Today, we attend the birth of the U.S. Navy. 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.
Colonial Rhode Island was a
nest of pirates. The other colonies called it
Rogues Island. It's economy was based on rum
running and shipbuilding. All that traced to French
policy in the West Indies. The West Indies grew
sugar. Molasses was a sugar by-product, and rum is
made from molasses. The French colonies provided
France with sugar, and with a place to sell French
brandy. They wouldn't let their colonies make
molasses into rum, because it would compete with
So Rhode Island bought molasses, fermented it, and
smuggled out rum. The other American colonies
soaked up the rum, not so much for liquor as for a
preservative. They used it to preserve everything
-- even meat. Rum was Rhode Island's medium of
England turned a blind eye on Rhode Island. It was
too small to bother with. She was far more worried
about Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. But
things came to a head after Rhode Island helped
them fight the French and Spanish in 1756.
Rhode Island paid dearly in lost ships. England's
thanks was a new effort to stop her molasses trade
with the French. Final- ly, Rhode Island fired the
first shots in the American Revolu- tion. In 1764
her shore batteries drove off an English ship.
England didn't react right away. The smuggling went
on. Then, in 1772, she sent another ship. Rhode
Island merchants went out in long boats and burned
it under the cover of night. Finally the English
sent a 24-gun frigate to into Providence. It really
did stop the rum trade.
So Rhode Island brought a bill to the Continental
Congress. They called for a colonial navy of
thirteen frigates. A frigate was a fast gun
platform. These were to be like English frigates
but a little bigger. They were to be armed with
either 24 or 32 guns.
The Colonies built the ships used them against the
English in the War. But our inexperience and
disorganization took a toll -- both building the
ships and using them. They weren't badly made. But
we were fighting the greatest navy in the world.
The two frigates built in Rhode Island surrendered
in 1780. Like other captured ships, the one named
Providence served out the War in English service.
That was odd because the Royal Navy already had a
frigate named Providence. The notorious Captain
Bligh took it over, just a few years later.
Thus the American Navy was born. Our history books
talk of of tea in Boston Harbor. But the Navy, and
the Revolution it self, were just as much the spawn
of an old Colonial industry -- the business of
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds