Freak Ships of the Nineteenth Century III: Cigar Ships
Freak Ships of the Nineteenth Century is the title of a pamphlet written in 1966 by J. Guthrie, then an employee of the maritime classification society Lloyds Register. It was written for private circulation amongst the staff. Guthrie realised that, as the premier classification society Lloyds Register were able to produce a very good technical description of vessels, often directly from plans, reports and records of conventional ships. But this left a gap in their knowledge – ‘But what of the unorthodox ships, the rebels from tradition: those monsters and freaks of the nautical world which, throughout the whole of the 19th century attained transient fame (or notoriety) before disappearing from the scene for ever?‘. Guthrie’s pamphlet aimed to answer that question by exploring some of the most radical nautical designs of the nineteenth century.
This episode, the third of four, is on ‘Cigar Ships’, which, as Guthrie drily notes: ‘in this context refers to the shape of the vessel, not her cargo, and this group of steamers represents the railwayman’s approach to naval architecture’ as they were conceived by the Winans brothers who came from a family of brilliant and wealthy railroad engineers. Their first cigar vessel was built at Baltimore in 1858.
To get a modern historian’s perspective on these extraordinary ships Dr Sam Willis with Stephen McLoughlin, a naval historian of immense knowledge of the period and the many maritime innovations it produced.
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From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis, and this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror podcast. Today is episode three of our mini-series called freak ships of the 19th century. You will have learned from part one that this series is based on a fabulous little pamphlet that was written in 1966 by a chap called Jay Guthrie, who worked for Lloyd’s Register and created this booklet, as it says on the title page, for private circulation amongst the staff only. It presents what it describes as unorthodox ships, rebels from tradition, and freaks of the nautical world which throughout the whole of the 19th century attained transient fame or notoriety before disappearing from the scene forever. Episode One was on Monitors, episode two was on Circular ships and today we are looking at Cigar ships. Let’s start as always by hearing a little about what Mr. Guthrie has to say about these vessels in his pamphlet.
The cigar in this context refers to the shape of the vessel, not her cargo. And this group of steamers represents the railway man’s approach to naval architecture. The Winans brothers came from a family of brilliant and wealthy railroad engineers in the USA, and their first cigar vessel was built at Baltimore in 1858. The hull two hundred and 35 foot long by 16 foot in diameter, was shaped like a spindle, and was in fact two paraboloids fitted base to base with a short space between them. They were connected by a circular steel shroud 25 feet in diameter by 10 to 12 feet long, and a transverse annular propeller was fitted in this space, working inside the shroud. The propeller consisted of a drum roughly the same diameter as the hull with a series of veins or blades and could be compared with a modern turbine wheel working inside its casing. This design was not successful as difficulty was experienced in maintaining water tightness at the propeller bearings. Also, the two sections of hull tended to work about their connections to the shroud ring, and a neater arrangement was contemplated. The second cigar vessel was built in 1865 in St.Petersburg, Russia, and was quite small, 70 foot long, nine foot diameter and fitted with an old portable engine. This vessel did nine knots, but as the propeller was of the orthodox pattern and stuck out below the hull outline, it was too vulnerable in shallow water. The third vessel, the Walter S Winans was built at Le Havre by Nilus and Son in late 1865. She was 72 foot long by nine foot diameter of 33 tonnes burden and had several shafts protruding from the hull at both ends. Any shaft could be fitted with a propeller at will, and this unusual shafting assembly, driven by a 25 nominal horsepower engine was used to determine the optimum number of propellers for this type. The fourth, and I believe last, of the cigar ships was Ross Winans. The Ross Winans was launched in February 1866 at the Isle of Dogs yard on the Thames. She was 265 foot long by 16 foot diameter, displaced 500 tons and was fitted with a rudder and propeller at each end. Bearing in mind that the Ross Winans was built 100 years ago, most of the ideas incorporated in the design are extraordinarily modern.
Now to get a modern historian’s perspective on these extraordinary ships, I spoke once again with Stephen McLoughlin, a man of immense knowledge of the period and the many maritime innovations that it produced. As ever, I hope you enjoy listening to him as much as I enjoyed talking with him, so here is the excellent Steve. Cigar ships, Oh, yes, these are fantastic, right? So I just came across this wonderful description of them. Of course, this discussion is based on this 19th century document on freak ships And I really love the introduction there to the chapter on cigar ships where it felt it was sufficiently important to say this cigar in this context refers to the shape of the vessel, not her cargo. Imagine a Victorian is sitting in a Victorian study, smoking jacket on, and maybe smoking a cigar on the go, reading that and going really, the shape not the cargo. Wonderful. So tell me about these cigar ships. What’s going on here?
Well, they were invented by basically a family, the Winans of Baltimore, Maryland. They were railroad engineers. And I have to say that as naval architects, they were very good railroad engineers. One of the sons, and there’s a Russian connection here, so I’ve got to go on about that for a moment, one of the sons, William Winans went to Russia to manage a factory there. At the time, Russia was interested in importing expertise from around the world, so he was managing a factory near the St. Petersburg area and had connections with the Russian Navy. And at the time the Russians were interested in studying or finding out ways to armour ships. And one of the ways was to have a low lying ship in the water with curved upper works, so that shells would be deflected rather than striking directly. So Winans came up with this idea of a sort of curved low lying ship. Well, apparently he communicated that idea to his father, who was back in Maryland. And his father said, hey, I’m going to build me a cigar shaped ship, I’m sure he didn’t literally have that thought but that was his basic idea, that the ship with square spindle shape would have a lot of advantages. First of all it would run through the waves rather than having to crest over them, and it wouldn’t have superstructures and a vertical hull that the waves could impart a roll to, and so it would be much more seaworthy, sea kindly is, I think, one of the expressions that was used frequently about them at the time. So that you’d have this sort of radical advance in the shape of ships that would just have all these wonderful advantages. So he built the first of these ships, which, as far as I know never had a name beyond the cigar boat. He built it in Maryland, it was quite a sensation at the time of course. He built it in 1858.
So before the Civil War, I think
It actually it is, yes.
Well, I suppose 19th century historians are used to seeing all of the crazy stuff that follows in the Civil War, where they do start building really unusual ships. But that’s why I love this, it’s the period before, he’s demonstrating what you can get up to if you just apply yourself.
Yes, so he built this thing on his own with his own money, they were quite well off. And it steamed around the Baltimore area, got written up in a lot of newspapers and took people out on excursions. And there was even talk of having it go to New York to greet the Great Eastern when she came to New York. But that didn’t come off, perhaps because there were some problems with the original ship. He’d developed a sort of annular propeller around the middle of the ship and so the ship was divided in two by this propeller in the middle. And the two parts had a lot of stresses and strains, as they worked in the sea. And there’s actually letters from his son, William, still in St. Petersburg in Russia, saying, don’t take this thing to sea dad, it’s just not there yet. So the ship didn’t go to sea, but it sat around in Baltimore harbour for many, many years. But the idea didn’t die, it was postponed by the Civil War. The senior Winans had been a southern sympathiser, so he was briefly arrested during the Civil War and things like that. But after the Civil War, when things returned to a more normal level, his sons took up the baton, because the father was ageing and didn’t have the energy to deal with this stuff anymore. So William took over and built ships, one at Le Havre and one in Russia, actually at least two in Russia. And both of them as far as I can tell from the limited material available made a few voyages around the harbour. The ship that was built in Le Havre eventually came over to Britain, crossed the Channel. They were built more or less as yachts and as show pieces, demonstration ships. And the final iteration was the Ross Winans, which was the largest. She was built on the Thames in 1866. And she was fairly large, about 250 to 260 feet long and was basically a yacht for the Winans family. And this was kind of a dead end at the time, I mean the ship sailed around a little bit, underwent trials on the Solent and things like that, but never really went to sea. So you have a vessel that in spite of a lot of press publicity never really caught the attention of naval architect I think, the way that some others had. So it didn’t really ever have a follow on.
No, but I suppose it’s interesting that it was built in more than one country as opposed to the circular ships, which were just in Russia. I also enjoyed reading about it, having the hull subdivided into watertight compartments, which seems to be a pretty dramatic advance on what had happened before.
Oh, I mean they’ve been building ships with watertight compartments for quite a while, iron shipbuilding you know, unlike a wooden ship an iron ship doesn’t float. So if it gets one hole, you’re in trouble. So, you know, you had to have watertight compartments, but but they actually incorporated a lot of quite interesting technology in the ship. There was very forward thinking with watertight bulkheads and some of the other features. They had propellers at each end that were connected to a single shaft so that you could have a pusher puller thing, they were certainly very innovative. And I think the piece we’ve been talking about, the Lloyd’s piece does mention, they get full marks for innovation. So they were interesting ships
I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near, it looks like a giant version of The Hunley and we all know what happened to that. But I would really have enjoyed going on the circular ones I think, and cruising up towards the Danube, what about you? Which one would you have preferred to go on?
I would certainly have preferred to go on the circular ships. I think there’s a little more confidence there in what’s going to work and what’s not.
Yes, but therefore all the more admiration for Winans for building it, building something, which looks so fantastic. I suppose it’s not surprising that some say that his cigar ships inspired Jules Verne and the Nautilus in 20,000 leagues under the sea.
And certainly you’re looking at a modern submarine, and it’s not that much different a hull form, a lot of the same principles are there. So it wasn’t a waste of time because all of these things, it’s a technology demonstrator. And it just took a long time for the technology to catch up with the demonstration.
It’s very true. Well Stephen, thank you so much for sharing with me these wonderful ships today.
Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thank you very much for having me.
Many thanks for listening. Now, there is just one episode left in our freak ships of the 19th century mini-series, and we’re going to be looking at a unique vessel named the Cleopatra that was designed and built to bring Cleopatra’s Needle, yes, that ancient Egyptian obelisk on the banks of the Thames, all the way back from Alexandria to London. So extraordinary is the story that to accompany it we have made a fantastic animation that will be on our Mariners Mirror podcast YouTube page showing exactly how they managed to do it. Don’t forget that this podcast was brought to you as ever from both the Society for Nautical Research and Lloyd’s Register Foundation. So please check out what both of these amazing institutions are up to. You can find the Society for Nautical Research@snr.org.uk where you can join, and you can find the history and education centre of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation at LR foundation.org.uk Please follow us on social media, please leave a review on iTunes. If you leave a five star review I promise I’ll read it out. And please please check out our wonderful YouTube channel that’s the Mariners Mirror podcast on YouTube.
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