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Chapter LII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 4


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Among the most stupendous products of the iron industry of Great Britain, the most recent vessels of the war navy, with their armour and equipment of guns and machinery, hold perhaps the highest place. The first use of vessels defended by iron armour was during the Crimean War, when some iron-plated gun-vessels were built by both the French and the English Governments. The achievements of the Merrimac, the Monitor, and other armoured vessels during the American Civil War at a later period, which were watched with the greatest interest by European Powers, were generally regarded as settling the question as to the comparative merits of armoured and unarmoured ships. The French Government, with its plated frigate La Gloire, opened a new era in naval armaments. The English Government quickly followed with the Warrior, a much stronger ship. The iron plates of the Warrior were four and a half inches thick, and it was supposed she was almost invulnerable. To decide the question, a large target was constructed, representing a section of the side of the vessel amidships. On the first trial it was only slightly cracked when fired at with a 68-pounder gun; but subsequently, when a 150-pounder cannon, fired with a charge of 50 lbs. of powder, was brought to play upon it, the target was penetrated. Henceforward a battle commenced, in which artillerists were ranged on one side, and naval architects on the other. Sir William Armstrong, Sir Joseph Whitworth, Captain Fraser, and Major Palliser were among the leading representatives of the first; Mr. E. J. Reed and Captain Cowper Coles of the second. The Warrior target, whose armour plate was four and a half inches thick, having been vanquished by the guns, the iron plates were increased in thickness. In the Minotaur the armour was five and a half inches thick, but this, too, soon succumbed completely to a steel shot from a 150-pounder gun. In the Bellerophon the armour was increased to six inches, while behind the wood of the vessel there was an iron inner skin of one and a half inches thick. The Bellerophon target successfully withstood a 150-pounder gun fired at a distance of only 200 yards, the effect of the shot being only to crack and bulge it to some extent. But a larger gun was now brought to bear on it by the artillerists. This threw a shot of 300 lbs., and before this tremendous missile the target gave way. The next step was to add again to the thickness of the armour, and in the Hercules the outer plates were eight and nine inches thick. A cylindrical 300 lb. shot was fired, with 45 lbs. of powder, at the nine-inch Hercules target, from which it jumped back sixteen yards, making: only a rather deep indentation in the plate. But now the artillerists had doubled the size of their gun, and had enabled it to throw a shot of nearly 600 lbs. A missile weighing 573 lbs., with a charge of 100 lbs. of powder, was next hurled at the target. The shot, which was of cylindrical form, and seventeen inches long, buried itself in the target so far that only three or four inches of it protruded from the plate. The target was, however, so far victorious over this prodigious weapon. It was not pierced, though the inner skin was bulged, one of the ribs broken, and some rivet heads forced off. Next, however, was tried one of Major Palliser's chilled iron shot, weighing 577 lbs. It was fired with 100lbs. of powder, and, striking the target just above the previous shot, completely penetrated it, breaking one rib, bulging others, and tearing away the inner skin, the shot itself breaking up into small fragments. Armour-plating, after this, advanced again in dimensions till, at the most recent dates, it had attained a thickness of upwards of a foot. And the battle between naval architects and artillerists still rages, the question between them not yet being decided; the probability, however, being in favour of the former.

In recent years the application of the screw in place of paddle-wheels for the propulsion of steam-vessels has been rapidly gaining ground. Though paddle-wheels give a smoother motion to the vessel, they are more liable, particularly in ocean voyages, to injury than the screw. The screw-propeller - which is usually fixed in the " dead- wood," immediately in front of the sternpost of the vessel, and is turned by a shaft, running parallel to the keel, from the engine-room - is somewhat similar in construction to the common screw, the narrow thread of the latter being expanded into a broad thin plate, while the cylinder is reduced to a mere spindle. Many attempts were made to apply the principle of the screw to the propulsion of vessels in water before practical success was attained. In 1840 the performances of the Archimedes screw-steamer convinced the British Government of the value of the invention; and its obvious advantages over the paddle for war purposes have caused its adoption in all the most important vessels of the royal navy; while it possesses for ordinary purposes such advantages over the paddle, particularly for vessels intended to make long voyages, that it has been widely adopted in the merchant navy. The screw of the Great Eastern steam-ship, as already observed, is no less than twenty-four feet in diameter. Many attempts were made in the early days of steam navigation to introduce the principle of the screw-propeller, and there are numerous claimants to the honour of the invention. In a debate in the House of Commons in 1855, on the grant of 20,000 for rewarding the inventor of the screw-propeller, it was stated that no fewer than forty-four persons had sent in claims for the reward. The number, however, was, on examination, reduced to five, amongst whom the money was divided by arrangement. Mr. Pettit Smith, who shared in the reward, patented his invention in the year 1836. It was with Mr. Smith's screw that the Archimedes was fitted, whose performances induced the Government to adopt this mode of propulsion in the royal navy. Many of the most competent judges belonging to the engineering profession accorded to Mr. Smith the principal share, if not the whole, of the merit of having brought the screw into general use; as is evidenced by the fact that at a public dinner given in his honour in London, and presided over by Robert Stephenson, they presented Mr. Smith with a splendid and valuable testimonial. This was in the year 1858, at which time 174 vessels of the royal navy, including 52 line-of-battle ships, 23 frigates, 17 corvettes, 55 sloops, 8 floating batteries, and 19 troop and store ships, had already been fitted with screw-propellers.

The substitution of steam power, in place of sails and wind, for the propulsion of ships is now almost universal in the case of the war navies of the world, but in the mercantile navies it is still only partial. It has, however, been progressing rapidly in all the mercantile navies of the world, more especially of late years. Thus, in the three years between 1870 and 1873, sailing-vessels throughout the world had decreased nearly five and a half per cent, in number, and more than eleven and a half per cent, in tonnage. Steamers, on the other hand, had increased no less than twenty-four and a half per cent, in number, and nearly fifty-five per cent, in tonnage. This rapid revolution in the character of seafaring vessels is mainly due to the great intrinsic advantages possessed by steam- vessels over sailing-vessels, as shown by the fact already mentioned, that in short voyages a steamer can do four or five times as much work as a sailing-vessel.

The increase of steam-vessels, and the decrease of sailing-ships, have, as predicted by Mr. Samuda, been accelerated to some extent of late by the completion of the great undertaking by which the Waters of the Mediterranean and Red Seas have been united. The Suez Canal was projected and executed, in spite of much opposition and many difficulties, by a French engineer, M. Ferdinand de Lesseps. Before the opening of the canal, which took place in the year 1869, the voyage from Liverpool to Bombay was longer by upwards of 5,500 miles, and to Hong Kong by 3,500 miles, than it was by the new route. When vessels could reach the Eastern seas only by a voyage round the Cape, sailing-ships were more economical than steamers, on account of the excessive quantity of coal required for the voyage by the latter. But the Suez Canal shortened the voyage to the nearest ports of India by nearly one-half, and that to China by one-fourth, and thereby removed the great obstacle to their employment in the Eastern trade. Of the vessels passing through the canal, those sailing under British colours considerably outnumber those of all other nations put together.

At the point selected for the canal, the Isthmus of Suez is not more than seventy-two miles wide, measured as the crow flies. The canal itself, however, is 100 miles in length. There are numerous lagoons and lakes in the neighbourhood, separated by a distance of a few miles from each other, and advantage was taken of several of these to abridge the work of excavation. The canal passes through the lagoons of Menzaleh and Ballah. Lake Timsah and the Bitter Lakes, to the lagoon of Suez. Only thirty-seven miles of the canal were excavated from top to bottom; the rest, sixty-three miles, passing principally through the waters mentioned, which were dredged and deepened to the requisite depth. The depth of the canal is twenty-six and a quarter feet; its width at the bottom is seventy-two feet. At the water-level the width within the cutting is 198 feet, and within the embankments 328 feet. Though England was more interested in this work than any other nation, she gave it little encouragement. The influence of her Government was, in fact, used to discountenance the scheme, partly owing to political jealousies, which were - no doubt honestly, but mistakenly - shared in by Lord Palmerston, the most powerful political personage of the period. The Suez Canal, too, is one of the few great works, perhaps the only great work, in which the first of English engineers was at fault. Robert Stephenson surveyed the ground himself for a canal in 1847, but in the result he declared the scheme impracticable - an opinion which he never retracted. Over all his accumulated difficulties - political, financial, and technical - the indomitable energy and persistency of M. Lesseps triumphed. And after the completion of his great work, honours were showered upon him, not only by his own country, where he was raised to the peerage and received the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, but also by other nations, and particularly by England, which had offered the most serious opposition to his enterprise. M. Lesseps received from the Queen the rare distinction of the Grand Cross of the Star of India, and the Corporation of London presented him with the freedom of the city in a gold box.

Among the new branches of industry created by the progress of the arts and sciences in the second half of the nineteenth century, that of submarine telegraphy must be regarded as one of the most important. In the experiments and inventions which in the course of a few years have carried the art to so high a pitch of excellence, thinkers and workers of all civilised nations - more particularly Germans, Frenchmen, Americans, and Englishmen - have taken part; but the industry arising out of this new application of the electric telegraph belongs mainly to England. That Britain, surrounded on all sides by the sea, and America, cut off by vast oceans from the rest of the civilised world - that these, the two principal commercial nations of the globe, should have taken the lead in this new branch of the industrial arts was only natural; and the fact that the construction of the apparatus of ocean telegraphy, and the execution of the practical works connected with the submergence of submarine lines, and their maintenance in working order, should have fallen principally to the lot of Englishmen, is only a renewed proof that England still preserves that manufacturing supremacy for which she has long been renowned. Between the year 1850, when the first line was laid beneath the sea, and 1871, no fewer than 213 submarine and oceanic cables had been submerged in various parts of the world. The total length of these lines was 45,783g- mil's - a length not far short of twice the entire circumference of the globe. A considerable number of the earlier of these cables, owing to the necessarily experimental nature of all first attempts in a new field of industry, proved failures; but the art of their construction and submergence so rapidly arrived at a high state of perfection, that failures soon became more and more exceptional.

The services which the products of this new industry have rendered to civilisation and commerce can hardly be exaggerated. Not only are all civilised nations every day made acquainted by this new agency with each other's doings, but a great impetus has been imparted by it to commerce throughout the globe.

An analysis which was recently made of the telegrams, sent by land lines at home shows that, while the despatches of Government and those of the newspapers, having reference to politics and the money market, form but eleven per cent, of the whole, telegrams concerning private family affairs form forty-four, and those concerning commercial transactions form forty-five per cent, of the aggregate. Of the despatches forwarded by oceanic or submarine cables, on the other hand, as many as fifty-six and a half per cent., or more than half, have to do with commercial transactions; those referring to Government business, private affairs, politics, and the money market, constituting together but forty-three and a half per cent., or less than half of the whole. In an earlier chapter the enormous strides which the foreign commerce of the United Kingdom had taken, in the twenty years from 1851 to 1871, were shown from the values of the exports and imports at those dates. And this unprecedented progress there can be no doubt is in a large measure attributable to the extended facilities provided by oceanic telegraphy for the more expeditious and advantageous conclusion of commercial transactions.

The manufacture of telegraph wire has, in a few years, become an established and important branch of British industry. So insignificant was it previously to the year 1853, that the exports of it from the United Kingdom were not separately returned. In that year, however, the value of the telegraph wire exported was found to be 72,584. Just eighteen years later, in 1870, the value had attained the enormous figure of 2,522,593, or thirty- five times as much as in 1853. This sum is, however, exceptional. The average annual value, for the ten years from 1861 to 1871, was, nevertheless, approaching seven hundred thousand pounds sterling (692,269). In 1869 the value was 1,010,549, and in 1871 it was 1,523,638; and the quantity exported in 1871 was upwards of seven times as much as that exported in 1861.

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Pictures for Chapter LII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 4


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