Wooden ships leaked. Some leaked more than others. It was a fact of life well known to every sailor. Every few hours at sea, the ship’s carpenter rigged his sounding rod, a sort of overgrown dip-stick, and “sounded the well.” If all was tight, he’d find only a few inches of water accumulated in the hold. But if the ship had experienced stormy weather, or had suffered damaged to its hull, the carpenter might discover several feet of water in the well. Repeated soundings a few minutes apart told him if the water was rising. If so, the order to rig and man the pumps rang through the ship, and a gang of sailors took hold of the pump handles (called brakes). Up and down they worked, drawing the water up through the pump dale till it reached the deck and ran out the scuppers into the sea. If they pumped fast enough, the pump would soon “suck,” indicating that all the water had been discharged. If the water continued to rise, even with the pumps working, then they were all in for a bad time.
Inventors frequently tinkered with pumps and by the late eighteenth century a number of improvements had made them fairly efficient. Most ships carried a species of “chain pump.” William Falconer’s New Universal Dictionary of the Marine (1815) defined the pump as “a long chain equipped with a sufficient number of valves at proper distances from each other, working upon a sproket wheel [sic], and passing downward through the back-case, then returning upward through the round chamber, by which means the water is pumped out of the ship’s hold. It is managed by two winches, whereon several persons may be employed at once; and thus it discharges a greater quantity of water than any other pump hitherto invented, and is worked with less inconvenience to the seamen.”
When they worked, they worked well, but they were liable to breakage and clogging – often at the worst time. As Constitution lay on the stocks at Edmund Hartt’s Boston shipyard during the winter of 1795-96, Secretary of War James McHenry began to order the vast number of items needed to outfit the ship. In January 1796 he commanded Naval Constructor George Claghorn to fit the ship with chain pumps and to position them just before and behind the main mast.1
Technology never stands still, and to his credit, Secretary McHenry frequently embraced new inventions conceived by enterprising Americans – provided they really worked. Philadelphian Theobald Bourke had recently patented a new suction pump that operated without chains, and he eagerly showed it off to prospective buyers. Newspapers across the country printed the results of a December trial.
Agreeably to an advertisement of the subscriber, a number of gentlemen met at Vine-street wharf on the 12th inst[ant- i.e., the 12th of the present month, in this case December 1796] among whom were John Barry, Esq. commander of the frigate United States, and Mr. Joshua Humphries, naval constructor, to see the performance of Bourke’s United States patent COPPER PUMP, which answer’d their most sanguine expectations. It deliver’d that day one hundred and fifty-four gallons of water, in thirty-five seconds of time, by several stop watches, and thirty-eight strokes of the pump break, although some water was lost: it also lifted up and discharged through the valves a quantity of stones and gravel, and a 4 pound shot. To all owners and masters of vessels this pump must be a valuable acquisition, where lives and property are at stake—another advantage attending this pump is its simple construction; any mariner can put it in order. The chain pump is liable to choke, and requires more men to work it; this pump will not choke either with stones, gravel, or grain, and only requires four men to work it with the greatest power. Two men can work it, and discharge half a tun of water per minute. He can make them to accommodate small as well as large vessels. This pump, for which the subscriber has obtained a patent from the United States of America, and an exclusive privilege to make and vend the same, may be of effectual service to all brewers, distillers, or in raising water to a great height in inland navigation, as well as to raise water for overshot mills. The subscriber may be spoke with at his shop in Water-street, opposite the Swedes church, and expects from the public the encouragement that his invention and attention may deserve.
A week later, Captain Barry, along with Joshua Humphreys and Captain Thomas Truxton, made an ecstatic report of the new pump’s performance to Secretary McHenry and strongly recommended that the invention be installed in the frigates under construction.3
McHenry concurred, and the same day he notified the Secretary of the Treasury that he’d be purchasing six patent pumps for each ship. 4 Bourke took several months to prepare the order, but by the end of May 1797, four of the pumps were on their way to Boston. What happened to the other two is not specified, but McHenry mentioned that pumps “of wood” could be made there.5 It may be that the Navy was unwilling to bet the security of their ships on the new pump, and retained two tried-and-true chain pumps.
How long Bourke’s pumps remained on board is open to speculation. By 1801, Boston metalworker Ebenezer Leman billed the Navy for repairing Constitution’s chain pumps, and they are frequently mentioned in the ship’s logs from the 1812 period.6 It could be that the suction pumps didn’t perform as promised. An entry in the log book for September 13, 1799 mentions that two of the starboard pumps were “hoisted out” and repaired by the carpenter 7. Luckily, the ship’s crew never needed to pump for their lives.
1 James McHenry to George Claghorn, 8 Jan. 1796, Letters Sent by the War Department Relating to Naval Matters, Jan. 3, 1794 –June 14, 1798 (M739), National Archives. 2 Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia), 22 Dec. 1796. 3 Thomas Truxton, John Barry, and Joshua Humphreys to James McHenry, 19 Dec. 1796, Josiah Fox Letterbook Papers, Peabody Essex Museum. 4 James McHenry to Oliver Wolcott, Jr., 19 Dec. 1796, Secretary of the Navy Requisitions on the Secretary of the Treasury, RG45, National Archives. 5 James McHenry to Henry Jackson, 23 May 1797, Letters Sent by the War Department…, (M739), National Archives. 6 From notes on file at the USS Constitution Museum, taken from the Samuel Brown Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society. 7 “Extract from log of U.S. Frigate Constitution,Captain Silas Talbot, U.S. Navy, commanding, Friday, 13 September 1799,” in Naval Documents Related to the Quasi-War Between the United States and France, vol. 4 (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1936), 184.
Matthew Brenckle Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.
Questions or comments? Contact the USS Constitution Museum's Curatorial Department at firstname.lastname@example.org