Naval architecture in the Industrial Age

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How did naval architecture and construction keep pace with the Industrial Age? This article will discuss the relative importance of natural resources and wealth on a nation's ability to "grow" a first-class navy.

The industrial age provided the tools to change virtually every aspect of life, and naval design and construction were no exception. The wooden fleets of Nelson’s time were gone from the waters at the end of the 19th century, where steel hulls, coal-fired steam propulsion, screw propellers, and above-deck guns of huge dimension and range now ruled the seas. If the instruments of war had changed via technological developments, then new players on the field of naval warfare had arrived, as well, due to natural resources and national wealth.

Materials needed

USS Cairo Gunboat

The materials needed to build a first-rate navy shifted from the tall timbers found in America and Eastern Europe[1] and the pitch and tar produced in the Baltic region, to the metallic ores of Minnesota and the Caucasus. Also, coal rose to great demand, both to fire the iron mills and to fuel the ships' boilers. A maritime power was by necessity forced to become an imperial power in order to protect fueling stations at strategic points across the globe. Later in the 20th century, the switch to oil as a fuel would again place the United States and Russia in rich positions. These material shifts all worked against the leading naval power, Britain. Her resources were dispersed along the far reaches of the globe: India, Egypt, Borneo, and South Africa. In contrast, American and Russian resources were tapped right within the home country and transported to production centers by efficient railroads.[2] Paul Kennedy, in The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, all but writes off the great British naval tradition of supremacy because "other nations with greater resources and manpower were rapidly overhauling her previous industrial lead."[3] However, Britain wasn't merely a victim of geographically shorthanded resources. Kennedy notes that a conscious reluctance of British capitalists to invest in new industrial plant also doomed England to losing her place as titan of the seas.

Percentage of GDP

But even the strongest of nations cannot afford to bankrupt capital robustness, social harmony, and a balanced economy with over-expenditure on affairs military. Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire[4] advises a 1/100 ratio for military to all other pursuits for a healthy society. Philip Pugh, in The Cost of Seapower,[5] suggests a more reasonable estimate for peacetime expenditures for the military: 2%-6% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Pugh insists on the importance of wealth, not necessarily resources, in maintaining a strong navy. He argues that in the industrial age, the factor more central than any other in increasing the costs of building a navy is worker wages. As the industrial (and computer) age advanced, spiraling costs of technologies and resources were offset somewhat by reduced factory labor requirements. Even the ratio of sailors to the unit-cost of a vessel has steadily gone down, due to the implementation of manpower-saving equipment on board. This all illustrates the close tie between military readiness and consumer comfort.

The often-made comparison between Germany and Britain in World War Two is appropriate here. Faced with the crisis of war, Brits under the leadership of Winston Churchill were able to divert perhaps 40% of their GDP to the defense burden, thereby accepting a 30% drop in the standard of living by 1942 and nearly a 50% drop by 1943. Conversely, the German economy under Adolf Hitler was manipulated in such a way that the population was not to feel a drop in its standard of living until 1943, and then a drop of only perhaps 15%. This consumer happiness was achieved at the expense of, among other things, a lazy shipbuilding program. Thus, the Battle of the Atlantic might have been decided in large part by home-front sacrifice and vigorous application of funds to the Royal Navy.

Political influence

Navies can grow in other ways, too. The Japanese naval build-up prior to WWII can be explained in large part by the Imperial Navy's decision to "bargain" with its counterpart, the Imperial Army. Knowing that its future adversary the United States was materially and strategically more powerful than Japan, the Imperial Navy sought a composed path in foreign affairs. The Army was more aggressive, though. So, in exchange for agreement to a more hostile approach by the Army in southeast Asia, the Navy was awarded a greater allocation of resources and an augmented industrial program.[6] Likewise, personal influence in high places has often allowed a disproportionately large share of national resources to go toward beefing up a fleet. Certainly, this was the case with both the Roosevelts and with Churchill.

Impact of the information age

The information age has presented to us another transformation in naval design and construction. Both World Wars and the Falklands War have shown that ships built for the sole purpose of firing guns at long range are vulnerable: to air attack, submarine attack, missile attack, and close-in engagements with vessels encountered unexpectedly at night or in fog. An answer to this vulnerability has been an increased dependance on electronics and a host of weapons systems for varying roles of defense. The American cruiser of WWII has been replaced by modern Ticonderoga class cruisers now specializing in Anti-Air, Anti-Sub, and Ship-to-Ship Warfare carried out almost solely by missiles, torpedoes, and ship-based helicopters. The only conventional gun defenses are two 5-inchers and a "last-ditch" Phalanx system. So representative of technology's multi-role place in the modern navy, these 9,000-ton fossil-fueled[7] missile cruisers have supplanted the 58,000-ton battleships of yesterday as the navy's flagships, highlighting the fiscal advantages of a larger fleet comprised of smaller, more capable boats.


  1. ^ Forests and Sea Power: The Timber Problem of the Royal Navy, 1652-1862, Robert Greenhalgh Albion, Naval Institute Press, pages 19/488.
  2. ^ This difference between sea-based and land-based procurement has led many authors to support more fully the visions of Halford MacKinder over those ideas expressed by Alfred Thayer Mahan.
  3. ^ The Rise And Fall of British Naval Mastery, Paul Kennedy, Humanity Books, pages 185-186.
  4. ^ The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, Modern Library.
  5. ^ The Cost of Seapower, Philip Pugh, Conway Maritime Press.
  6. ^ Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search for Economic Security, 1919-1941, Michael A. Barnhart, Cornell University Press.
  7. ^ The choice of a conventional power plant for the AEGIS was an economic one. The expense of the electronic package married to a nuclear plant could not remain fiscally viable in the tight budgets of the late 1970's.

See also


economics, navies, ship building, ships


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