Dec 24

Guest Post by David F. Winkler: Two Centuries of Catamarans

Friday, December 24, 2010 12:01 AM

The Navy’s experience with catamarans goes back nearly two centuries.

It was Christmas Eve in 1813, the War of 1812 had entered its second year, and despite some notable victories on the high seas by Constitution, United States, and Essex, an increasingly effective British blockade choked off American commerce along the eastern seaboard. Robert Fulton hosted a group of distinguished civic and military leaders at his New York residence to address the challenge.

Having an established reputation as a designer and builder of vessels propelled with steam-driven paddlewheels, Fulton unveiled plans for a maneuverable floating battery that employed this new technology. In unveiling his plans, Fulton also addressed the vulnerability of exterior paddlewheels to enemy gunfire by proposing a catamaran that placed the paddlewheel between the two hulls.

The genius of the design was readily apparent to the onlookers. During periods of protracted calm off America’s port cities, such a vessel could wreak havoc upon the sail warships of His Majesty’s Navy.

The British naval threat, combined with effective lobbying, led Congress to pass a bill on 9 March 1814 authorizing construction of “one or more” of Fulton’s vessels. Responding to an inquiry from Secretary of the Navy William Jones, Fulton stated the vessel would be 138 feet in length and have an overall beam of 55 feet with two twenty foot hulls split by a fifteen foot “race.” To accomplish her mission, the vessel would carry two-dozen 32 pounder long guns.

After reviewing his budget priorities, Jones authorized the letting of contracts for the construction of Fulton’s ship on 23 May 1814. Quickly built at an East River yard owned by Adam and Noah Brown, the vessel was launched on 29 October 1814 and then taken to Fulton’s Hudson River facility for installation of the engine and guns.

Despite the war’s end in late 1814 and Fulton’s untimely death in early 1815, the Navy decided to finish the project. Through the summer and fall of 1815, the catamaran underwent builder’s trials. The Navy accepted delivery of the ship in June 1816 and immediately placed her “in ordinary” – the term used at the time for mothballs. She was placed into service just once – on 18 June 1817 – to embark President James Monroe for a short demonstration cruise. After that, she was once again laid up and eventually used as a receiving ship. Her days of service tragically ended on 4 June 1829 when a gunpowder explosion gutted the vessel and claimed 24 lives.

Having never received an official name, the vessel is listed in the American Dictionary of American Fighting Ships under the entries for “Demologos” and “Fulton.” Along such vessels as Bushnell’s Turtle, Ericsson’s Monitor, the nuclear submarine Nautilus, the Aegis cruiser Ticonderoga, and Joint Venture, Fulton’s vessel illustrates the Navy’s willingness to seek out and employ new technologies.