As warfighting platforms go, the 18th-century frigate USS Constitution and 20th-century nuclear aircraft carrier USS Enterprise seem as far different as can be imagined. The wood-hulled Constitution maneuvered under sail to bring her black-powder guns to bear in ranges that were usually under 1,000 yards. Enterprise, at nearly 50 times the displacement, deployed squadrons of fighter and bomber aircraft across hundreds of miles of ocean. Despite their differences, both ships regularly rank among the top ten “most significant U.S. naval warships,” and in both cases, there were fundamental design decisions that fueled debates whose lessons still resonate with navies today.
In both cases, the ship designs represented leaps forward in technology and materials that could provide an advantage over potential adversaries in vastly different scenarios. In both cases, those leaps were a valuable, if unpredictable, X-factor, whose opportunities generated significant debate over whether the advantage gained would justify the costs invested in these hulls.
Both ships were considered first of class, although in the case of Constitution, two others of the class were built simultaneously. Enterprise was to be the first of six carriers of her class.
Constitution‘s keel was laid in an era when European and North African navies held sway on the oceans and seas. No longer with the protection of the Royal Navy, the merchant vessels of the new American nation were plundered by corsairs of the Barbary powers seeking tribute in exchange for safe passage along the North African coast during the early 1790s. Unfortunately, with its last vessel Alliance sold off in 1785, the American navy had ceased to exist. Recognizing that having no means to protect its merchant fleet would simply lead to more seizures, Congress approved Naval Armament Act on March 10, 1794. Signed by President Washington 17 days later, the act enabled him to form a Navy centered around six frigates.
Enterprise came into existence under opposite circumstances. Following the conclusion of the Second World War, the United States, now the world’s preeminent naval power, found itself in a Cold War with a Communist bloc of nations led by the Soviet Union. To contain this bloc, the United States built a series of overseas alliances, buttressed with American sea power. The pre-World War II strategy of sending small squadrons to distant stations to look after American interests was replaced by the establishment of by the 1950s, the U.S. had deployed the Sixth Fleet to the Mediterranean and the Seventh Fleet to the western Pacific.
Though Constitution and Enterprise came into existence in vastly differing circumstances, they both were designed with the intent to deploy well beyond the horizon to demonstrate resolve to potential enemies.
The Constitution X-factor proved to be a combination of design and materials. The 44-gun frigate design represented the marriage of a frigate’s speed and ship of the line’s firepower that could manage long overseas deployments in diverse conditions. Fractures and rot were the weaknesses of wooden ships in this era, but for the new frigate design, shipbuilders recommended live oak from the Southeastern United States as superior to white oak for framing material. With a durability believed to be five times that of white oak, a warship framed in live oak could remain in service for a half century or longer, it was argued. The individual who ultimately earned the contract for designing the Navy’s first six frigates, Joshua Humpheys concurred. His specifications called for live oak to be used in the frigates’ futtocks, hawsepieces, knight heads, bow timbers, knees, stanchions, breasthooks, and transoms.
The Enterprise X-factor proved to be nuclear power, which, like Constitution’s live oak, offered an advantage in endurance that would fundamentally contribute to the ship’s core mission. With the advent of nuclear propulsion for submarines in the 1950s, the prospect of nuclear-propelled aircraft carriers appealed to a generation of senior naval officers who had fought in World War II and bemoaned the logistical constraints of having their floating airfields tethered to a fleet of oilers to keep their bunkers full of black oil. Nuclear propulsion promised a logistical flexibility that had not been seen since sailing warships such as Constitution had plied the seas.
However, in both ships’ cases, the exorbitant cost of these X-factor advantages caused many to question the investment. The desire to build the first six frigates at six separate locations using the finest wood challenged the purse strings of the young republic. In contrast, Enterprise, built at one location, proved so expensive that she would be one-of-a-kind.
Virginia Steele Wood, in her book Live Oaking, documented the costly endeavor to provide Constitution and her sisters the X-factor. With funds for the frigates authorized in early June 1794, Commissioner of Revenue Tench Coxe sent Boston shipwright John T. Morgan to the coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia to survey the forests, identify the land-owners, and estimate the expenses associated with harvesting the trees. As a result of his survey, St. Simons and Hawkins Islands were selected and agreement were reached with the private landowners in early September.
Over the summer, Morgan had received the moulds – soft wood mock-ups of the required timbers – that carpenters would seek to match with the live oak trees to be cut and hauled out of the swampy forests. The sizes and shapes of the moulds made finding the right timbers a daunting task. It was compounded by the effects of the climate and malaria-carrying mosquitos, which rendered Morgan’s initial workforce ineffective. When the brig Schuylkill arrived at St. Simons in in mid-October to survey progress and pick up the first shipment of cut pieces, Captain John Barry reported that he found “not a stick of wood cut.”
According to Wood’s account, Barry worked with Morgan to create a new approach. They rented sixteen slaves from local planters, this workforce used oxen and horses to build a road in the woods to transport timbers. With the arrival of 81 men from Connecticut on October 22, some progress could finally be made. When a shipment of cut live oak pieces arrived in Philadelphia in mid-December, Humpheys was ecstatic about the quality.
The struggle to harvest wood continued into 1795. By the spring, death and desertion had taken a toll on the Yankee workforce. Only three could be persuaded to remain to work with the rented slaves. Morgan’s reward for his efforts to date was to be informed that he needed to stay in Georgia to the work was finished. Using mostly slave labor, work continued. In hindsight, Secretary of War Thomas Pickering regretted contracting out for the construction of six frigates simultaneously as the slow arrival of the live oak framing materials idled yard workers. By the end of 1795, New York had received only a third of its live oak pieces, thanks in part to the loss of a shipment off Cape Hatteras. The other five yards had two-thirds of their live oak allotments.
With no semblance of a capable naval fighting force on the near horizon, American negotiators acceded to demands by the Dey of Algiers that the United States pay $1 million in tribute to allow the free movement of American merchant vessels off North Africa.
The Act of 1794 authorizing the six frigates had specified that a treaty with Algiers negated the need for a Navy. President Washington pushed for supplemental legislation to allow work on the three frigates closest to completion – United States in Philadelphia, Constellation in Baltimore, and Constitution in Boston – to proceed. Morgan’s live oak harvesting operation in Georgia continued to slowly provide the critical pieces that would be incorporated into the skeleton of the frigates. The first three frigates were launched in 1797, and as a down-turn in relations with revolutionary France evolved into a quasi-war in 1798, work proceeded to finish the other three frigates.
The difficulties over incorporating such a complex and expensive element in ship design and construction would be echoed 170 years when Admiral Hyman Rickover sought to overcome nay-sayers of the 20th century X-factor—nuclear power.
Admiral James L. Holloway III, in his auto-biographical Carriers at War, documented the debate in his account of USS Enterprise. With her keel laid in 1958, Enterprise took form at the Newport News Shipping and Drydock Company on what was envisioned to be the first of six carriers of her class. Commissioned on November 25, 1962, “Big E” would be the longest warship ever built for the U.S. Navy at 1,123 feet in length and displaced nearly 95,000 tons. However, the cost of constructing the eight-reactor carrier far exceeded the planned budget. Furthermore, the carrier’s requirement to have a small army of officers and enlisted men trained to operate eight reactors presented a further cost consideration. Subsequently, the next two carriers built for the Navy – America and John F. Kennedy were to be of the conventional, fossil-fuel variant.
Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, who served as the Director of Naval Reactors, envisioned the next nuclear carrier operating with four reactors, reducing construction and operating costs. However, the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, under advice of the head of his Office of Program Appraisal Alain Enthoven, remained adamant even with this power plant arrangement, nuclear powered aircraft carriers were not cost effective. For the Navy with its carrier fleet still dominated by aging World War II vintage Essex class carriers, the situation became problematic. The Sea Power subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee had been swayed that all future carriers should be driven by atoms and would not authorize funds for any additional oil-fired ships.
A breakthrough came through in the Fall of 1964 when McNamara joined Rickover and the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral David McDonald for a tour of the Bettis Nuclear Laboratory in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania. Shown a mock-up of a reactor designed to propel a destroyer size warship, McNamara was also informed the new design could generate double the power output of one of Enterprise’s reactors. The Secretary of Defense asked if two of them could propel an aircraft carrier. Rickover responded yes.
The news of Rickover’s response caused his senior engineers to gulp. An Enterprise reactor produced 35,000 shaft horsepower. The mock-up shown to McNamara was designed to double that. To push some 100,000 tons of floating airfield through the water required 120.000 shaft horsepower. Fortunately for Rickover, his engineers were up to the challenge. 
If McNamara had any doubts about the wisdom of his decision to allow the Navy to proceed with constructing additional carriers, they were eliminated with reports of Enterprise’s performance off Vietnam in the Spring of 1966. Spared of the need have bunkers carry fuel for her propulsion, Enterprise used that space to increase her aviation fuel and ammunition capacity. This capacity allowed Enterprise to host two additional squadrons of attack aircraft and thus enabled the ship to establish records in aircraft launched to support ground forces in South Vietnam and attack targets in North Vietnam.
Commissioned on May 3, 1975, USS Nimitz was the first of ten ships of her class. She remains in service as the oldest American aircraft carrier following the decommissioning of Enterprise on February 3, 2017 after a four-year inactivation process. Nimitz, her nine sister ships, and the newly commissioned Gerald R. Ford, the first of a new class of carriers all depend on nuclear power the roam the world’s oceans in an era where the United States Navy remains the predominate naval power.
As the Enterprise would show 167 years later, technological/material advances often demonstrate themselves on the ocean of battle. A telling moment during the Quasi-War with France came when the Constellation met up with the French frigate Insurgente on February 9, 1799 off the Island of Nevis. With greater firepower and a better constructed ship, Captain Thomas Truxtun maneuvered Constellation to rake his foe over the course of an hour. He would report the duel concluded with Constellation “being athwart his stern, ready with every gun to fire when he struck his colors.”
With success in the at-sea struggle with France, naval officials remained convinced that the extra efforts and costs associated with harvesting live oak wood was worth the investment and in December 1799 and April 1800, purchased Georgia’s Grover Island and Blackbeard Island respectively, to help assure supplies of this material that would be a key component of U.S. naval vessels well into the 19th century.
Powered by atoms, the USS Enterprise remained in commission for over a half century. USS Constitution, with her nick-name of “Old Ironsides,” earned thanks to her hard wood construction, remains in commission till this day.
The author, Dr. David F. Winkler, recently retired from the Naval Historical Foundation where he served as the Director of Programs for two decades. He continues to consult for NHF, the U.S. Naval Institute and the Navy League. A retired Navy Reserve commander, he holds a Ph.D. from American University and is the author of several books on naval history.
 Following the ratification of the 1796 Treaty with Algiers, Congress proceeded to fund only the completion of Constitution, United States, and Constellation. Cost-overruns caused the Navy to cancel plans for additional Enterprise-class carriers. See: Ian Toll, Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), 62; and Francis Duncan, Rickover: The Struggle for Excellence (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001), 172-73.
 Toll, 42.
 Virginia Steele Wood, Live Oaking: Southern Timber for Tall Ships (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981), 25.
 Wood, 28.
 Wood, 29.
 Wood, 31.
 Admiral James L. Holloway, III, Aircraft Carriers at War: A Personal Retrospective of Korea, Vietnam and the Soviet Confrontation (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2007), 175-77.
 Holloway, 213.