The Roots of Dreadnought
HMS Dreadnought underway in 1906. Courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center.
One of the great tipping points in world history occurred around 1500 when the “full-rigged” sailing ship—armed with cannons, propelled by banks of sails, and capable of surmounting oceanic storms—arose along the Atlantic coast of Europe. This vessel superseded the oar-pulled galley, developed in the ancient Mediterranean. The galley was dangerously inadequate in the turbulent waters of the Atlantic.
The sailing ship reached its culmination in two wooden men o’ war perfected in the first half of the eighteenth century: the “ship of the line,” carrying from 64 to 100 guns on two or three decks, and the lighter, faster frigate, carrying 26 guns on a single deck.
The HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar
by J. M. W. Turner. Courtesy Library of Congress.
These ships possessed a fine balance between the weight of the guns relative to the size of the hull. Wooden sailing ships ruled the seas for three-and-a-half centuries. Some vessels were larger than country mansions, and carried crews of 400 or more men, larger than the populations of most European villages. Admiral Horatio Nelson’s flagship Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 counted hundreds of crew and measured 170 by 53 feet.
Steam-driven ships began to replace sailing ships in the nineteenth century, and the era of wooden warships came to an end on March 8, 1862, when the Confederate ironclad Virginia (formerly Merrimac) sank or grounded five Union warships at Hampton Roads, Virginia. The next day it fought the Union “cheesebox-on-a-raft” ironclad Monitor to a draw.
After the Civil War, warships combined the seagoing hull and heavy armor of Virginia with the revolving turret and massive gun of Monitor. The “mixed-battery” battleship became standard. In 1891, for example, the United States laid down three 11,700-ton, 15-knot battleships, each with two turrets of 13-inch guns, and four turrets of 8-inch guns.
March 9, 1862. The Monitor and the Merrimac battle near Hampton Roads, Va., in the first fight between ironclad ships of the Civil War in this painting from Currier & Ives. Courtesy Library of Congress.
With the development of more powerful explosives and vastly more accurate aiming methods by the turn of the century, it became clear that battleships equipped with long-range, large-caliber guns could seriously damage or sink mixed-battery warships at ranges well beyond their capacity to reply. The British Royal Navy coupled this fact with the new turbine engine to produce the Dreadnought in 1906, with 10 long-range, 12-inch guns and a speed of 21 knots. Dreadnought made all existing battleships obsolete,and set in motion a vast naval arms race that produced battleships with even bigger guns and longer range.
Editor’s Note: The supremacy of the battleship ended in the roar of planes lifting off from the decks of aircraft carriers. For more on that, see Bevin Alexander’s "Flattops Trump Battlewagons" Tipping Point article in the May 2008 issue of Armchair General magazine.