Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 148,369 pages of information and 233,846 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

USS Princeton

From Graces Guide

Jump to: navigation, search

The first USS Princeton was a sail and steam warship with screw propulsion.


Captain Robert F. Stockton (US Navy) had overall responsibility for design and supervision of construction. John Ericsson was heavily involved in the design and construction, particularly in connection with the propulsion system and the heavy armament. Views vary on the sharing of credit and blame.

Launched on September 5, 1843.

Princeton was said to be the first screw-driven ship to have its engine mounted entirely below the waterline for protection from gunfire. Her two 'vibrating lever' engines, designed by Ericsson, were built by Merrick & Towne.

See Wikipedia entry.

A survey in 1849 showed that the hull, of unseasoned white oak, was too decayed too justify repair, and she was broken up.[1]


Twelve 42-pound carronades were mounted within the ship's iron hull.

It was also originally intended to mount one long, larger gun. A smooth bore muzzle loader was ordered from the Mersey Steel and Iron Co, made of wrought iron, rather than cast iron or bronze, and was designed to fire a 225-pound 12-inch shot 5 miles. During proof and test firing, a crack developed in the area of the chamber. Wrought iron reinforcing sleeves were shrunk on over the breech. It was then proofed again and fired numerous times without further incident.

Stockton wanted his ship to carry two long guns, so an additonal gun was ordered, the "Peacemaker", another 12-inch muzzle loader, which was made in New York. Although it was of heavier construction, it did not have the benefit of the shrunk-on hoop construction used on the original gun. The shrunk-on hoops pre-compressed the inner barrel, thereby reducing the maximum tensile stress experienced on firing.

On 28 February 1844 President Tyler and numerous guests joined Princeton for a cruise. Captain Stockton fired the larger of her two long guns, Peacemaker, to impress his guests. When he fired the third or fourth shot, the gun burst. Several people were killed instantly, and another 16 to 20 visitors and crew were injured.

Many popular accounts place Ericsson in the role of hero, and Stockton as the villain in the matter of the guns, stating or implying that Ericsson designed the first gun and Stockton designed the failed 'Peacemaker'. However, Pearson, in 1966 reviewed the incident, and found that Ericsson had been involved with the gun that failed catastrophically[2]. Ericsson and Ogden had watched the boring of the 'Peacemaker' and examined the shavings. The owners of the Phoenix Foundry (Hogg and Delamater) signed an affidavit stating that Ericsson had 'furnished and executed' drawings of the American twelve-inch wrought iron gun, and that boring and finishing were 'under the personal superintendence and instructions of Captain John Ericsson'. Others testified that Ericsson had examined the gun after proof shots were fired.

A court of inquiry followed the explosion, and quickly found that 'every precaution skill could devise had been taken'. Pearson noted that President Tyler then insured Stockton's future by ordering that another gun of the same size as the failed one be ordered and made under the direction of Captain Stockton.

Pearson's Paper includes interesting information revealed by an investigation by the Franklin Institute into technical aspects of the failure, instigated by Stockton. In short, the method of building up the heavy gun barrel by fire-welding was inappropriate. The prolonged period while the material required to be held at welding heat led to excessive grain growth and to the accumulation of impurities at grain boundaries. The problem could have been mitigated by working the material under the hammer, but the company readily admitted that their hammer was too small to work such a mass. [3]

Four large gun barrels were eventually made for Princeton:
The first was forged by the Mersey Steel and Iron Co.
The second, the ill-fated 'Peacemaker', was made to a different design by Messrs Ward's Hammersley Forge in New York.
The third was a replacement for the above, made by Fawcett, Preston and Co with forgings by the Mersey Steel and Iron Co. This was never in service, and is preserved at Washington Navy Yard.
A fourth gun was made of cast iron in the United States, but blew up after firing a few trial rounds.[4]

Some confusion surrounds the design of the three wrought iron guns. Some sources state that the first Mersey gun was of 'built-up construction, made with iron hoops shrunk on to pre-stress the barrel at the breech end. However, another source, apparently authoritive, describes the three guns as 'Stockton Guns' and provides a single illustration applicable to them all.[5] This shows a single piece forging plus a shrunk-on trunnion ring. It states that after considerable if cracked 'through the reinforce', but was hooped and fired afterwards without injury. The failed 'Peacemaker' was a monobloc forging. The third gun, made by the Mersey Steel & Iron Co in 1845 (see below), was 'a copy, in shape,' of the Stockton gun.

A possible interpretation is that the first Mersey gun was supplied solid, and was only hooped (by Ericsson) after test firing; and that Stockton had the second gun made with an enlarged breech diameter, without appreciating that simply adding more metal did not offer the same benefit as Ericsson's shrunk-on hoops; that the second Mersey gun was simply a copy, dimensionally at least, of the 'Peacemaker'. If so, little wonder that it was retired.

The interpretation is supported by statements in Church's biography of Ericsson. Although he was not an unbiased recorder, there is no reason to doubt his statement that following the observation of cracks on the first Mersey gun, Ericsson shrunk on hoops 3.5" thick, in two tiers, offset to break joint. [6].

This drawing shows a 12-inch wrought iron gun "Planned by J. Ericsson. Tested at Sandy Hook, 1842". 'This gun looks very much like John Ericsson's "Oregon" gun, after reinforcement. The "Oregon" was tested at Sandy Hook following completion of that work in 1842. It is now located at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland.' [7]. It does indeed appear to be the first Mersey gun, as modified. The drawing shows the shrunk-on rings: there is one immediately forward of the shrunk-on trunnion, of approximately 2" square section (by scaling up on the drawing). Behind the trunnion is a series of seven(?) rings approximately 1.6" thick and extending about 41" to near the end of the barrel. Another layer of rings of similar thickness is shrunk onto the first layer, and covers a length of about 30".

Press Reports

1843 'The Largest Wrought Iron Gun in the World. — For the last two weeks L. B. Ward and Co. have been hammering out, at the Hammersley forge, at the foot of Fifty-ninth-street, North River, the largest gun, as it is said, that we have any record of. It is 14 feet long, three feet in diameter at the breach, and weighs 30,000 lbs. or 15 tons. It is made for government, and will be placed on board the Princeton steamer, Capt. Stockton, now at Philadelphia. This extraordinary gun is hammered out with a hammer weighing 15,000 lbs. The process of heating and hammering such an immense shaft is wonderful. The machinery for placing the gun in the furnace, of putting it on the anvil, of turning, cutting, and hammering, are so complete, that it is moved with a precision and facility truly astonishing. Cast-iron guns of this size, and larger, are frequently made, but no attempt, we believe, has ever before been made to make a gun of this size from wrought iron. It is calculated that the strength and power of this piece, when finished, will carry ball of one-third greater weight, and one-fourth increased distance, than the best cast-iron guns.— New York paper.'[8]

1845 'LARGE CANNON.- An immense cannon, intended for the American navy, is just being finished at the foundry of Messrs. Fawcett and Co., in this town. It is of malleable iron, of a superior quality, manufactured for the the purpose at the Mersey Iron works. The weight of metal previously to being bored was upwards of eleven tons, and the gun will be about eight tons when finished. The length is l3 feet, and bore 12 inches; outside diameter of the widest part 27 1/2 inches, the iron varying in thickness from 3 1/2 inches at the mouth to 7 3/4 inches at the opposite extremity. The exterior is beautifully finished, bearing a polish similar to engine work, which has cost considerable time and labour. This ponderous piece of ordnance will, on its completion, be placed on board the American frigate Princeton, which is expected here shortly to receive it, and mounted on the same carriage which supported the huge cannon that burst some time back, when several persons lost their lives. It is the largest ever made in this country, and will rank as one amongst many in other efforts of mechanical skill and ingenuity in iron work, which have emanated from Messrs. Fawcett and Co.'s establishmment. Before its delivery, the gun will be tested with a double charge of gunpowder, (45lbs.) and two balls, made for the purpose.'[9]

Propulsion Plant

Ericsson designed the engine to have low height, keeping it below the waterline. 'vibrating lever' or 'half trunk' engine. The design was very unusual, having two semi-cylinders with rectangular pistons pivoted at one edge and oscillating through ~90 degrees. To minimise length and to avoid having two crankshafts, he adopted the 'vibrating lever' or 'bell crank' arrangement. The design may have been inspired by the vibrating engine patented by Elijah Galloway in 1829. Excellent animation here.

The boiler furnaces had forced draught and burned anthracite, in order to minimise smoke and hence reduce the chance of early detection.

The original Ericsson propeller was replaced by a Stevens (of Hoboken) propeller in March 1845 [10]

Some years after she was broken up, Princeton's performance was thoroughly reviewed by B. F. Isherwood, Chief Engineer of the US Navy. He noted the vessel's impressive speed on trials, and the clear advantages of having steam power to augment steam, but he was highly critical of the boilers[11]. 'Both sets of boilers were utterly inadequate to supply the engines with the steam of proper pressure they could work off .... The most violent forcing with the fan blast could not effect a reasonable approach to this. ... Much smaller engines could have worked off all the steam the boilers could supply...'

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. [1] The Artizan, Sept 1853, p.212
  2. [2] The "Princeton" and the "Peacemaker": A Study in Nineteenth-Century Naval Research and Development Procedures. Author: Lee M. Pearson. Source: Technology and Culture, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring, 1966), pp. 163-183. Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press on behalf of the Society for the History of Technology
  3. [3] 'A Treatise on Ordnance and Armor' by Alexander Lyman Holley, 1865, p.357 ff.
  4. [4] 'The Iron Guns of Willard Park: Washington Navy Yard' by John C. Reilly, Naval Historical Center, Washington, 1991
  5. [5] 'A Treatise on Ordnance and Armor' by Alexander Lyman Holley, 1865, pp.85-8
  6. [6] 'The Life Of John Ericsson' Volume I by William Conant Church
  7. [7] Naval Historical Center website - John Ericsson (1803-1889) - Inventions
  8. Chelmsford Chronicle - Friday 10 November 1843
  9. Liverpool Mercury, 11 April 1845
  10. [8] The Artizan, Sept 1853, p.212
  11. [9] The Artizan, Jan & Feb 1854, pp.16-17, 39-40