Monday, February 14, 2011

The Designers

The sloop of war Hornet is not only interesting for her own history, but also for the remarkable people that designed, built, sailed, fought and came in contact with her. Today, we start a look at the 'six degrees of separation' with a look at her designer and builder.

Before we start, I have to say there is a lot of information I have yet to collect about our two primary subjects - Josiah Fox and William Price. Despite being people you can easily Google and find information about, biographies are rare or non-existant. In other places, sources are skewed and little of the detailed information is readily available. When I get the sources I am waiting on, I'll be sure to provide an update and more detailed information.

Hornet's design is attributed to Josiah Fox (1763-1847). Fox was born in Cornwall UK and completed an apprenticeship at the Royal Navy Dockyard at Plymouth before emigrating to the United States in 1794. When the US Navy was created in that year, Secretary of War Henry Knox sought recommendations for qualified people to design its ships. Fox was recommended as draftsman by Andrew Ellicott - Surveyor General of the City of Washington DC - then under construction on a marshy patch of ground along the Potomac. Fox went on to work with Joshua Hunphries to lay down the plans for the now famous six frigates - Constellation, Constitution, President, United States, Congress and Chesapeake. Although most modern sources claim that Fox was a mere draftsman, there is a multitude of evidence - recently uncovered - that suggests he was far more involved with the design process than a mere draftsman would have been.

Appointed chief constructor at Norfolk for the Chesapeake he famously took several liberties with the design, making his the smallest of the six ships - of which three were to be larger 44-gun ships and three were to be smaller - but still large - 36 gun frigates. Fox fought with Humphries - quite publicly - and challenged his ideas about the huge frigates. Among other things, he argued that they were too long and fine in the ends, meaning they would be more succeptible to hogging and would have a tendency to bury their bows in storms at sea.

The argument was ultimately decided with the finished product. Despite some early success, Chesapeake came to be known as an 'unlucky ship' because of her infamous run-in with HMS Leopard and capture by HMS Shannon. Most books record that Chesapeake was a 'dull sailer' - she was certainly not as fast as the other frigates. But there are many sources to say that she was a fine ship - and quite fast - just not as revolutionary a design as her larger sisters. The failing here was the initial challenge. Because there was so much riding on the success or lack thereof due to the very public argument between the builders, the relative outcomes are magnified and pinned in a very personal way on the respective personalities. There is no doubt that Fox was dejected by the outcome, and felt some need to recover his public reputation.

He went on to build other very famous ships during the naval buildup of the 1790s, including frigates John Adams and Philadelphia among several others. He clearly viewed each of these an opportunity to prove that his ideas regarding ship design were correct and superior to the Humphrey's designs. Some of these ships, such as John Adams went on to fairly standard careers, while Philadelphia met her end aground and captured by Tripolitan pirates.

In the years following the initial Naval buildup, a series of cutbacks were made. President Thomas Jefferson was a huge opponent of the Navy, suggesting that a giant dry dock be built at Washington and all but a few of the Navy's ships put into it and a shed put up over it (!). Instead of a large standing naval force, he proposed to build small coastal gunboats that could be manned by militia forces when needed. Fox was immediately put to work designing gunboats, personally overseeing several designs and acting as constructor in many cases. And then, in the midst of a huge naval cutback and gunboat initiative came an anomaly - an authorization by Congress to build two 16-gun brigs - ocean going ships!
These seem to have been worked into proposals by suggesting craft to fill the need for light-draft ships for inshore work, the need for which was realized in the First Barbary War. It doesn't seem too much of a stretch that - in a period where inshore gunboats are being built wholesale - that two ships for inshore work might be shoe-horned into the budget as well.

Fox jumped straight into the initiative, laying down preliminary plans for the brigs and submitting his plans in 1804. From the large volume of surviving papers from this period, it seems he dived right in - and why not? he had been designing gunboats and trifling projects for several years when he really wanted to build blue-water ships. This was a golden opportunity. Many of the other constructors had gone back to building merchant ships and seem to have been too thoroughly occupied to bother with a pair of small ships. But not Fox.

Then the Navy department threw him a curve ball. Rather than simply allocating money to build the two ships side by side, the decision was made to have one ship built by a private yard and one by the Navy in the Washington Navy Yard. The outsourcing went to William Price, a prominent Baltimore shipbuilder famous for his swift "pilot schooner" built 'Baltimore clippers'.

As I stated in Part 1 of the ship's history, there is some debate as to who actually produced the design - no drawings have been uncovered that pre-date the contract settled with Price to build Hornet. Still, I think Mr. Footner's assertion that Fox stole credit for the design from Price is highly unlikely. While Price certainly made some changes to Fox's plans, Fox was certainly cognizant of the development of the Chesapeake Bay schooners and their characteristics. The fact that Hornet embodies quite a few of these features cannot be taken as sole evidence that Fox stole the design from someone else - and I've seen nothing about this in any contemporary material.

What is known by the facts are that Hornet came in ahead of schedule and under budget. Wasp had dramatic cost and time overruns. The discrepancy in time between the launching of both ships can hardly be attributed to the separation of eight months in the laying of their keels when they were launched 19 months apart - neither ship with a major break in construction.

Price certainly had a reputation for fast ships, and for producing quality ships for the Navy. Aside from being considered one of the foremost builders in Baltimore's Fells Point and a primary developer of the 'Baltimore clipper' schooner model, he built the schooner Experiment (1799) the brig Vixen (1803) and is believed to have been contracted to work on the frigate Constellation. The contract to build Hornet seems rather expected then, that Price should be engaged to build a fast, light-draft ocean-going brig for the Navy.

LEFT: Hornet's birthplace. Price's home and office at 910 Fell St in Baltimore is still there. His ships were built directly behind the building along the waterfront.

Assertions that Price had made mistakes in building Hornet abound - everything from placement of channels to catheads, gunports and even placement of masts. But these seem to be rather unfounded, and Fox's original specification of a brig rig for Hornet and Wasp seem to have caused many of her initial problems - the rig being too ponderous to deal with blue-water storms in the North Atlantic. Fox himself clearly saw this as a problem and changed Wasp to a ship rig before commissioning - but not before he'd already stepped her masts as a brig. Why then is Price laid with blame for this? Because he changed the mast placement by a few inches? Changed the channel heights from the original draft (another problem that Fox himself saw and changed in Wasp)? No. The answer seems more likely to be that the design was ambitious, modern, and in a degree more than Fox's other designs - and there were kinks that needed to be worked out. Critics point out that Hornet underwent major repairs at Charleston in 1807-08 and again in Washington in 1810-11. They seem to omit that Wasp herself was alongside Hornet at the Washington Navy Yard in 1810-11 - for the same type of repairs.
Ships of that type - simply put - suffered accutely from the effects of sea and weather, and most sloops of war had very short life spans, were lost at sea, or required frequent and costly repairs. Sorry, critics, but you simply can't point to Hornet and say that Price screwed her up - in fact the marvel ought to be that after her 1810-11 refit and later in her career she spent some very extended periods in service without overhaul.
Price would go on to design and build ships well into the 1820s. He seemed to have a knack for building sucessful merchant ships with the right blend of cargo capacity, seaworthiness and speed. His home and shipyard office still stands at 910 Fell St. in Baltimore. I visited the site last week and I have to say there are fewer historical neighborhoods so well preserved or where I'd like to live - if anyone wants to make a trip and marvel at the remarable preservation of this great neighborhood and the actual site of Hornet's construction let me know and I'll send you some notes (crickets.... crickets). Okay, whatever.

Fox seemed to get tangled in the complicated politics of the time and was subsequently not appointed to Navy work after 1811. He moved west, first to Wheeling WV and then to what is now Colerain OH where he bought a farm and settled down for many years before his death in 1847. I'm looking forward to reading a biography of him I just ordered from Xlibris - hopefully it will shed more light on his fascinating life and contributions.

LEFT: the only photo of Josiah Fox I've found, from his later life in Ohio.

More to follow tomorrow, when I'll outline Hornet's early Commanding Officers and the story of a murdered Midshipman.


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