Smith on Thiesen, 'Industrializing American Shipbuilding: The Transformation of Ship Design and Construction, 1820-1920'

William H. Thiesen
Joshua M. Smith

William H. Thiesen. Industrializing American Shipbuilding: The Transformation of Ship Design and Construction, 1820-1920. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006. x + 240 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-2940-5.

Reviewed by Joshua M. Smith (Department of History, United States Merchant Marine Academy) Published on H-Maritime (October, 2006)

Of Iron Ships and Iron Will

There are few images as emotive of the raw industrial power of the United States in the mid-twentieth century as the production of thousands of merchant ships during the Second World War. Yet in this volume, Bill Thiesen reminds us that the miraculous production of American merchant tonnage during that conflict emerged out of an earlier milieu, one that long emphasized craft, experience and whittled ship models over theory, mathematics, and drawn plans. Thiesen posits that the American transition in ship design and building from craft to heavy industry was a difficult and lengthy progress, and that Americans only reluctantly adopted advanced British and European ship design and construction methods.

Thiesen's background makes him an ideal candidate to write a narrative that connects maritime history to the history of technology. His graduate training in maritime history and nautical archaeology at East Carolina University and his doctoral work at the University of Delaware's Hagley Program in the History of Industrialization and Technology certainly prepared him to explore the connections between the maritime and industrial past. So, too, Thiesen's training as an apprentice shipwright and sometime mate of a schooner in Maine add deeper layers to his understanding of the struggle between tradition and theory in shipbuilding. His years at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc provided a final veneer to Thiesen's interpretation of shipbuilding in that they provided many of the photographs that illustrate this work. In effect, his background is a reflection of the argument he makes: that practical hands-on experience frequently trumps advanced theory in American society. Indeed, maritime historians such as Samuel Eliot Morison have long insisted that practical experience adds depth to their intellectual conceptualizations. This is proven in this volume, as Thiesen adheres to a high standard of scholarship even as he revels in the details of shipbuilding. Thiesen begins this book by examining the commonalities between English and colonial wooden shipbuilding. Thiesen finds that Anglo-American shipbuilding was essentially a conservative craft-based practice based on copying the hull forms of successful vessels and that little effort was wasted on experimenting with new designs. The British began to break with that tradition in the early-nineteenth century with what Thiesen dubs "scientific shipbuilding." This new paradigm, based on iron shipbuilding, involved mathematically based techniques, advanced design tools such as model ship basins and drawn plans, and an increased institutionalization of shipbuilding as evidenced by books, treatises, formal training in naval architecture, and professional societies and journals. Thiesen puts naval architects, individuals who "saw themselves as working intellectuals rather than practical mechanics," at the heart of this change.

Thiesen argues convincingly that Americans were slow to adopt both iron and the scientific model of shipbuilding. Instead they continued to develop a craft-based method largely in wood, and even when they did build in iron they continued many wooden shipbuilding practices, such as a protruding keel even if it served no purpose on an iron vessel. American cultural and empirical engineering methods frequently frustrated the few theory-touting European naval architects who came to the United States, such as the Swedes John Ericsson and John W. Nystrom.

According to Thiesen, American strategic needs in the form of a steel navy drove the American shipbuilding community to change in the 1880s. Given Britain's naval predominance in that era, American shipbuilders copied British shipbuilding methods, and gradually developed a new and uniquely American construction method and technology that brought the United States to the forefront of shipbuilding in the twentieth century. The evolution from craft to heavy industry was complete by the time the Americans entered the First World War.

Thiesen's ideas are both plausible and well defended. Using letters and documents, as well as an impressive array of technical manuals and books, he provides the reader with a solid introduction to both wooden and iron shipbuilding, and the "craft-to-industry" model provides a highly appropriate intellectual framework upon which his exhaustive research effectively builds. Furthermore, Thiesen ventures into fairly new territory for a maritime historian (too many of whom remain stuck in the age of sail), when he describes how shipyards made the transition from tradition-bound craft to engineered industrialization. Thiesen thus opens the door for other scholars to interpret other maritime aspects of the twentieth century.

Thiesen also provides interesting anecdotes of ship disasters related to their construction, such as ships that capsized on launching, why early riveters tended to lose fingers, and how electricity transformed ship construction. Only occasionally is one reminded that this monograph was based on a dissertation, as when some sentences appear repeatedly in the text, a fact that will be lost on all but the most diligent of readers. Industrializing American Shipbuilding is an important addition to the history of technology and maritime studies, and a good read for those interested in technology, tools, and engineering. Well written and argued, usefully illustrated, and attractively produced as a part of the University Press of Florida's New Perspectives on Maritime History and Underwater Archaeology series, this work is an important contribution to the understanding of our maritime past.

Printable Version:

Citation: Joshua M. Smith. Review of Thiesen, William H., Industrializing American Shipbuilding: The Transformation of Ship Design and Construction, 1820-1920. H-Maritime, H-Net Reviews. October, 2006. URL:

Copyright © 2006 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at