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Technological Change and the United States Navy, 1865–1945

William M. McBride

Publication Year: 2000

Navies have always been technologically sophisticated, from the ancient world's trireme galleys and the Age of Sail's ships-of-the-line to the dreadnoughts of World War I and today's nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. Yet each large technical innovation has met with resistance and even hostility from those officers who, adhering to a familiar warrior ethos, have grown used to a certain style of fighting. In Technological Change and the United States Navy, William M. McBride examines how the navy dealt with technological change—from the end of the Civil War through the "age of the battleship"—as technology became more complex and the nation assumed a global role. Although steam engines generally made their mark in the maritime world by 1865, for example, and proved useful to the Union riverine navy during the Civil War, a backlash within the service later developed against both steam engines and the engineers who ran them. Early in the twentieth century the large dreadnought battleship at first met similar resistance from some officers, including the famous Alfred Thayer Mahan, and their industrial and political allies. During the first half of the twentieth century the battleship exercised a dominant influence on those who developed the nation's strategies and operational plans—at the same time that advances in submarines and fixed-wing aircraft complicated the picture and undermined the battleship's superiority. In any given period, argues McBride, some technologies initially threaten the navy's image of itself. Professional jealousies and insecurities, ignorance, and hidebound traditions arguably influenced the officer corps on matters of technology as much as concerns about national security, and McBride contends that this dynamic persists today. McBride also demonstrates the interplay between technological innovation and other influences on naval adaptability—international commitments, strategic concepts, government-industrial relations, and the constant influence of domestic politics. Challenging technological determinism, he uncovers the conflicting attitudes toward technology that guided naval policy between the end of the Civil War and the dawning of the nuclear age. The evolution and persistence of the "battleship navy," he argues, offer direct insight into the dominance of the aircraft-carrier paradigm after 1945 and into the twenty-first century.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology


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pp. xi-xiii

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pp. 1-7

A little over a quarter-century ago I was a naval officer newly assigned to a Pacific Fleet destroyer. During my warfare qualification I was introduced to a piece of electronic gear designated ULQ-6. One of its features was the ability to increase the radar reflection of our ship. In this “blip-enhance mode” the ULQ-6 theoretically would trick radar-guided-missiles into mistaking our tiny destroyer for a huge aircraft carrier. When I expressed surprise at such...

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1. The Postbellum Naval Profession: From Discord to Amalgamation

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pp. 8-37

During the late nineteenth century, rapidly evolving, science-based technology posed a challenge to the established values of the American naval profession. The sail-powered ship of the line, whose basic attributes had changed little in two hundred years, defined first-rate naval power in 1800. By mid-century, technological change resulted in a shift from a purely quantitative...

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2. Competing for Control: Line Officers, Engineers, and the Technological Exemplar of the Battleship Paradigm

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pp. 38-63

In 1890 Congress authorized the first technological exemplars of the new battleship-based strategic paradigm: the large-gunned, steel battleships, Indiana, Oregon, and Massachusetts. The battleship strategy was based in guerre d’escadre, the historic strategy of strong maritime powers such as Britain, in which line-of-battle ships engaged similar enemy fleets. To the chagrin of navalists, guerre...

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3. Refining the Technological Ideal: The Simsian Uproar, Engineer Bashing, and the All-Big-Gun Battleship

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pp. 64-88

Much like late medieval astronomers arguing over the significance of a new comet to the Ptolemaic universe, U.S. naval officers differed over what conclusions should be drawn from the Russo-Japanese War. The battleship paradigm, like the pre-Copernican Ptolemaic cosmogony, was intact but contained certain puzzles that required refinement, such as the size and type of battleship which...

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4. Technological Trajectory: Geostrategic Design Criteria, Turboelectric Propulsion, and Naval-Industrial Relations

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pp. 89-110

The naval profession’s strategic paradigm of guerre d’escadre governed the battleship technological paradigm and the “normal” refinement of its technological exemplar—the battleship. However, in the United States and other leading industrial powers, the new technologies used in modern dreadnoughts were most often developments of the private sector. The issue for the American...

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5. Anomalous Technologies of the Great War: Airplanes, Submarines, and the Professional Status Quo

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pp. 111-138

Unlike the turboelectric drive, advances in airplanes and submarines during the World War presented patchy, potential anomalies that threatened the battleship technological paradigm. The navy’s exploration of these technologies was in a Kuhnian “normal” sense. However, the anomalous nature of these technologies was enhanced by their use in an innovative wartime environment...

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6. Controlling Aviation after the World War: The 1924 Special Board and the Technological Ceiling for Aviation

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pp. 139-156

After the World War, the battleship’s primacy was challenged on a broad front. In Britain, the battleship was attacked vigorously for having failed to prevent, and quickly win, the war. The Royal Navy actively campaigned for a new postwar building program to maintain British capital ship superiority in the face of American construction. This was an unpopular, and expensive, proposition...

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7. Disarmament, Depression, and Politics: Technological Momentum and the Unstable Dynamics of the Hoover-Roosevelt Years

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pp. 157-181

Most U.S. naval officers during the New Era (1921–33) would have agreed with Henry Steele Commager and Richard Morris’s description of the period as one of “crisis and failure” and of the character of the Republican administrations as “pervasively negative.”1 The technological basis of the naval profession—the battleship—was threatened by aviation, international treaty, and the...

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8. War and a Shifting Technological Paradigm: Fast Task Forces and “Three-Plane” Warfare

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pp. 182-210

During the 1930s, naval aviation developed beyond the technological ceiling predicted in 1924. Yet the technological basis for an effective presumptive anomaly to challenge the dominant battleship technological paradigm did not exist until the end of the decade. The advances in naval aviation during the 1920s resulted in early elucidations of an aviation presumptive anomaly bolstered by the empirical...

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9. Castles of Steel: Technological Change and the Modern Navy

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pp. 211-241

In 1494 Charles VIII of France invaded the Italian peninsula to pursue his claim to Naples. The mobile cannon he brought quickly reduced a castle in eight hours that had previously withstood a siege of seven years.1 Charles’s actions threatened the foundation of contemporary warrior society and marked a nascent shift in the European way of war. European leaders were not about to abandon castles constructed at great cost to defend cities, towns, and strategic...


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pp. 243-318

Note on Sources

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pp. 319-324


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pp. 325-333

E-ISBN-13: 9780801872853
E-ISBN-10: 0801872855
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801898181
Print-ISBN-10: 0801898188

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 18 halftones
Publication Year: 2000

Series Title: Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology