Paddle Wheels for “Old Ironsides”
By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)
It has ever been that when a dramatic technological advance occurs, attempts are made to use it in as many applications as possible. The results of such efforts frequently are ludicrous in their design or results, or disastrous, or in a few cases they work. When steam went to sea, its potential propulsive power was hitched to systems of articulated oars, to paddle wheels, and to screws. In 1819, the U.S. sailing packet Savannah, equipped with an auxiliary steam engine and retractable paddle wheels, crossed the Atlantic from New York to Liverpool in 29 1/2 days.
She arrived out of coal but had steamed for only 82 hours. Still, it was a first, and interest in paddle wheel applications increased. They were tried astern, within hulls, between hulls, and even horizontally underneath the hulls.
In February 1821, Navy Secretary Smith Thompson ordered Sailing Master Briscoe S. Doxey from the Washington Navy Yard to Boston to conduct an experiment using the Constitution, then readying for a Mediterranean deployment, as his test vehicle. Doxey was to construct and demonstrate the practicability of the “propello marino,” a device “invented by him for propelling becalmed ships.”
Doxey arrived early in March, and for the next five weeks or so, he, with the assistance of Master Builder Jonah Barker and his men, set about erecting his machine and installing it in the Constitution. In essence, it was a “portable” set of paddle wheels installed on separate axles mounted through gun ports and powered by a large number of the crew.
A drawing of the device, done by Sailing Master Charles R. Ware assigned to the Boston Yard, shows each paddle wheel with its own roller bearing mounted axle. The inboard ends are capped with winchlike drums. A heavy continuous messenger was passed over and around one drum, around a vertical roller mounted immediately abaft the stem, under and around the opposite drum, then around the anchor capstan located between the hatches just aft of the chain bilge pumps. A second continuous line, evidently of lesser diameter, was passed around the outer ends of the installed capstan bars and through two single sheave blocks located in the vicinity of the port and starboard bridle ports. Two groups of seamen hauled on opposite sections of this messenger to provide power to the paddle wheels. The difference in diameters of the installed capstan bars and the capstan drum gave a mechanical advantage of about six to one.
The first test, during mid April, failed because the paddles were too short and they couldn’t “take proper hold of the water.” Following modifications, successful tests were made in Boston Harbor on 23 April, when the ship, tethered to an anchor by “two hawser lengths” as a precaution, was propelled at a stately three knots. The paddles revolved five times a minute on a circle of 23 1/2 feet diameter and the effect was such as to move the ship against a strong wind and tide.” Old Ironsides with paddle wheels – what a sight!
Two test runs were made, and then the “propello marino” was dismounted. In the month to follow, Doxey received encouraging letters from many witnessing officers, including Master Commandant William B. Shubrick, Lieutenants Foxhall A. Parker, Samuel L. Breeze, John Percival, David Geisinger, and Uriah P. Levy, and Midshipman Samuel F. Dupont.
Doxey forwarded these letters to Commodore John Rodgers of the Navy Board of Commissioners. Doxey’s own letter said:
“Permit me to tender to you my warmest thanks for the interest your honourable board have taken…by giveing [sic] my Propellor a trial on board the…Constitution…being the first that has ever been tryed [sic] on so large a vessel, it must be naturally expected to have some defects, which…I am in a fair way to remedy… And under the generous patronage of your Honourable board I hope to improve the propellor so as to get…at least five knots, with much ease… [S]hould your honourable boddy [sic] think it expedient to make the improvements sug[g]ested…it will give me great pleasure to attend to them…”
The Constitution’s captain, Jacob Jones, apparently had declined to endorse Doxey’s effort and was directed to take the “propello marino” with him to the Mediterranean. Jones, upon arrival at Port Mahon, Minorca, in June 1821, off loaded the rig into the Navy’s warehouse there. It gathered dust until Jones back loaded it in the spring of 1824 for the voyage home.
The rest is silence.
[First published in U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, August 1982. One illustration. Reprinted in Naval History, July/August 1997 and in a separate booklet, USS Constitution: “Old Ironsides.”]