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CONSTITUTION With Paddlewheels

Have you ever noticed that when an idea catches on, everyone tries to make use of it? It happens with cars, clothes, food, music -- almost anything we take a fancy to. Constitution was involved in such a "fad" once.

Steam power first went afloat in the United States in 1789. The ways in which it subsequently was applied to propelling craft were imaginative, but paddlewheels on either side of the vessel proved to be the most efficient of the lot. Robert Fulton's paddlewheel steamer Claremont, which first stemmed the Hudson River of New York in 1807, is the best remembered of these early craft. With their low horsepower, high fuel consumption, and fragile means of propulsion, such vessels were limited to riverine operation.

In the decade following Claremont, river steamers proved themselves commercially viable and their propulsion systems became more reliable. And late in that same decade, there came in to existence "packet companies," shipping lines whose sailing ships -- "packets" -- would sail on a regular schedule of departures, no longer waiting for a full load before sailing. Such scheduled sailings were an instant hit with the business community, and it wasn't long before the packet lines like the famous "Black Ball Line" were the darlings of the shipping world. It wasn't long, either, before someone saw a possible link between packet ships and steam propulsion, for with it they might not only sail on schedule but arrive on one, as well.

The experiment was tried with the sailing packet Savannah. She was taken into a shipyard and fitted with an auxiliary steam engine. It would drive retractable paddle wheels fitted on either side of the vessel. In 1819, Savannah made her voyage into history, crossing the Atlantic from New York to Liverpool, England, in 29 1/2 days. The time wasn't exceptional (indeed, Constitution later would make it in faster time under sail alone), but she had departed using her paddlewheels and entered port the same way, having used her engine for just eighty-two hours and burned all the coal she carried. Shortcomings aside, the voyage caught the public imagination and soon others would try to improve on the idea and to find other and different ways in which to use paddlewheels to move ships. Fulton himself already had tried fitting a paddlewheel between paired hulls in a kind of warship called a "floating battery," where the hulls would protect the wheel from enemy gunfire. Others would try placing them astern, which was used with great success on rivers like the Mississippi, or try placing them horizontally beneath the hull, which didn't work out very well at all.

One person who became interested in paddlewheels was Sailing Master Briscoe S. Doxey, U. S. Navy, who was stationed at the Washington Navy Yard. He had come up with an idea to use "strap-on" paddlewheels -- man-powered paddlewheels -- to move sailing ships in to, out of, and around harbors at times when there was no wind, or when wind or tide were not right for the intended move. So enthused did he become with his idea that he wrote to Secretary of the Navy Smith Thompson about his "propello marino." In February 1821, the Secretary ordered Doxey to Boston to try out his idea on one of the ships there. It so happened that Constitution was in the latter stages of preparations for an extended deployment to the Mediterranean Sea, and she was designated as the test platform.

Sailing Master Doxey arrived at the yard early in March, where Master Builder Josiah Barker had a crew organized to work with him on the creation of his device. It required five weeks to manufacture the various parts and prepare the ship for the test.

The "propello marino" was quite a mechanism. Axles were mounted on supports about three feet high on either side of the gun deck with their outer ends projecting through the Number Six gun ports, just forward of amidships. Windlass drums were mounted on their inner ends about four feet outboard of centerline. Rollers were mounted on stanchions to guide a continuous line which ran from one drum forward to a large sheave installed on the inner face of the ship's stem below the bowsprit, then aft on the other side, around the drum on the other axle, back to the drum of the spar deck capstan, then forward again to the original drum. A second line was run across the butt ends of the bars in the capstan forward to a small sheave mounted above the starboard (right) bridle port, then across to another similarly mounted above the larboard (left) bridal port, and back again to the capstan bars. Members of the crew were to haul on this second line, which was about four feet off the deck, and provide turning power to the device. Because the diameter of the capstan bars when in place is about fourteen feet and that of the capstan drum only two, considerable mechanical advantage would be realized.

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Outside the hull, tackles from the fore and main yardarms were used to place a paddlewheel on the squared outer end of each axle. Each wheel consisted of a hub into which were pegged ten arms. The end of each arm contained a rectangular paddle blade about three by six feet in dimension. A wire or line ran around the circumference of each wheel just above the inner edges of the blades, uniting the ten arms. How long it took to move and tie down to two 6400 pound iron 24-pounder long guns that normally occupied those gun ports, and then rig the "propello marino" is not recorded, but it can't have been a speedy operation.

Doxey and Barker had the parts completed by early April and soon Constitution's crew found themselves rigging the contraption in their ship and getting themselves organized to operate it. The first test, before the middle of the month, was a failure. Somehow, the arms of the paddlewheel had been made too short, and, coupled with the fact that the paddle blade design also was faulty, the "propello marino" failed to move the ship as expected.

Doxey and Barker went back to the shop and made new arms, resulting in a diameter of 23 1/2 feet, and paddle blades. The new rig was installed on 21 April. Once installed, Constitution moved into Boston harbor off Long Wharf and anchored with a double length of hawser. On 23 April 1821, with sailors huffing and hauling on the power line rigged around the capstan, the paddlewheels revolved at five revolutions per minute and moved the ship at a rate estimated at 3 1/2 knots. Two test runs were made to insure the success was no accident. Constitution was moved back to her berth in the Navy Yard and the "propello marino" dismounted.

With the test over, Sailing Master Doxey requested written affidavits from the officers present in the ship on the occasion. Master Commandant Benjamin W. Booth commented that "I believe it will be found eminently usefull." Lieutenants Foxall A. Parker and John "Mad Jack" Percival, each of whom would command Constitution himself more than two decades later, felt the same way. Lieutenant Isaac McKeever felt the device "merits much attention." All told, Doxey was able to forward to Commodore John Rodgers, President of the Board of Naval Commissioners, who would give Secretary Thompson a recommendation as to the future of the device, thirty positive endorsements by officers who witnessed the tests. Missing from the collection was any statement from the ship's commanding officer, Captain Jacob Jones. In his covering letter, Doxey wrote, "Permit me to tender to you my warmest thanks for the interest your honourable board have giveing [sic] my Propellor a trial on board the...Constitution. ...[B]eing the first that has ever been tryed [sic] on so large a vessel, it must naturally be expected to have some defects, which...I am in a fair way to remedy... And under the generous patronage of your Honourable board I hope to improve the propellor so as to least five knots, with much ease... [S]hould your honourable boddy [sic] think it expedient to make the improvements sug[g] will give me great pleasure to attend to them..."

Further correspondence on the matter from the Board has not been found, but it is known that Doxey's "propello marino," disassembled, was stowed in the frigate's hold when she sailed for the Mediterranean on 13 May 1821. Apparently, the Board had directed Commodore Jones to give the device a "field test" during the coming three-year tour of overseas duty. If that is the case, Commodore Jones disobeyed orders, for the ship's log recorded the fact that he offloaded it into the Navy's warehouse in Port Mahon on the island of Minorca in June of 1821, almost as soon as he arrived there. The log also recorded that he loaded it back aboard in the spring of 1824 -- just prior to sailing back to the United States.

The record is silent about what became of the "propello marino" after that. No other tests of such a device are known.


Martin, Tyrone G. A Most Fortunate Ship. Revised edition. A Timonier Book. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. 1997.

________________. "Paddlewheels for 'Old Ironsides'." U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, August 1982.

________________ (with Laurence Arnot). "A Different 'Old Ironsides'." Model ShipBuilder, July/August 1989.


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RCM 25 Jan 98