Popular Science Monthly/Volume 64/December 1903/Rear-Admiral G W Melville USN and Applied Science in Construction of the New Fleet

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PSM V64 D186 George Wallace Melville.png

George Wallace


By the late Professor R. H. THURSTON.

AS remarked by the editor of The Nation, the retirement of Rear-Admiral George W. Melville merits more attention than it has received. The final withdrawal of the engineer in chief of the United States Navy is an event of importance, not only as affecting the efficiency of the naval service, the value of its fleet and the usefulness of its personnel, but also, in hardly less degree, as liable to influence the progress of applied science in that essential branch of the public service. The retiring officer has held his position, despite all political changes, for the extraordinary period of sixteen years. His fourth term expired on August 8 and, although his retiring age was attained in January, he was, under a provision of the law allowing the President that option, retained and permitted to serve out his term.

It has been during the term of service of Admiral Melville that the 'new navy' has been created and all the modern scientific methods and all the resources of the applied sciences have been availed of in its construction and operation. In this work of application of modern learning, conspiring with recent invention, Melville has been responsible for the most extensive and vitally essential innovations, those of the department of machinery of propulsion. That his administration has been attended with the highest success is sufficiently evidenced by his long retention in his office and by the unanimous agreement of our own and foreign naval experts in a high rating of our fleet. The comments of the past summer upon the occasion of the visit of the Kearsarge to European waters, the earlier verdict on the performance of our fleet during the Spanish-American war and particularly on the Oregon and her work, are illustrations of the opinions of foreign as well as of our own experts. For the whole mass of machinery with which these ships are laden, and for their performance under steam, the Chief of the Bureau of Steam Engineering of the Navy Department is ultimately responsible. Melville has carried this responsibility for sixteen years and retires with honor and appreciation by all who have officially dealt with him or who have been professionally familiar with his work. The transformation which he has witnessed and in which he has taken so large a part is only comparable to that of the original introduction of steam into the navy, and the only comparable career is that of Engineer-in-Chief Isherwood, who was similarly responsible for the efficiency and reliability of the fleet of 1861-5 and later. But, while the latter has great interest for all as an element of the success of the government in suppressing the southern confederacy, the former is more impressive in its illustration of the application of modern science to the revolutionizing of the construction of the fleet.

The career of Admiral Melville has thus been one of peculiar interest, and I am glad to be able to review it from the standpoint of the contemporary and professional colleague, of one who entered the navy in 1861 in the same class and, with commissions of similar date, served for many years in the same corps, and later, professionally, in civil life in such capacities as permitted constant touch with the 'chief.'[1]

Melville's services to science as an arctic explorer antedated his appointment as chief of bureau. He was appointed 'chief by Mr. Whitney, secretary of the navy, on August 8, 1887, and served sixteen years, the longest period of service on record for a chief of bureau. He immediately took up his task of preparing plans for the machinery of the 'new navy,' gathering about him the ablest available members of his corps. The department had meantime bought plans from foreign builders for the Baltimore, Charleston and Texas; but the work of the new bureau-chief and his corps made it quite unnecessary to experiment in that direction further. The existing fleet is, as a whole, the production of the engineers and naval architects and ordnance officers of our own Navy Department; the whole system of steam propulsion and its accessories being designed under the direction and supervision of the hero of the Lena Delta.

Among other innovations and improvements was the installation of the previously almost untried marine water-tube boiler of the general type long familiar on land. John Stevens, a century ago, asserted that the proper construction of a steam-boiler, on the score of safety, was that which divides the steam and water spaces into many small chambers, in such manner that the rupture of any one should be in minimum degree dangerous.[2] He invented a water-tube boiler and used it in a screw steamboat, 1804. The famous British engineer, Fairbairn, asserted the principle: A steam-boiler should be so constructed as not to be liable to explosion.[3] The modern water-tube boiler of good design combines the principle that a steam-boiler should not be liable to disruptive explosion with that which asserts that, if rupture does occur, it shall be in minimum degree dangerous. It was asserted by the writer, a generation ago, that this class must ultimately displace the older forms of 'shell-boiler' which are liable to destructive explosion.[4] In fact, the list of boiler explosions, with their attendant loss of life and property, is a list of failures of the shell-boiler. Admiral Melville brought this 'new' boiler into permanent employment a hundred years after Stevens and made its value and necessity evident. The battle-ship or cruiser of to-day could not be constructed of equal speed, and equal efficiency of armor and armament, without it, and all navies are now adopting it. It gives a minimized weight and space for the unit of power, is safe against the disastrous explosions characterizing so frequently the termination of the work of the shell-boiler, and it is economical. It may be employed for pressures of any degree of intensity.[5] The battle-ship of to-day could not attain its actual effectiveness without its employment, at least as a battery for high speeds. At cruising speeds, the older boiler is often retained; the later type being brought into operation when driving the ship up to emergency speed. The water-tube boiler requires more skill in handling than the fire-tube.

Melville introduced the triple-screw system for large ships, in which it was becoming difficult to secure safe construction of the enormous propeller-shafts demanded, and where it seemed to him desirable to secure a better hold upon the water by enlarging the area of the current utilized in propulsion. The success of the Columbia and the Minneapolis, fast cruisers, was complete, breaking the record for naval craft of large size and exceeding by a knot the speed anticipated even by their designer. He introduced the 'repair-ship,' a floating machine-shop, and the 'distilling ship,' in the war with Spain, as adjuncts to the fleet, innovations, both, of great value, often of vital importance.

In the details of his work, the chief of bureau has always exhibited the most thorough familiarity with its scientific side, and his plans have always involved the employment of every expedient known to science for promotion of efficiency. He has advocated increased thermodynamic range, higher ratios of expansion and greater piston-speeds for his engines, to give increased thermodynamic efficiency; has made effective provision against those extra-thermodynamic wastes which constitute the most serious tax upon heat utilization and has adopted every sound system of improvement known to modern science as bearing upon his work.

One of his most important movements was that in promotion of the merging of the old engineer corps of the navy into the line. The battle-ship has long been recognized as what the writer has called the 'Engineer's War-Engine'[6] simply an engine devised for destructive rather than productive purposes in contest with others of its kind, and demanding maximum possible offensive and defensive power. The naval officer, whether he will or no, must therefore be an engineer, actually, if not nominally, and whether on deck at the guns or below at the source of power. The design, the construction and the operation of this now complicated and powerful and enormously costly machine are alike tasks in engineering, and whether the mind which produces its part of the work is that of the mechanical and electrical engineer, the naval architect or the ordnance deck-officer. This fact became officially recognized when the famous 'Personnel Bill' was enacted, at the suggestion of a board on which Admiral Evans and the then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt were strongly influential in supporting the view held by Melville. This radical change was effected and we are still awaiting the outcome.

The education of engineers at the U. S. Naval Academy, commenced nearly forty years ago, is now become an essential feature of the course for all its pupils. The 'fighting officers' of the navy have now all necessarily become engineers, and the future of that service will largely depend upon whether our ships are manned and officered by amateurs or by experts of knowledge, experience, courage and judgment. At present, the number of officers in the latter class is far too small; but this defect should remedy itself promptly. The new Naval Academy is the most complete and perfect institution of its class, perhaps of any class in the educational world, which has ever been seen or conceived; we are sending there for technical and general training as fine a body of young men as can anywhere be found, and the future history of our steam navy is likely to do no discredit to its past, either in the days of Paul Jones or in those of Farragut.

The successor of Admiral Melville is Rear-Admiral Charles W. Rae, a graduate of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an alumnus of the Naval Academy, where he graduated with the first class in engineering organized at that institution.[7] An officer of great ability and of high distinction, he is well fitted to continue a progress based upon modern science as well as upon advanced professional practise, and which was so admirably illustrated during Melville's period of service. The naval service has come to be perhaps the most impressive and extensive field of application of science of modern times.

  1. See Cassier's Magazine, September, 1903, for an admirable and detailed account of the work of this distinguished officer, by his former assistant, Mr. W. M. McFarland, formerly chief engineer, U. S. N.
  2. 'History of the Growth of the Steam Engine.'
  3. 'Manual of the Steam-Boiler,' R. H. T.
  4. 'Report to American Institute,' 1871, Ibidem.
  5. Water-tube boilers have been built to sustain from one to two thousand pounds on the square inch. The boiler of a quadruple-expansion experimental engine constructed as 'thesis-work' in Sibley College, and the engine attached which holds the world's record for economy in its class, has been operated at above one thousand pounds.
  6. N. A. Review, December, 1897, 'The Engineer and his War-Engine.'
  7. This class of sixteen young men, coming from the colleges and technical schools of the country, was organized during the period of service of the writer at the Naval Academy and was one in which every naval officer felt peculiar interest. Its members justified every hope and expectation of the promoters of this new departure and showed admirably the value of a scientific training for their work.