Today, a fleet of sunken ships. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization run,
and the people whose ingenuity created them.
It is a widely accepted but
seldom supported claim that war drives invention.
War is a time of intense action, no doubt. But
completing the process of invention takes delicate
interactions among inventors, builders, and users.
That synergy gets terribly compressed in time of
war, and strange things happen.
Historian Donald Shomette tells a story of how that
process went wrong in WW-I. He begins by showing a
low aerial photo of Mallows Bay, off the Potomac
River south of Washington, DC. There, in those
obscure marshy waters, are outlines of countless
ship hulls. Everything above water is gone, and
aquatic shrubbery grows out of the decaying wood
that defines the old hulks at the waterline.
When we entered WW-I in 1917, we had to get a
well-supplied army to France as soon as possible.
Suddenly we needed to build ten times the shipping
capacity we'd produced so far in the 20th century.
Our shipyards were tied up making warships. What to
do? We came up with an off-the-wall plan to set up
35 new shipyards to build 731 wooden ships. That
way we wouldn't get in the way of warship building.
The plan was a lot like the Liberty-ship effort of
WW-II. We selected a simple plodding design -- a
300-foot merchant ship with a 1500 HP steam engine.
It was meant to move 10 knots and carry 3500 tons.
Taking a chapter from Ford's assembly line, the
ships would to be made of precut parts and
assembled around the country. Then, in Shomette's
words, "paperwork and bureaucracy proliferated."
The first ship was launched in December. It was May
before the first sea trial. By the end of the war,
134 wooden steamships were finished, 98 delivered,
and almost 263 were still being built.
But all that spending had its own momentum. By late
1919, 264 wooden steamers were in operation. Most
had crossed the Atlantic, but they were slow and
leaky. They'd been made obsolete by the new Diesel
engines. The government finally sold the lot of
them off to the Western Marine and Salvage Company
for less than a million dollars.
The idea was to strip them of hardware, burn them
down to the waterline, haul them off to a nearby
marsh, then burn what was left. Once more it all
went wrong -- civic protests, problems with blocked
shipping lanes, and finally the Great Depression.
Western Marine went bankrupt, and the incomplete
destruction still wallows in the Mallows Bay
marshes -- a rotting forgotten embarrassment of
over 150 ships. The full technological birth
process had been circumvented, and the result was a
Now a new interest rises around those old hulks.
Archaeologists and ecologists are studying the
glorious ecosystem growing within them. That vast
sunken fleet is home to blue herons, osprey, fish,
reptiles and mollusks. No more burning or salvage.
The ghost fleet has at last found its purpose -- as
a wildlife sanctuary.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Shomette, D. G., The Ghost fleet of Mallows Bay.
American Heritage of Invention &
Technology, Winter, 1999, pp. 12-23.
A view of the Potomac River south of
Washington, DC, showing the location of Mallows Bay
(the inlet nearest the top, on the right-hand side
of the river). This is a portion of a U.S. Coast
and Geodetic Survey map provided by Carolyn
Meanley, UH Library. For a full-size image,
click on the thumbnail to the right.
An odd footnote to this story: A few months after
the Shomette article above, the Sunday, January 3,
1999, New York Times (pg. 20) came out with
a similar article by Andrew C. Revkin, "In Harbor
Mud, Ships of a Vanishing Era May Soon Be Lost
Again." Revkin tells about another graveyard for
wooden ships off Staten Island.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H.