The principles of steam power were known for
centuries. But, it was Robert Fulton who successfully used
steam to power a commercial steamboat. After making a
number of important modifications to James Watts basic
steam engine, Fulton sailed his riverboat Clermont up the
Hudson River in 1807. Fulton helped build USS
Demologos, the Navys first warship to use steam. It was
originally intended to defend the port of New York during
the War of 1812. The USS Demologos was rechristened
the USS Fulton in Robert Fultons honor.
1815 TO THE CIVIL WAR
From 1815 to 1840, the Navy continued to expand its
sailing fleet. In fact, more than 74 ships-of-the-line were
built. In 1837 the Navy launched the 3,104-ton USS
Pennsylvania, the largest of Americas ships-of-the-line.
In 1841, the Navy launched the USS Missouri and
the USS Mississippi. These were our first ocean-going,
steam-driven capital ships. At the same time the US
Navy was building bigger ships, it was developing
steam powered ships and iron clad ships.
At the same time it was harnessing steam power for
ship propulsion, the Navy was making advances in ship
construction. The Navy began making its ships with iron
instead of wooden hulls. In 1843, the Navy launched its
first iron-hulled warshipthe paddle sloop USS
Michigan. This side-wheeler was 163 feet long and
displaced 685 tons. It was powered by a 170-horsepower,
two-cylinder, steam engine. Without using its sails, the
USS Michigan was capable of making 8 knots.
Through the efforts of farseeing men like
Commander Matthew Calbraith Perry, USN, the Navy
was becoming more steam conscious. Perry is referred
to as the Father of the Steam Navy. He was
enthusiastic about the possibilities of steam, and was in
charge of construction and in command of the Navys
second steam frigate the USS Fulton. The harnessing of
steam power was considered the most important naval
development since the cannon.
The newly built steamships posed problems if
engaged in battle. Their paddle wheels and steam
engines could be easily damaged by enemy fire. This
problem was fixed by changing the design of the ships
so that the paddle-wheel housing was enclosed behind
5-foot-thick walls and set in an inboard channelway.
Steamship development overcame problems one by
one. For example
Stronger engines were developed;
Screw propellers replaced the paddle wheel; and
Coal as a fuel was recognized as more efficient
These changes didnt happen overnight; they
required long periods of trial and error. But in the 1840s,
new ideas were being explored by their proponents. On
September 5, 1843, the Navys first successful
steamship, the USS Princeton, was launched. Its new
type of propeller eliminated the vulnerable paddle
wheels and permitted the ships engines to be placed
below decks in protected spaces.
Other actions between 1815 and the Civil War
included the following:
The Navy took the first steps in Antarctic
exploration. Notably, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes visited
the subpolar region in January 1840 and proved
conclusively that the icy land was, in fact, a continent.
Following Texas admission to the U.S. as the
28th state, Mexican troops crossed the Rio Grande. War
broke out. The Mexican-American War was primarily a
land war. However, the Navy did get involved. It
blockaded port cities in the Gulf and provided
protective action by the Mosquito Fleet" during the
first large-scale amphibious operation in U.S. military
historythe landing of some 10,000 U.S. troops at Vera
Cruz. (The Navy itself was not equipped to carry out
such an operation at that time.) Marines were also
involved in this warthey marched with Scott to
Mexico City, coining the phrase
from the halls of
in the famed Marines song.
The Navy was involved in diplomatic relations.
Commodore Matthew C. Perry signed a treaty with Japan
on March 31, 1854. This was the treaty that opened
Japans ports to American trade and provisioning of
ships. England and Russia soon followed with their own
treaties, all modeled after Perrys.