Oct 15

America’s Naval Technological Surprise in the War of 1812

Friday, October 15, 2010 12:13 PM



The original six frigates of the US Navy were ahead of their time in design. Though ships have changed dramatically, we still hearken to the days of USS CONSTITUTION and her five sister ships before we were a major naval power. It wasn’t possible for our fledgling nation to build a fleet which could surpass the Royal Navy’s ships of the line. So a design was required which could both outfight anything it couldn’t out sail, and out sail anything it couldn’t outfight. A Philadelphia ship designer by the name of Joshua Humphries was hired to design the new ships.

To achieve the required speed and gunnery advantage, several advances were required in the design of the Humphries’ frigates. First, was a problem of carrying a superior number of guns per displacement. When too many guns were loaded, ships’ keels could become overstressed causing a dangerous condition known as “hogging”, where the middle of the keel is slowly bent upward over time. In addition to negatively affecting the sailing characteristics of the ship, this condition could eventually make the ship unusable. 

The solution to this problem was installation of pre-stressed diagonal riders rising from the keelson to major deck beams; effectively distributing the load across the entire keel. Further assisting with the distribution of the weight of guns was lock-scarphed planking, which “hooked together” thick planks, providing significant longitudinal strength. Another innovation involved the use of live oak, which was plentiful in the Americas, in the hull. Live Oak is much denser than the White Oak, which was widely used for hull construction at that time. To further enhance hull ruggedness, the gap between framing was reduced to only two inches, compared with two to four times that for other frigates of the day.

The capability of this new class of heavy frigates came as a surprise to the Royal Navy. After the battle of USS CONSTITUTION vs. HMS JAVA, British frigates were prohibited from engaging the American heavy frigates in single combat. Instead they were required to have a numerical advantage before they were allowed to offer combat.

  • Jim Valle

    Sorry to bust your bubble guys but only three of the six original frigates were technologically advanced vessels. They were the Constitution, the United States and the President. They were the 44 gunners mounting twenty-four pounder main battery guns. The other three, designed by Josiah Fox, were orthodox eighteen pounder thirty-six gun frigates, namely the Constellation, Chesapeake and Congress. This error seems so elementary to me that I’m wondering why the Naval History Blog doesn’t do some fact checking before they post these entries.

  • CONSTELLATION was armed with 24-pdr long guns, not 18s. Whether 44s or not, all the Humphreys designed frigates were larger than their European counterparts of a given rate. All the American frigates were to have been fitted with the diagonal riders, but, in the end, only CONSTITUTION and UNITED STATES were so fitted. Of the first three built, Truxtun specifically got permission to leave them out. As for the last three, there were more important things occupying SecNav’s time than insuring the builder’s draughts were followed to the letter where PRESIDENT and CONGRESS were concerned, and CHESAPEAKE, built of leftover and spare parts, was built to a new plan by Josiah Fox.

  • seth block

    absolutely right…