted to Hyde Parker’s command, although only three went into action with Nelson’s division. Once again the choice of ship type was determined by the numbers of similar vessels in opposing fleets; both Russia – the planned next target after the Danish fleet had been dealt with – and Denmark herself favoured smaller ships, and the inshore emphasis of Baltic operations suggested that shallow-draught and handy ships would be at a premium. Three went back to Copenhagen with Gambier in 1807, and Saumarez was assigned two 64s when a permanent fleet was sent to the Baltic in the following year.

Although 64s were considered too weak for Channel service, where the enemy battle line was composed of 74s and larger, in other areas the 64-gun ship had its uses. They were often handier and more weatherly than larger battleships, and could be employed on detached duties where more powerful opposition was unlikely. From a distance they looked like any other two-decker so could be used to maintain a presence off lesser ports, to lead small colonial expeditions, and to provide cover for the more important convoys. Agamemnon, Nelson’s professed ‘favourite ship’, was very active under his command, and in the Mediterranean demonstrated some of the variety of roles performed by 64s outside the battle line. That the 64 was superior to any frigate was proved beyond doubt by Agamemnon’s routing four of them (plus a brig) in October 1793; the 64’s handiness was well illustrated by her hounding of the 80-gun Ça Ira in March 1795; and in the spring of 1796 under Nelson’s broad pendant the ship led a detached squadron of one other 64, two frigates and two brigs to harass the coast around Genoa and blockade the port. Even after Nelson’s promotion to larger ships, the Agamemnon remained a popular ship and, despite general reluctance to include 64s in the line of battle, contrived to fight at Copenhagen, Calder’s Action in 1805, Trafalgar and Duckworth’s action off San Domingo in 1806.



Late 12th Century Northern Cog.

Ships built in the ancient period were too feeble to routinely take to the sea in any but fair weather. Longships—rowed galleys—were the state-of-the-art ships-of-war of the day, but they could not venture far. The classic Mediterranean galley had a freeboard too low to test even a moderate sea, and the oarsmen who filled the narrow, cramped hull forced frequent stops for food and water. The round, or sailing, ship could better manage rough seas, and its small crew and ample storage space gave it greater freedom of movement. But the roundship was difficult to sail, especially upwind, and it was hostage to breezes and currents in a way that the galley was not.

Geographic ignorance and nescient navigational methods also handicapped ancient mariners. There were marvelous, though periodic, scientific advances. In the third century bc astronomers determined that the earth was a round sphere rotating on its axis as it revolved around the sun. About 240 bc Eratosthenes of Alexandria, the most versatile scholar of his day, calculated the size of the planet, overestimating it slightly but establishing the theoretical groundwork that allowed Columbus 1,700 years later to sail west to reach the east. In the second century ad Claudius Ptolemy, the most accurate of the ancient geographers, subdivided the world into fractions of a circle, marking his maps with what he termed lines of latitude and longitude.

Despite these advances, science was of little use to the practical navigator. The outlines of regions, and an entire hemisphere, were yet unmapped. Maps were rare, expensive, and inaccurate, at least for the purposes of navigation. While astronomical devices existed, they were rarely taken to sea. Mariners had to rely primarily on their eyes to render crude judgments of the position of celestial bodies to determine latitude, and had no means, until the late eighteenth century, of ascertaining longitude. At best, captains owned coast pilots—what the ancient Greeks had termed periplus—that contained information on distances between ports, locations where ships could water, prevailing winds and currents, depth of water, and assorted geographic descriptions to aid mariners as they made their way along a coast. At the height of the Roman Empire, some lucky captains may have possessed primitive charts of the Mediterranean.  But even after the appearance of functional navigational instruments late in the first millennium ad (the astrolabe and the magnetic compass, imported from the Arabs and the Chinese respectively), most European seafarers sailed or rowed near, if not along, the coast by their wits, relying on years of experience, and praying for the clear skies that allowed them to mark the positions of shore, sun, moon, and stars.

Lack of navigational tools did not prevent open-ocean navigation. Phoenicians and Greeks in the Mediterranean, Arabs in the Indian Ocean, the Irish and Norse in the North Atlantic, and the Chinese in the Pacific all conducted open-sea cruises of great length and difficulty. But the absence of instruments to guide mariners and the primitive state of the shipbuilder’s art combined to limit maritime activity to a season that lasted little more than half the year.

Evidence of the relative unimportance of the sea in the affairs of nations can be seen in the nature of piracy. The pirates of the ancient world, for example the Cretans, Illyrians, and Cilicians, sought their booty ashore, not afloat. As Lionel Casson wrote in his history of seafaring:

The ancient pirate, like his later brethren, chased and boarded merchantmen. But his stock-in-trade was not that; it was slave-running. And attack on the high seas was hit-or-miss: a pirate chief could not tell from the look of an ordinary merchantman plodding along whether it was carrying a load of invaluable silks and spices or cheap noisome goat hides. But a swift swoop on any coastal town was bound to yield, even if the place was too poor for plunder, a catch of human beings, of whom the wealthy could be held for ransom and the rest sold for the going price on the nearest slave block.

Not until after the Arab invasion of the seventh century ad turned the Mediterranean into an embattled frontier between two cultures did the activities of pirates gradually shift from raids against the shore to attacks against shipping, most notably by the corsairs of the Barbary Coast of North Africa. In northern European waters, where commercial development initially lagged behind that of the Mediterranean, piracy remained associated with coastal raiding much longer.



Only in the fifteenth century did a combination of scientific and technological advances—the magnetic compass and the astrolabe, better maps, commercially available navigational charts, and ships of stronger construction, superior design, and improved rigs—allow mariners to challenge, though by no means to conquer, the seas. Only then did open ocean navigation become a regular, practical, and potentially year-round, though still dangerous, endeavor. Not until then did Europeans, somewhat serendipitously, find themselves in possession of a bundle of maritime technologies that would eventually allow them to dominate not just Europe but the world.

In the interim, humankind’s incapacity on the oceans limited the significance of sea power, even to those states with maritime pretensions. Commerce was seasonal, regional, and of marginal importance. Such limitations likewise circumscribed the significance of navies. Until the sea-lanes became a truly global common in the sixteenth century, interruption of activity on them was usually of minimal consequence, and the Mahanian concept of command of the sea was all but meaningless.

The galley, be it of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, or Turkish design, was not an effective seagoing weapon system. Galley fleets were too unseaworthy and too logistically short-legged to act independently. As a result, well into the sixteenth century Mediterranean navies were still tethered to the shore. Galley fleets had limited radii of operations—five hundred miles at best—and that piloting along coasts, not sailing or rowing along a straight line from point to point. At night, galley commanders preferred to back their ships onto a safe beach, where the crew could sleep and search for fresh food and water. A blockade of a distant enemy port was virtually impossible. Only if a friendly army held a nearby stretch of coast could a galley squadron attempt a blockade. Navies, leashed as they were, usually operated as flanking forces for the armies to which they were attached. Until the sixteenth century, naval operations were extensions of land warfare, more amphibious than truly naval.

The changes in ship design, navigation, cartography, and armament that occurred between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries were not simply incremental steps in the evolution of sea power, but a collection of advances that engendered a maritime revolution. By the mid-seventeenth century the nature, scope, and scale of both maritime commerce and naval warfare had changed dramatically. Previously, only states with large and mighty armies—such as the Macedonians, Romans, Arabs, and Mongols—had been able to forge global domains. But now the world’s new empires were maritime states more akin to Athens than to Rome. Sea power was no longer merely an adjunct to land power. “The sea,” in the words of Fernand Braudel, had become “the gateway to wealth.”

That Europe’s maritime empires all fronted the North Atlantic, a harsh, challenging sea, was no coincidence. Northern Europeans were never as enamored of the galley as their southern cousins. Northern seas, even coastal waters, were too rough for vessels with low freeboards. Many of the tides and currents of the English Channel ebbed and flowed more quickly than the best speed of a rowed vessel. The Vikings conducted most of their distant oceanic voyages, not in their rowed longships or war galleys, but in more functional sailing vessels.

The harsh Atlantic environment forced northern Europeans to give more thought to the design and rigging of sailing ships, and to navigation techniques, than did the people of the Mediterranean basin. Often facing overcast or foggy conditions, northern mariners relied heavily on soundings and, when it became available, the compass. Eventually northerners developed several types of vessels notable for their seaworthiness, carrying capacity, range, and ability to sail upwind.

Northern shipbuilders enjoyed no monopoly on design improvements. Shipwrights in the Mediterranean also refined their roundships, not only by incorporating ideas imported from the north, but also through their own advances in construction techniques and rigging plans, advances northerners were more than ready to adopt. Shipbuilding know-how flowed freely between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carriers


Naval vessels from five nations sail in parade formation for a rare photographic opportunity at sea. In four descending columns, from left to right: ITS Maestrale (F 570), De Grasse (D 612); USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74), Charles de Gaulle (R91), Surcouf (F 711); USS Port Royal (CG-73), HMS Ocean (L12), USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67), ITS Luigi Durand de la Penne (D560); and HNLMS Van Amstel (F 831).

The idea for a nuclear-powered carrier had been under consideration by the US navy since early 1949. By 1952 Secretary of the Navy Dan A. Kimball said that he hoped the next carrier would be nuclear-powered. The Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Defense (DOD) jointly announced in 1954 plans ‘for the development of nuclear propulsion for large naval vessels’.

With nuclear-powered carriers, onboard reactors heat pressurized water and turn it into high-pressure steam. This high-pressure steam is then employed to power a ship’s main propulsion turbine engines, which are mechanical, turbine generators, and auxiliary machinery. It also provides the steam required by the ship’s catapults.

Unlike conventionally-powered carriers that must refuel every few thousand miles, nuclear-powered carriers have the ability to steam at high speed for up to a million miles. However, like conventionally-powered carriers, nuclear-powered carriers must still be replenished constantly with aviation fuel and ordnance for their aircraft plus food and other supplies for their crews.

As nuclear reactors produce a great deal of radiation, the areas of a ship in which they are located must be heavily shielded to protect the engineering crew. The level of training required among the engineering crew of nuclear-powered carriers is much higher than that of their conventionally-powered counterparts. Since nuclear reactors do not produce the exhaust gases of ships powered by fuel oil-fired boilers, nuclear-powered ships do not require stacks, which does free up a certain amount of room on a carrier’s island.


The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65), the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, steams alongside the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle (R 91). Enterprise and her battle group were on a 2001 scheduled deployment in the Mediterranean Sea.

The First Nuclear-Powered US Navy Carrier

In 1956 Congress authorized the construction of the first nuclear-powered carrier. On 4 February 1958, at the same time the keel of the new ship was being laid down, Secretary of the Navy William B. Franke announced that it would be assigned the proud name Enterprise to perpetuate the famous Second World War Yorktown-class carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) and its five naval predecessors.

This first nuclear-powered carrier for the US navy was commissioned in November 1961 as the USS Enterprise (CVAN-65), with the letter ‘N’ within the letter suffix designation code representing the fact that it was nuclear-powered. It was originally envisioned that the USS Enterprise would be the lead in a class of six ships.

The first commander of the USS Enterprise was Captain (later Vice Admiral) Vincent de Poix. In early 1962 he described some of the abilities of his new ship:

There are four rudders, one almost directly astern of each propeller. This provides excellent maneuverability at all speeds as well as tactical diameters in turns which compares with much smaller ships …

Her ability to launch a strike on the enemy from one position, recover, and launch another 24 hours later from an unpredictable position more than 800 miles away from her previous strike position will constantly be a factor in causing the enemy to utilize protective forces that could be deployed elsewhere.

If a show of force is required, Enterprise can be on distant station in a shorter period of time than any other ship in the fleet.

Ship Description

At the time it was built, the USS Enterprise was the largest ship ever constructed with a length of 1,123 feet and a full load displacement of 89,600 tons. The general shape and dimensions of the ship were based on the design of the Kitty Hawk-class carriers. The Enterprise typically carried 100 planes.

Like the previous Kitty Hawk class, the USS Enterprise had four steam-powered catapults and four deck-edge elevators. Its most distinctive external feature was the box-like design of the upper portion of its island, which had large flat-panel phased-array antennas mounted instead of the more conventional rotating radar antennas. The original radar design arrangement on the Enterprise was eventually removed and replaced by more conventional rotating radars.

During its many decades of service, the USS Enterprise went through a number of modernization programmes. In 1975 the US navy redesignated the letter suffix code for the ship from CVAN to CVN, when it received its own inventory of ASW aircraft.

Due to the cost of building the Enterprise, the US navy decided not to build any additional examples of the ship. It was inactivated in December 2012 because of the high cost of refuelling the eight nuclear reactors on board the ship. However, it will not be formally decommissioned until it is completely defuelled, which will take until 2015 or longer.


Chart of aircraft and helicopter carriers from around the world.

Nimitz-Class Carriers

Despite some early problems with the USS Enterprise, mainly centred on its phased-array radar system, the Secretary of Defense and Congress were generally very pleased with its operational performance. This resulted in Congress authorizing the construction of a new, more affordable class of nuclear-powered carriers, designated the Nimitz class. They would be based around the design of the Kitty Hawk-class carriers, which in turn had been based on the cancelled USS United States (CVA-58).

The first ship in the Nimitz class was the USS Nimitz (CVAN-68) that was laid down in June 1968 but not commissioned until May 1975. This long gestation period pushed back the planned commissioning date of the follow-on Nimitz-class carriers, resulting in a dramatic increase in their cost. President Jimmy Carter responded to this additional expense by boldly suggesting that the US navy cancel the Nimitz class and build a class of smaller and more affordable carriers. As might be expected, the majority of the US navy’s senior leadership reacted very badly to the president’s view on what was best for the service and with its Congressional supporters overcame his objections. Congress would go on to authorize funding for the construction of additional Nimitz-class carriers.

Some within the US navy and the preceding President Gerald Ford administration had also believed that smaller non-nuclear-powered carriers might be a solution to the high cost of nuclear-powered vessels and had done various studies on the matter beginning in the 1970s. However, none ever came to fruition. These proposed smaller, non-nuclear-powered carriers went by different names: Sea Control Ship (SCS), mid-size carrier (CVV) and the VSTOL Support Ship (VSS), the acronym ‘VSTOL’ standing for Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing.

Additional Nimitz-Class Carriers Authorized

The USS Nimitz was followed by the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVAN-69). In June 1975 both ships were reclassified with the letter suffix designation code CVN as they had their own dedicated ASW aircraft, making them multi-mission carriers.

The following eight Nimitz-class carriers were assigned the letter suffix designation code CVN from their commissioning date: USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), USS George Washington (CVN-73), USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74), USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75), USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) and USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77). The last was commissioned in January 2009, thirty-four years after the first in its class. All ten Nimitz-class carriers continue in service to this day and remain the tip of the spear in America’s military projection around the globe.

Class Description

Nimitz-class carriers are twenty-four storeys high and require more than 900 miles of cable and wiring, 60,000 tons of structural steel and almost a million pounds of aluminium. The four bronze propellers that push them through the seas are 21 feet across and weigh 66,220 pounds each. There are nearly 30,000 light fixtures and 2,000 phones aboard a Nimitz-class carrier. A distillation plant produces 400,000 gallons of fresh water daily for each ship and its crew. That is enough for 2,000 suburban homes every day. The kitchens on board the ships prepare 18,150 meals per day.

The Nimitz-class carriers have an overall length of 1,094 feet with a full load displacement of almost 100,000 tons in the last units constructed. They can carry up to ninety planes in an emergency, with a typical number today being around fifty-six planes.

As with the previous Kitty Hawk class, the Nimitz-class carriers have four steam-powered catapults and four deck-edge elevators. Unlike the USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) that had eight A2W nuclear reactors, the Nimitz-class ships have only two of the latest-generation A4W nuclear reactors, the extra space being employed for many other purposes such as storage of aviation fuel and ordnance.

The Merits of Nuclear-Powered Carriers

The US navy preference for nuclear-powered carriers over their conventionally-powered equivalents was addressed in an August 1998 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report entitled ‘U.S. Navy Aircraft Carriers: Cost Effectiveness of Conventionally and Nuclear-Powered Carriers’. The following extract partly summarizes the GAO’s conclusions:

Each type of carrier offers certain advantages. For example, conventionally powered carriers spend less time in maintenance, and as a result, they can provide more forward presence coverage. By the same token, nuclear carriers can store larger quantities of aviation fuel and munitions and, as a result, are less dependent on at-sea replenishment. There was little difference in the operational effectiveness of nuclear and conventional carriers in the Persian Gulf War …

Nimitz-Class Replacement Carrier

With the extremely long lead-in time between the authorization of a modern carrier and its commissioning, the US navy began thinking about the replacement for the Nimitz-class carriers as far back as the early 1990s. The first ship in this new proposed class of carriers would be a prototype referred to as the CVX.

In 1998 a US navy spokesman stated that the CVX prototype would be designed with a ‘clean sheet of paper’, suggesting that it would not be an evolutionary improvement over the previous Nimitz-class carriers but a revolutionary improvement with a dramatic rise in operational capabilities. Also implied was the fact that the CVX might not be nuclear-powered and would be more affordable and less costly to operate than the preceding Nimitz class.

Despite the 1998 pronouncement by the US navy on what they visualized for the CVX prototype, the funding necessary for the implementation of the revolutionary ship never materialized. Instead, in 2001 the new Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, proposed that a prototype carrier be built as an evolutionary improvement over the previous Nimitz-class carriers and be labelled as CVX-1. It would be followed into production by the building of a more revolutionary improved Nimitz-class carrier designated the CVX-2.

The US navy then decided to merge the concept of the CVX-1 and CVX-2 into a single ship initially referred to as the CVN-21, with the numbers in the designation code representing the twenty-first century. Building of the new carrier, named the Gerald R. Ford and given the designation code CVN-78, began in 2007 with a tentative commissioning date of 2016. As indicated by the ship’s letter suffix designation code, the Gerald R. Ford is nuclear-powered.

Carrier Description

The PCU (Pre-Commissioning Unit) Gerald R. Ford is 1,106 feet long and when commissioned it is estimated that it will have a full load displacement of over 100,000 tons. It will carry approximately seventy-five aircraft that will be launched by four catapults. Aircraft will be moved between the flight deck and hangar deck by three deck-edge elevators instead of the four on the previous Nimitz-class carriers.

The island on the Gerald R. Ford is smaller and located further aft than seen on the previous Nimitz-class carriers. To increase the number of missions (sorties) that the ship’s aircraft can perform and at the same time reduce the number of personnel needed, a great deal of automation was incorporated into the carrier’s final design.

From the Naval Sea System Command comes this passage describing the reasons why the new Ford class of carriers will be more cost-effective than the previous Nimitz class:

Each ship in the new class will save more than $4 billion in total ownership costs during its 50-year service life, compared to the Nimitz-class. The CVN 78 is designed to operate effectively with nearly 700 fewer crew members than a CVN 68-class ship. Improvements in the ship design will allow the embarked air wing to operate with approximately 400 fewer personnel. New technologies and ship design features are expected to reduce watch standing and maintenance workload for the crew … The Gerald R. Ford class is designed to maximize the striking power of the embarked carrier air wing. The ship’s systems and configuration are optimized to maximize the sortie generation rate (SGR) of attached strike aircraft, resulting in a 33 per cent increase in SGR over the Nimitz class. The ship’s configuration and electrical generating plant are designed to accommodate new systems, including direct energy weapons, during its 50-year service life.

The Gerald R. Ford will be fitted with an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) when commissioned, in place of the steam-powered catapults currently employed on the Nimitz-class carriers. The advantages provided by installing the EMALS on the Gerald R. Ford, according to the US navy, are numerous. These include a reduction in size and weight, plus requiring less maintenance and therefore fewer personnel to operate. According to the programme manager for the EMALS, it will be able:

to launch today’s current air wing as well as all future carrier aircraft platforms in the U.S. Navy’s inventory through 2030 with reduced wind-over-the-deck requirements when compared to steam catapults, and additional capability for aircraft growth during the 50-year life of a carrier.

To supplement the EMALS on the Gerald R. Ford it will also be fitted with the new Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG). This employs an electric motor-based system in place of the existing hydraulic arresting gear system. It has been stated by the US navy that the AAG will be much more reliable than the existing arresting gear system. It is planned to eventually upgrade the Nimitz-class carriers with the AAG.

The last two Nimitz-class carriers, the USS Ronald Reagan and USS George H.W. Bush were fitted with a new Advanced Recovery Control (ARC) system which is digitally controlled. This was in contrast to the previous Mk. 7 mechanically-controlled arresting gear system fitted to the first eight Nimitz-class carriers commissioned.

Two other carriers in what is now referred to as the Gerald R. Ford or Ford class have also been authorized: the John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) and the Enterprise (CVN-80). Construction on the John F. Kennedy began in 2011, with construction of the Enterprise scheduled to begin in 2018. Current plans call for eventually building seven more Ford-class carriers to replace the ten existing Nimitz-class carriers on a one-for-one basis. It is anticipated that the last Nimitz-class carrier will be decommissioned in 2058.

Roman Shipbuilding


“Roman quinqueremes and Lembos biremes, 3rd to 2nd Century BC”


“Roman Triremes and Quadriremes, 2nd Century BC”

We do not know who took the initiative to start the new shipbuilding programme in Rome. An anonymous Greek source names Valerius Messala, the consul of 263, as the first person to realize that a new fleet was needed for ultimate victory. This may be true or it may be an attempt by his family to glorify one of its ancestors. According to Polybius, the decision was made in 261 and the ships were completed in the following year. Pliny states that the fleet was sailing sixty days after the first timber was cut.

Polybius’ description of the shipbuilding work is a mixture of myths and facts. On the one hand, he highlights the notion that the Romans were beginners and lacked the requisite knowledge:

When they saw that the war was dragging on, they undertook for the first time to build ships, a hundred quinqueremes and twenty triremes. As their shipwrights were absolutely inexperienced in building quinqueremes, such ships never having been in use in Italy, the matter caused them much difficulty, and this fact shows us better than anything else how spirited and daring the Romans are when they are determined to do a thing … When they first undertook to send their forces across to Messana … the Carthaginians put to sea to attack them as they were crossing the straits, and one of their decked ships [kataphract] advanced too far in its eagerness to overtake them and, running aground, fell into the hands of the Romans. This ship they now used as a model, and built their whole fleet on its pattern … if this had not occurred they would have been entirely prevented from carrying out their design by lack of practical knowledge.

It is possible that quinqueremes had never been built in Italy before. Yet constructing such ships should not have been a problem for the Romans as they could call on Syracusan expertise. Espionage played an important role in any ancient war effort and the capture of the Punic wreck allowed the Romans to analyse the latest development in Carthaginian shipbuilding. Besides, skilful shipbuilders could be hired, just as they had been by Dionysius I in Syracuse at the beginning of the fourth century BC:

He gathered skilled workmen, commandeering them from the cities under his control and attracting them by high wages from Italy and Greece as well as Carthaginian territory. For his purpose was to make weapons in great numbers and every kind of missile, and also quadriremes and quinqueremes, no ship of the latter size having yet been built at that time.

On the other hand, Polybius gives practical information on how the project was executed:

Those to whom the construction of the ships was committed were busy in getting them ready, and those who had collected the crews were teaching them to row on shore in the following fashion. Making the men sit on rowers’ benches on dry land, in the same order as on the benches of the ships themselves, and stationing the boatswain in the middle, they accustomed them to fall back all at once bringing their hands up to them, and again to come forward pushing out their hands, and to begin and finish these movements at the word of command of the fugle man. When the crews had been trained, they launched the ships as soon as they were completed, and having practised for a brief time actual rowing at sea, they sailed along the coast of Italy as their commander had ordered.

It was essential that the rowers kept pace. The training and exercising of crews is frequently mentioned in written sources and there is also some evidence in the pottery. Polybius describes a method generally used by fleets around the Mediterranean. Crews had multiple tasks: they could be used for operations on land as fighting soldiers, for instance, and for building siege engines. So it is likely that the new recruits were not only taught to row but were also given some basic military training.

Polybius does not provide any information about where the ships were built, who built them, where the timber came from or where the rowers were recruited from. Nor does he mention the harbours from which they sailed. The gaps in our knowledge need to be filled with the most plausible explanations. There are different opinions about the places where the ships were constructed. Some scholars believe that a centralized building programme was organized, as seems to be suggested by Polybius; others, stressing Rome’s lack of shipbuilding experience, believe that the project was spread over several ports, including Rome and the Greek cities of southern Italy.35 In my opinion, the ships were probably built in dockyards in Rome and then were stored in sheds in the Campus Martius, where the trireme fleet was presumably kept. Timber was available in Latium, Etruria and Umbria and could be taken to Rome using any of the tributaries of the Tiber or Anio. There must have been shipwrights in Rome and they could be hired, as they had been in Syracuse. The ships were probably launched in batches of around twenty-five and in two or three days all of them would have passed Ostia and be sailing south towards the Straits. The triremes required about 4,200 men and the quinqueremes around 35,000. The socii navales were obliged to send ships and rowers but Samnites were also recruited, as we know from information that has survived concerning their rebellion.

The naval organization comprised hundreds of thousands of people, including those working at the dockyards and those supplying sails, ropes, food and every other necessity needed on board. An expanding programme of shipbuilding was one of the most expensive policies that any ancient nation could adopt. In the case of Rome, the expansion was dramatic. In 311 the Romans had introduced triremes into their fleet and now, fifty years later, they had the resources to upgrade their fleet once again.

When the Roman fleet arrived in Sicily, Gaius Duilius, the consul leading the Roman land forces on the island, was called in to command it. He handed over his legions to the military tribunes before leaving to join the ships. The Romans began to get ready for a sea battle. Polybius states that, since their ships were badly-built and slow-moving, it was suggested that they should equip them with boarding-bridges.

There is no doubt about the historicity of the boarding-bridge or corvus. Polybius gives a description of its structure that Wallinga has corrected on some points. It worked as follows: at ramming distance, a gangway located on the bow was lowered onto the enemy deck and the soldiers ran across it in order to fight. The mechanism consisted of a pole with a pulley at the top. A rope ran through the pulley to a gangway that could be raised and lowered. Under the end of the gangway was a pointed pestle that, when the gangway was lowered, pierced the deck of the enemy ship and kept the two vessels locked together.

For anyone who follows Polybius’ view that the Romans were novices in maritime warfare and operated with poor-quality ships, the boarding-bridge has come to be seen as the key to their success, especially as, in his description of the battle at Mylae, he states that this device made combat at sea like a fight on land. However, it is doubtful whether the corvus had such a decisive impact. The Romans won their first battle on their way to Sicily without it, capturing many Punic ships, and the device is only mentioned twice in the sources: in the sea battles of 260 and 256 – thereafter there is no reference to it.

In my opinion, the corvus should not be seen in the context of the Romans’ inexperience in maritime warfare; there is a precedent in naval history that points to its real significance. Thucydides describes how the Athenians used grappling irons when they tried to break out from the harbour at Syracuse in 413. They boarded the enemy ships with soldiers and drove their opponents off the deck. According to Thucydides, the sea battle changed into a battle on land. The mass of troops on board made the Athenian ships heavy and hampered their manoeuvres. The Athenian innovation started a new era in naval tactics.

The boarding-bridge was a typical device in the Hellenistic period, when armies and navies were familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents and experimented with new fighting methods in order to surprise them. Once the Carthaginians had recovered from their surprise, they must have come up with a defence against the corvus but the sources do not describe the measures they took. Some of the technical details concerning the operation of the corvus remain uncertain, such as the angle at which it could be revolved, and it is not clear why the Romans stopped using it.

As for the alleged slowness of Roman ships, knowledge about the comparative performance of Roman and Carthaginian vessels is based on the outcome of the battle at the Cape of Italy where the Romans captured around fifty Punic ships and the remainder fled. The excessive weight of the Roman ships may have been due to the fact that they were loaded with troops, equipment and supplies, rather than a consequence of poor shipbuilding.

However, the Romans had been unable to take a few of the Punic ships. In this context perhaps the boarding-bridge should not be seen as a defensive tool but as a sign of the Roman determination to hunt down every enemy ship at every opportunity. By using the boarding-bridge, they could make sure that no Punic ships could escape.

We do not know how long the preparations for the battle took. Polybius states that the Carthaginians were ravaging the territory of Mylae and that Duilius sailed against them:

They all [the Carthaginians] sailed straight on the enemy, not even thinking it worthwhile to maintain order in the attack, but just as if they were falling on a prey that was obviously theirs … On approaching and seeing the ravens [corvi] nodding aloft on the prow of each ship, the Carthaginians were at first nonplussed, being surprised at the construction of the engines. However, as they entirely gave the enemy up for lost, the front ships attacked daringly. But when the ships that came into collision were in every case held fast by the machines, and the Roman crews boarded by means of the ravens and attacked them hand to hand on deck, some of the Carthaginians were cut down and others surrendered from dismay at what was happening, the battle having become just like a fight on land.

The first thirty ships were taken with their crews. Hannibal, who was commanding the fleet in the seven that had formerly belonged to Pyrrhus, managed to escape in the small boat. Trusting their swiftness, the Carthaginians sailed around the enemy in order to strike from the side or the stern but the Romans swung the boarding-bridges around so that they could grapple with ships that attacked them from any direction. Eventually the Carthaginians, shaken by this novel tactic, took flight. They lost fifty ships.

According to Polybius, Hannibal had 130 ships; according to Diodorus he had 200 ships involved in the battle. Diodorus says the Romans had 120 ships. Information about the type of ships that Scipio Asina lost at the Lipari Islands is not given in the sources but it seems probable that the Romans still had around 100 ships from their original fleet. Possibly they borrowed ships from their allies and made use of captured Carthaginian ships but no information is available. The brief description of the battle that has survived does not indicate whether the Romans arranged their ships in two lines or one. At first it seems the Carthaginians tried a diekplous attack. When that failed, they switched to a periplous attack but the Romans repulsed that too. If we accept Wallinga’s theory that the boarding-bridge could be revolved through 90 degrees, rather than freely in all directions as Polybius claims, then the Romans must have manoeuvred and regrouped their ships during the battle to defend themselves and to target the Punic ships as they approached. So, in practice, they continued to use the traditional tactics that were intended to sink enemy ships with rams and the deployment of the boarding-bridge did not make a significant difference to this aspect of the battle.