Warship Wednesday, March 22, 2023: Herr Ericsson’s Original Tin Can
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, March 22, 2023: Herr Ericsson’s Original Tin Can
Above we see the circa 1892 image of John Ericsson’s experimental war vessel, “Destroyer” testing her “submarine artillery” by the firing of an inert shell into the flooded drydock at the Brooklyn Navy Yard to be recovered later.
The Swedish-born inventor and mechanical engineer had just passed on to the great drawing board in the sky the previous March, aged 85, and is best known for the U.S. Navy’s first screw-propelled steam-frigate USS Princeton in 1843 and the Civil War-era USS Monitor— the world’s first armored ship with a rotating turret, with his penultimate warship, Destroyer, most often falling through the cracks of history.
Ericsson spent the last 12 years of his life working on Destroyer, which he envisioned would be the ideal harbor defense vessel, particularly for his beloved New York.
A compact iron-hulled beast of some 130 feet in length with a narrow 17-foot beam and the ability to float in just 11 feet of water, she carried a 70-foot “wrought iron breastwork of great strength near the bow” as a defense to allow for bow-on close-in attacks with a sort of innovative albeit not effective centerline underwater cannon. She could be built for about the cost of a small gunboat and crewed by as few as a dozen men.
The Destroyer’s “submarine gun” was a whopper.
With a 16-inch diameter bore and a 30-foot barrel that was eight feet below the waterline, it fired a 26-foot long projectile crafted of spruce and pine timbers and sheathed with thin metal. In all, it weighed 1,500 pounds of which 300 was gun cotton payload. Alternatively, a smaller, 10-foot-long projectile was designed as well.
It was thought by Ericsson that the gun could be fired at a target from some 500 feet away. To keep the projectiles on a level course, they were fitted with “hydrostatic bellows” in the center along with two horizontal rudders.
The method of the launch was originally to be via a piston that would be actuated by a steam line but this was eventually changed to a 40-pound explosive (black powder) charge. The energy produced by such a projectile at damaging speeds was estimated to be something on the order of 2,000,000 foot-pounds.
The idea was Destroyer’s hull would be ballasted down when operational to have as low a freeboard as possible, only exposing the armored plate iron deck house. Voids were to be filled with blocks of cork and inflated rubber airbags to allow for buoyancy even with a penetrated hull.
In an initial low-pressure light load test in April 1886, Ericsson himself declared that “the submarine gun has proved a perfect success” after its inert projectile ran 300 feet into a suspended net in less than three seconds, a speed of about 59 knots. “The effect produced by exploding a loaded projectile remains to be ascertained, but this trial an individual is not permitted to make, hence I now desire to hand the Destroyer over to the Government.”
Built on spec with $150,000 ($5 million in today’s dollars) coughed up by foundry owner and Ericsson friend Cornelius Henry DeLamater (who also died in 1889)– and was the guy who built the steam boilers and machinery for both USS Princeton and USS Monitor— Ericsson proposed in 1886 to sell the vessel and its patents to the Navy for “modest sum” of $220,000. Not much of a profit although there would presumably be royalties involved as well should the patents be utilized on a wide scale.
In the end, it turned out that Destroyer and her related submarine artillery still needed another $30,000 in funds from the Navy to be made ready for a firing trial after the death of both Ericsson and DeLamater. At the time, that was about the cost of a harbor tug (four were ordered that year at a cost of $35K each).
By this stage, the prototype warship and her gun were the assets of the independent Ericsson Coast Defense Company.
The thing is, other, more proven, locomotive torpedoes had already far surpassed Destroyer’s gun and the world was awash in small, steam-driven, torpedo boats that used Mr. Whitehead’s deadly and economical devices.
They had even been proven in warfare already, with the Ottoman ship Intibah sunk in 1878 by Russian torpedo boats carrying Whiteheads. Even the U.S. Navy had ordered one, USS Cushing (Torpedo Boat No. 1), from Herreshoff in Rhode Island in 1886, and the 140-foot craft was undergoing experiments by 1890 at the Naval Torpedo Station in Newport.
The E.W. Bliss Company of Brooklyn had stood up the same year, and, using Whitehead’s patents under license, had won a 100-unit contract for American-made 18-inch (diameter) torpedoes.
Meanwhile, Ericsson’s body was repatriated to his native Sweden, carried on the deck of a modern new U.S. Navy cruiser that was very much the descendant of his USS Princeton and USS Monitor.
The Government Torpedo Board then embarked on a series of experiments in the Spring and Summer of 1892 with the late Mr. Ericsson’s Destroyer. The board, who watched the trials from the vessels’ deck, consisted of Commander George Albert Converse (USNA 1861, later RADM) and lieutenants T.C. McLean and C.A. Bradbury. Each shot was triggered at the drop of CDR Converse’s handkerchief.
Initial tests were done in March in Brooklyn’s Erie Basin, with a few inert rounds fired into a net with a modest 20-pound charge of black powder.
The May-June 1892 tests at the Brooklyn Navy Yard saw Destroyer moored off the mouth of the Simpson wooden dry dock, which was flooded, and its gates locked opened. Inside the dock was a series of six 40×20-foot nets, at 100-foot intervals. The nets were made of 1/4-inch manila cordage. At each net stood a team of bluejackets who, holding an attached rope to gauge the vibration of the projectile hitting the net, stood ready with a chronograph in hand to be used to help calculate velocity through the docks.
The below images described as “circa 1890” were actually in May-June 1892.
Firing 20 inert cigar-shaped projectiles, with charges not exceeding 25-30 pounds of black powder, tests were conducted from as close as 100 feet off the dock to as far as 600 feet away, with the latter showing a lateral spread of 22 feet on average. The warheads, carrying equivalent ballast rather than guncotton, were topped with four razor-sharp net cutters. It was thought able to penetrate at least one steel mesh net, as in most tests the wooden bolts zipped through at least five of the six of the manila nets.
Muzzle velocity was estimated by the board to be around 300 feet per second, which translates to about 204 mph. At the 1,200-pound test weight, that’s kinetic energy of something like 2,097,963 ft./lbs.– remarkably close to Mr. Ericsson’s estimates.
There were some glaring failures, including projectiles that sank after they filled with water, some that nosedived just after launch, and others that decelerated rapidly and were caught in the first couple of nets, or came too fast and broached over the nets.
As noted by the New York Times, “Of the 20 shots fired, 15, at the maximum range of 600 feet, were sufficiently accurate in flight to have sunk the underwater hull of an average-sized vessel.”
The craft was taken into Naval custody, although not formally purchased, then tugged for more experiments at the Newport Naval Torpedo Station, where CDR Converse’s team would continue to keep Destroyer into late 1893. This involved testing anti-torpedo nets constructed by the Washington Gun Foundry and a series of nine live submarine gun shells fabricated by the Continental Iron Works of Brooklyn.
This came after a public outcry when “the majority of foreign warships present in the World Columbian Naval Review fleet carried torpedo nets” while no American ship was fitted with one.
Sale and overseas service
In October 1893, Flint Co. of New York City bought Destroyer from the Ericsson Coast Defense Company for resale to Brazil, where a civil war/revolution that included a naval aspect was afoot. Converse dutifully handed the vessel back to ECDC president Ericsson F. Bushnell (the son of Cornelius Scranton Bushnell of USS Monitor and Intelligent Whale fame) later that month and she was towed back to NYC by the tug Scandinavia.
Seafaring adventurer Joshua Slocum, soon after to be the first person to sail single-handedly around the world, accepted the job to take Destroyer to Brazil with a scratch crew that included a Royal Marine officer on furlough who was never without his Colt revolver and sword, a Brazilian “count” whose only redeeming quality “was a good judge of a hotel,” and a handful of other hardy souls.
Supported by the freighter Santuit, Slocum was “navigator in command” and set out on 7 December, arriving at Pernambuco on 20 January 1894, with a weeklong layover in Martinique to make repairs following a hairy incident during a storm in which the vessel was nearly lost at sea.
Destroyer never made it into much active service with the Brazilians, and Slocum, recalling in a self-published pamphlet on the trip, would say:
Concerning the last days of my worthy old ship, there is little more to say. The upland navigators at the Arsenal at Bahia, having observed the New York crew put the Destroyer in the basin and out again with dispatch, undertook, like some tropical quadrupeds, to do the “trick” themselves. Whether from pure cussedness or not this time, I can’t say, but they stove a great hole in her bottom, having grounded her on a rock, “accidentally,” they said.
Alas! for all our hardships and perils! The latest account that I heard said that the Destroyer lay undone in the basin. The tide ebbing and flowing through her broken hull–a rendezvous for eels and crawfish–and now those high and dry sailors say they had a “narrow escape.”
In handwritten notes to a copy found in 1997, Slocum would also detail:
When I returned to Brazil, later, in the Spray [the 36-foot sailboat he rounded the globe in] and inquired about a balance of wages due me from the Destroyer some $600 or more: The officer I addressed said “Captain so far as we are concerned we would give you the ship and if you care to accept it we will send an officer to show you where she is – I know very well where she was, as I have already said at the bottom of the sea.”
While Ericsson’s Destroyer was borrowed by the Navy for about 20 months in 1892-93, she was never commissioned as USS Destroyer, nor given a crew. The Navy did, however, name its second torpedo boat (TB-2), USS Ericsson, after the late inventor in 1897. Later, a Great War-era O’Brien-class torpedo boat destroyer (DD-56) and a WWII-era Gleaves-class destroyer (DD-440) would carry the same name.
Sadly, today the name of this titan of naval technology rides on an MSC-manned Kaiser-class oiler, USNS John Ericsson (T-AO-194), which has been in service since 1991. If ever a destroyer should be named for a man, it is Mr. Ericsson.
Since Ericsson’s Destroyer, the Navy has commissioned no less than 1,087 destroyer (DD/DDR/DL/DLG/DDG) series vessels and another 588 destroyer escort (DE) types spanning from USS Bainbridge, laid down on 15 August 1899, by Neafie and Levy Ship and Engine Building Company at their shipyard in Philadelphia, to the next set to come to life, the future guided-missile destroyer USS Lenah Sutcliffe Higbee (DDG 123) accepted from Ingalls shipbuilding last November.
She is scheduled to be commissioned, Saturday, May 13 in Key West Florida.
Ships are more than steel
And heart of burning coal,
For those who sail upon
That some ships have a
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