Constitution Super-Frigate



By 1754, warship design seemed to have reached the limit of existing materials. If hulls were lengthened much beyond two hundred feet, they tended to hog (sag at each end), reducing the seaworthiness of a vessel or even breaking its keel. Hull width was a matter of function, with room to operate the iron cannon evenly spaced along each side of a warship to hurl broadsides at an enemy (with a “chaser” or two at bow and stern) and space to store the supplies and munitions for an extended voyage weighed against the need to keep a low width-to-length ratio for the sake of speed. Similarly, the thickness of the beams and planks armoring a vessel, the size of its cannon, and the weight of its top-hamper (mass at the top of the ship) had been optimized to prevent the capsizing of the ship. Though a myriad of mast and sail plans existed, they had become quite standardized within ship classes.

No matter the correctness of design, all warships suffered deterioration while at sea. Though strategy and tactics could somewhat compensate for the vagaries of wind, current, and tide, they could not stop sea life-barnacles and weeds-from attaching themselves to the bottom of a vessel in warmer waters. Within a few weeks, long strands of weed reduced the speed of a ship to the point of ineffectiveness. The only cure was to dock or careen the vessel and manually scrape the barnacles and weeds from the hull. Each careening took days from sailing and carried the risk of damaging the vessel as it rested on the sand, listing to port or starboard so the crew could reach its bottom. Aside from reducing a vessel’s speed, many forms of sea life, especially the shipworm Teredo navalis, actually bore into the wood, thus reducing the overall life of a wooden vessel by years.

The continual battle against wind and sea also wore upon the human component of ships. Communicable diseases ripped through the crowded and less-than- hygienic decks. Scurvy, caused by a shortage of vitamin C, ravaged entire fleets, debilitating and killing sailors by the thousands. Water quickly turned green in wooden barrels, spreading the “bloody flux” among crews. During the French and Indian War (Seven Years’ War in Europe) of 1754-1763, any admiral keeping ships at sea for more than a few weeks found losses to natural causes in both ships and men constantly mounting. The lessons of the French and Indian War would lead to technological change as surely as that war led directly to the American Revolution of 1775-1783.

The rebellion in thirteen of its North American colonies challenged the Royal Navy even before France, Spain, and Holland joined the conflict. With few secure naval bases (notably Halifax, New York, and Jamaica) in or near the colonies the hundreds of ships of the Royal Navy and its supply train quickly began to suffer from foul bottoms. In the early 1770s, the British Admiralty had ordered experiments with coppering, a process introduced in the civilian sector to increase the speed and lengthen the life of ship hulls. The process of coppering called for a layer of forty-eight-inch by twelve-to-fourteen inch thin copper sheets to be overlapped and fastened to the bottom of the hull. The copper, poisonous to aquatic plants, slowed the growth of seaweed, while the thin metal protected the wood from shipworms. Though the process proved very expensive, its benefits outweighed the cost, and so the Admiralty ordered all new warships to be coppered and began refitting existing vessels. Because of the need to increase the production of copper sheets, the refitting did not approach completion until the end of the war. Though Britain’s enemies quickly began to copy the new technology and though it would become standard in all navies after 1783, the Royal Navy gained a brief advantage over its enemies.

A second technological breakthrough, this time in armament, provided unexpected benefits to Britain. The Carron Iron Company of Falkirk, Scotland, designed a gun that the Admiralty adopted in 1779. The carronade was a third of the weight of similar cannon while firing the same size shot. It required a much smaller crew and less powder per round. Though its range was only two-thirds of the equivalent cannon, it could fire faster and with the same deadly effect at that range. These smaller “smashers,” as the Royal Navy called them, found a deadly place on the upper decks of larger warships. More important, when placed on smaller warships, they not only reduced the number of crew needed for gunnery, but carried the broadside of a ship two to three times their size. Though the United States would adopt the carronade, it would not prove popular with other European nations.

With the addition of coppering and carronades, the Royal Navy managed to better than hold its own against the rebellious colonies and their European allies. In action after action from 1779 onward, logs and journals alluded to the British superiority in both maneuvering and gunnery, while small warships, coppered and armed with “smashers,” ravaged American coastal traffic in the last year of the war. Though the United States won its freedom, the new technology, coupled with advances in naval medicine (the use of citrus fruits to prevent scurvy, as well as improvements in shipboard hygiene and quarantine procedures) gave the Royal Navy the extended cruising time and the heavily armed small ships to institute year-round blockades of its enemies and to defeat France in wars that spanned the years from 1793 to 1815.

In 1794 the U. S. government saw the need to create a navy to protect its constantly expanding merchant marine as well as its right to remain neutral in the worldwide conflict then raging between Britain and France. It commissioned Joshua Humphreys (1751-1838) to design six forty-four-gun frigates for its navy. Four of these frigates-the Philadelphia, Constitution, United States, and President- would eventually be built, incorporating the last major design improvements of the late Age of Sail. Humphreys used extremely close framing as well as stress-bearing diagonal riders and thick, loadbearing planks to strengthen his ships. Between framing and oaken planks, some thirty inches of wood guarded their sides. The strength of the frame allowed the gangways that connected the quarterdeck to the forecastle on most frigates to be replaced by a spar deck capable of carrying the weight of additional cannon. In fact, though rated for forty-four cannon, these vessels often carried as many as fifty-six guns. The Philadelphia ran aground and was burned in 1803 during the first Barbary War and the President fell prey to a British squadron in the last days of the War of 1812, but the Constitution and the United States shocked the British people with a string of impressive victories against the Royal Navy, including its seemingly invincible frigates. The Royal Navy quickly copied Humphreys’s design from the captured United States in order to build its own “superfrigates.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *