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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Create & Innovate Plus Home Made Gifts & Games

article number 373
article date 08-28-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Our Need for Speed: the Yankee Clipper, 1850’s
by Roger Burlingame
   

From the 1942 book, March of the Iron Men, A Social History of Union through Invention.

§ 1

THE CLASSIC formula for economic history in the western world is agriculture-commerce-industry. This, too, is the succession in the parade of what we call civilization. We saw it in England when the Elizabethan adventurers led the way on the sea, throwing agriculture into the discard, and we see it in America in its essentials, though the rapid growth of what, by courtesy, in the early days were called the “United” States, somewhat obscures its progress.

To watch it here we must remember that the United States very quickly formed itself into three separate countries and that they have followed the formula successively.

Early in the nineteenth century we discern these three entities: the East, the South and the West. At the same time we notice that the economic situation which had existed between England and her colonies in America has been transformed bodily to the American continent.

The East now occupies England’s former position as the “mother” or dominating country and the South and West, still agricultural, have aspects which suggest colonial possessions.

The West was a natural colony: it was explored and settled by easterners just as the East had been explored and settled by Englishmen. It owed tribute to its eastern mother and felt nostalgia toward her; it was dependent on her manufactured products and on her antenna of commerce.

The East in turn, as its agriculture gradually took a subordinate place, became dependent on the West for large food staples.

The South was not a natural colony and resented the colonial aspect which agriculture forced upon it. Independently settled by Englishmen and engaged for nearly two centuries in supplying exclusive English markets and buying English industrial goods, the habit was still strong.

So when the dominant industrial states to the northeast forced the South to buy in their markets instead of from England, the South bitterly resented it and this was one of the causes of that antagonism which almost made the South a separate country in name as well as in fact.

The East did this by means of the protective tariff precisely as England had done it by her navigation acts, her duties and her restraints of trade in colonial days.

The tariff will come under our discussion later as a factor in the history of invention.

We must look, now, at a symbol of the formula which we seem to have neglected, jumping, as invention forced us to do, directly from agriculture into industry. Yet it is difficult and undesirable for the historian to stick in the rigid ruts of formulas; human behavior is so flexible and there is so much flux, mixture and overlap in events that the scheme which introduced this chapter is mainly useful as a broad guide—a statement of trends.

Men who lived in the early eighteen hundreds must have felt the mixture of industry and trade as balanced. But sea trade had, in fact, long preceded industry in the North. And, as this sea trade reached its climax in the mid-nineteenth century—at least as far as invention concerns it—this would be a right place to sketch its whole history even if we must go back long before the events of the last chapter to begin it.

   

Primarily it was Yankee. This was, as we saw, because New Englanders, having no staple crop, no farm surplus to hold up their end with England, were forced to the sea.

The middle colonies with better soil produced early surpluses. Nor did they, like New England, stand on the threshold of vast fisheries. With a stronger admixture of continental European blood, they were led, too, into industrial enterprises and some internal commerce.

Hudson’s River lured the Dutch into Indian trade. Pennsylvania and New Jersey forests and ores attracted German or Swiss artisans and Scotch-Irish frontiersmen. The South absorbed, with its staples, all the thought and energy of men who might otherwise have gone back to the sea.

The codfish began it in Massachusetts. The codfish was changed, magically, after a sea voyage into sugar, the sugar into rum, the rum into black men, the black men into more sugar and the whole process bred more ships and more marine invention. The whale followed the codfish and led the Yankees still farther afield.

Tea, that old symbol of British contention, followed the whale and tea was in Canton and the East Indies. Tea brought the Yankees back to furs with which much of American history began. The furs helped to add the remotest piece in the picture puzzle of the United States, the “Oregon Country.”

The combination of furs and tea led to smuggling operations south of Oregon and helped prepare the way for the addition of that rich golden piece, California to the puzzle. From that point on we find the United States pushing from its two sides toward the middle, squeezing out the Indians and making the great vague plains west of the Mississippi into determined, habitable land.

This sea story is one of the great romances of American history and leads us directly to a great American invention and a great American philosophical impulse: the clipper ship and the idea of speed.

§ 2

Yankee skippers and Yankee seamen were known in far ports of the world long before there was an American flag at any peak. Even in colonial times, they were recognized on the Gold Coast, in Lisbon, Barcelona, Naples, Marseilles, Ostend as a different breed from the English. They were exceptional for their youth, their neatness, boldness, and a disregard for law which, nevertheless, was offset by a personal honesty which made them trusted by foreign merchants.

Their skill in seamanship was shown in the quick effective handling of their little craft—many under a hundred tons—and the skippers, navigating these ketches and other vessels by dead reckoning without charts or chronometers through the most difficult waters, were admired everywhere.

   
Wharf, Salem Massachusetts.

The necessity for speed was early forced upon the colonial ships. Privateering began in the first war with the French which ended in 1713 and quick handling was a prime requisite for a privateer. This became a profitable enterprise in the second French war.

Meanwhile the English parliament had passed the Sugar Act and, in the wholesale smuggling which continued to the Revolution, the West Indies craft had to develop speed to escape the British revenue vessels, which multiplied and became more watchful as sterner laws were passed.

The result was that, by the time of the Revolution, there had evolved in America types of vessels which, both in model and in rig, were faster than the English.

In the Revolution privateering had a new impetus. The patriotic motive, which had not been over-strong in the last French war, was added to the profit impulse, which had always been strong. Large fortunes were made out of the prizes, and the constant harrying of British shipping in various parts of the world by the mosquito-like American privateers was vital in the final victory of the colonists.

Meanwhile speed had increased and there had been certain inventions.

The orthodox student of history must always be astonished at the facts of the American Revolution. These are especially remarkable in its naval history. England had been building frigates and ships of war since the time of the Spanish Armada. They were expertly, beautifully and solidly built of heavy seasoned oak.

In America in the 1770’s, as Arthur Clark says, the shipwrights “scarcely knew what a frigate was, and much less had thought of building one.” When they did build frigates and privateers, they followed the methods used in their other shipbuilding: these vessels “were built of material barely seasoned in the sun and wind, and were put together as lightly as possible, consistent with the strength needed to carry their batteries and to hold on to their canvas in heavy weather.”

Yet it was their very ignorance of warship building which won the victories.

This sort of thing sometimes happens in war. It happened in England in 1588, when a fleet of little nondescript English craft defeated the expertly designed Spanish Armada. It happened on land in the War of Independence when the colonial troops, ignorant of accepted military practice, invented, on the spur of the moment, a new kind of warfare. It is said to have happened in the World War when the American Expeditionary Force is supposed to have inspired terror in the German High Command not by its knowledge but by its ignorance of orthodox military principles such as camouflage and limited objectives.

Clark suggests this again in speaking of the officers commanding the ships. “The British men-of-war were commanded by naval officers who were brave, gallant gentlemen, no doubt, but whose experience at sea was limited to the routine of naval rules formulated by other gentlemen sitting round a table at Whitehall. . . .

“. . . In this respect the captains of the American Navy enjoyed a great advantage, for at this early period the United States authorities had no time to devote to the manufacture of red tape with which to bind the hands and tongues of intelligent seamen.”

But Clark, in another place, gives in two sentences a guide to the whole study of ships under sail and one which must modify considerably this subject as invention applies to it:

“A sailing ship,” he says, “is an exceedingly complex, sensitive, and capricious creation—quite as much so as most human beings. . . . Some men, of course, know more than others, yet no one has ever lived who could predict with accuracy the result of elements in design, construction and rig.”

Here, then, is a technology which has remained forever more in the realm of art than of science; which never could progress entirely beyond the trial-and-error method. Science, of course, impatient with this fact, finally eliminated the sailing ship so that we find it, today, only in occasional fisheries or in the province of sport and, even there, nearly always assisted by a predictable power motor.

As we go on, then, exploring the great days of American ocean commerce, when the sailing ship was brought to its highest and almost incredible development, we must remember the imponderables of sailing.

Design was a factor, rig was another, expertness of handling was perhaps the greatest, but no mathematical formula, no articulable laws of invention can account for the results.

Always the ship seems like a living thing with a mind of its own and with a heart which apparently felt sympathy or antipathy toward its builder, its master, its crew and its cargo. Perhaps for this reason the ship was called “she” in genderless English; perhaps, also, because of human attributes she was “baptized.”

   

§ 3

Nevertheless, there is no question that the results were aided by inventions in design, in building, in rig and in tackle and that immense ingenuity went into the making of a ship which would stand up in many weathers, accommodate adequate cargoes, handle easily in dangerous waters, preserve its bottom from corrosion and, at the same time, achieve great speed over long runs under raw, natural forces.

There were inventions, too, in handling, in discipline, in navigation, many of them American and used in every part of the world where the sailing ship endured.

Until the middle of the eighteenth century, most effort, at least in merchant ships, was toward the safe carrying of as large a cargo as possible to its destined port. Part of this requirement was the need of defence for piracy was an old tradition of the sea.

Speed was not a factor in commerce and, indeed, was very little present in the minds of the day in any connection. The result was a solid, rather tubby design with a “tumble-home” curve, broad beam and high quarter-deck. Except in America, no more sail was carried than seemed safe to a conservative mariner.

American speed in dodging and getaway came from the smallness of the vessels, the good management of the crew and the boldness of the skippers in carrying sail rather than from hull design.

But in the last half of the century war-harried France, tired of being at the mercy of Channel fleets, began to put elements of speed into hull design. The Bretons began it by increasing the length in proportion to the breadth, and setting the greatest breadth further aft, making the bow sharper. By the time of the American Revolution, France had, by Breton frigates and luggers of this type, gained the ascendancy in the Channel and was known and admired for speed everywhere along the coast of Europe.

There is controversy among the addicts of ship history—a large and angry group—as to whether the American clipper ship sprang from this French parent. Clark states this emphatically as true, Morison will go no further than to ascribe it to hearsay and Cutler denies it. Gilfillan, the philosopher of invention, whose policy is to doubt (perhaps rightly) whether any one ever invented anything, says that the clippers “introduced not one invention.”

Yet the fact seems established that these French ships were in drydock in America after 1788 and it is plausible that their design was copied by American shipwrights and used in American frigates. Whether this design influenced the later clippers or whether they were independently evolved is a question we must leave to the experts. It will probably never be solved to the satisfaction of all of them.

Meanwhile we must conclude that the clipper as a whole—and it cannot be regarded otherwise—with hull, rig and system of manning was an American device as it existed, in its entirety, nowhere else and the incontrovertible records show that it was unique in speed whatever the cause. And in the progress of the merchant marine toward it there were many inventions.

Paul Revere, whose name has been immortalized by Longfellow’s myth, made several.

It is a pity that this versatile inventor and artist is known to so many Americans only as a patriot horseman. Perhaps the value of some of his masterpieces in silver has been enhanced by the story of the midnight ride but connoisseurs understand their beauty of design and the craft of the master in making them. His other work in metals is so little known that it is, indeed, difficult to discover the secrets of his immensely ingenious processes.

We know that in 1800 he was designing and making bolts, spikes, pumps, tackle and other ship accessories. He fitted out the celebrated Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) with these things and wrote at the time that “no man but myself in the four New England States, can melt the Copper and draw it into Spikes.”

   
Old Ironsides (left/near) in Battle, 1812.

In another letter he explained that he “could make Copper so malleable as to hammer it hot. I further found that it was a Secret that lay in very few Breasts in England. I determined if possible to find the Secret and have the pleasure to say, that after a great many tryals and considerable expense I gained it.”

Evidently he did not extract this secret from any English Breast but worked it out for himself when he was sixty-five. He does not divulge it, however.

This horseback-rider then built himself a rolling mill and produced cold rolled copper. His process was probably not new in the world but it was new to New England where the copper on ship bottoms had a notable effect both on the speed and the longevity of the vessels. In 1808-09, he made the plates for a copper boiler used by Robert Fulton in one of his steamboats.

In 1794, Orlando Merrill, a shipbuilder of Newburyport, made what Morison calls “probably the greatest invention in the technique of naval architecture between the days of Drake and the days of Ericsson.” This was the lift or waterline model method of design. The lifts* were determined from a small model and by experiment with it and enlarging the scale, the dimensions of the completed ship were forecast.

* Lifts refer to longitudinal sections. The model was sliced lengthwise, the slices put together and the whole floated for experimental purposes in the water.

A brief description by Clark gives an adequate idea of this invention. It “was composed of lifts joined together, originally by dowels and later by screws. These could be taken apart and the sheer, body, and half-breadth plans easily transferred to paper, from which the working plans were laid down in the mould loft.

“This ingenious though simple invention, for which, by the way, Mr. Merrill never received any pecuniary reward, revolutionized the science of ship-building.”

Cutler, who thinks perhaps the invention antedated Merrill, says: “It is doubtful whether the clipper ship would have attained anything like the degree of prefection it eventually did without the assistance of this invention.”

In 1802, the Salem mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch put American navigation on a sound, scientific basis. Until then, navigation was conducted on such hit-or-miss principles that it is a source of constant amazement to the modern student how the vessels ever arrived at their difficult destinations.

In 1784, for instance, the complete navigating equipment of the ‘Grand Turk,’ which, in that year, sailed round the Cape of Good Hope, is described as “a few erroneous maps and charts, a sextant and a Guthrie’s grammar,” the last being a kind of encyclopedia.

   
Nathaniel Bowditch. Engraved by G. F. Storm frorn an unfinished painting by Stuart.

Bowditch, the son of a Salem cooper, was never far away from the sea and the stars. Astronomy and mathematics fascinated him in his early childhood. But he had so many abilities and was so trustworthy that, as a young man, he was sent on long voyages as supercargo.

Though this job does not require a great deal of work on shipboard and though his voyages stretched from weeks into months, Bowditch never seems to have been idle for a second. His intense concentration seems to have drawn every one about him like a magnetic force.

Thus as he kept watching the stars, making his calculations, working over new methods of reckoning and observation, members of the crew seem to have been always looking over his shoulder. Soon they began to ask questions. Bowditch answered them and held the boys hypnotized by his talk on lunar observations and dozens of other matters of the sea. He was always popular—loved and admired by every one from the skipper to the lowest hand. He was a great man. Some day some one will write a great biography of him.

The mariner’s Bible at this time was J. H. Moore’s ‘Practical Navigator,’ an English book. Bowditch worked with it constantly, checking the tables and the figures.

He found an immense number of errors and many gaps. So he decided to make a new Bible for Americans. He called it the ‘New American Practical Navigator.’ It used all the Moore tables corrected and contained a vast amount of new material. It had definitions in simple terms of every instrument used on a ship.

It described the simplest methods, many of them his own, of working out every conceivable kind of observation, calculation, meteorological forecast, sounding, speed and distance reckoning. It immediately supplanted the English work. It has had something over seventy editions in many languages. It is today the official book on navigation in the United States and is issued by the Navy Department.

In the Massachusetts shipyards, Yankee ingenuity was constantly at work. Miraculously it launched ships into rivers too small for them, “kedged” the ships down to the sea, taking, sometimes, fourteen tides to get them over the shoals.

In Nantucket and New Bedford were devised the whaling equipment. Rope and anchors were among the earliest colonial manufactures and bog iron was first used for ship equipment. Countless Yankee ship inventions were unrecorded, lost, forgotten, or passed into international use in pre-patent days.

We come now to the great period of the merchant marine after the War of 1812 when Boston and Salem captains were almost as well known in Canton, Surabaya, Mauritius, Manila and Honolulu as in their own ports.

   
Harbor of Canton Province, China. Many countries flags fly.

§ 4

The China trade has its beginning just after the Revolution. The first American merchant vessel bound for the Orient came home without getting there. This was the little sloop ‘Harriet’ of Hingham, Massachusetts.

Yet the story of her Captain Hallet is amusing and important. It is amusing because it shows the triumph of Yankee business sense over Yankee love of adventure, but it is important because it reveals the seriousness with which Englishmen took the threat of American sea trade.

The ‘Harriet’ met a British East Indiaman at the Cape of Good Hope. The English captain seeing the American cargo of ginseng bound for China seems to have had an alarming vision of the whole future American China trade. This vision so impressed him that he offered Hallet double what his cargo was worth in Hyson tea.

This was too much for Hallet, he took the tea and brought it home. His cupidity has caused some pain to loyal Massachusetts historians because the first ship to reach Canton was from New York.

The ‘Harriet’ sailed in 1783, the year the treaty was signed. Early in 1784, the ‘Empress of China’ from New York, sailed to Canton. Massachusetts patriots are somewhat comforted by the fact that their own famous Samuel Shaw was supercargo. Shaw did some good business in Canton, selling his ginseng and other matters for plenty of good tea, pottery, nankeens and silk.

His best job, however, was in writing a detailed report of the voyage which was published and stirred many merchants to new activity.

Massachusetts soon came back into its own. The ‘Grand Turk,’ after an expedition of more than two years, returned to Salem, her home port, with a cargo so rich that it founded the fortune of the celebrated Salem merchant Elias Hasket Derby, whose family carried on the China trade tradition for more than half a century.

The voyage of the ‘Grand Turk’ produced a frenzy of building in the merchant marine which, after a lapse during Jefferson’s embargo, continued incessantly up to the days of the clippers.

So far the drug, ginseng, had been the miraculous agent of most successes. Ginseng was a root which grew in many parts of America and had a curious fascination for the Chinese. This was probably because the root was forked and therefore resembled a man: in any case, the superstition was that it restored virility to the impotent.

But the fact that ginseng alone would not buy tea enough to satisfy the American demand sent certain Yankee skippers looking for other commodities such as furs and started the exploration of the Oregon coast. It must be remembered that this was a time of low production in America: industrial manufacture had hardly begun and the Chinese were not interested in American agricultural products.

The merchants were fastidious and they got their best prices from highly civilized and luxurious mandarins. They were interested in the fur of the sea otter as the Boston owners of the ‘Columbia’ presently found out.

   
Columbia.

The fur trade with China seems to have been invented by a native American, John Ledyard, who had sailed with the English explorer James Cook and was so astonished when he saw skins which had cost sixpence from the Indians selling in Canton for a hundred dollars, that he spent the rest of his life trying to raise money for a trading expedition. It was not, however, until after death had extinguished these dreams that, as Greenbie says, “everybody in the world seemed determined to cash in on them.”

Boston took the lead in this cashing in, however, and Boston’s ‘Columbia’ a beat the English and French ships to the Oregon coast. The ‘Columbia’ sailed round the Horn in a blizzard in 1787 with a sloop, the ‘Lady Washington,’ acting as tender and, after fights with Indians along the Pacific Coast, both vessels finally anchored at the mouth of what then became the Columbia River.

This was an important factor in the later American claim to the “Oregon Country.” The ‘Columbia’ laid in a cargo of furs and exchanged them in Canton for a large cargo of Bohea tea. The ‘Columbia’ then continued west and, after circumnavigating the globe, entered that harbor which, seventeen years before, had been flavored with British tea. She landed the 10th of August, 1790.

From now on there was a division of New England shipping which became famous and respected:
- Boston reached the Orient in the wake of Magellan, got her furs in Oregon and moved across the Pacific to China by way of the California coast and Hawaii.
- Salem continued to sail, like Vasco da Gama, round the Cape of Good Hope and so by the Indian Ocean, also to China picking up her cargo on the way.

Both of these operations played important parts in the development of the merchant marine, American international relations and the fortunes of New England merchants.

It must not be supposed that the American merchant marine belonged exclusively to New England. Exaggerated credit may have been given to Salem because her records are so complete. Boston played a greater part in territorial development as the modern map which includes Oregon, Hawaii and several Pacific islands bears witness.

Maine, Rhode Island and Connecticut built and sailed many ships. But New York and Philadelphia also sailed in the China trade; such famous ships as the ‘Manhattan,’ the ‘Beaver,’ the ‘North America,’ the ‘Gipsy,’ the ‘Trident,’ the ‘Triton,’ the ‘Carmelite’ and many later clippers were built and owned in New York and Philadelphia at one time had the largest tonnage in the Whampoa anchorage.

The first approach to a clipper ship had her origin and register in Baltimore. The true clipper originated in New York. Nevertheless, New England became predominant in invention and building and Massachusetts was better known in the maritime world than any part of America.

Many interesting commercial methods developed in the China trade and some of them brought specie as well as merchandise into the United States. Often a merchant would sell all his oriental goods in Europe and would return with a cargo of gold.

The story is still told in Wiscasset, Maine, that gold bullion was rolled from the ship to the owner’s house in wheelbarrows and so honest was the populace that, even after this exhibition, the owner was able to leave his fortune unlocked in his cellar with no fear of loss.

The next stage—though all stages overlapped—was the packet ship in which New York played a considerable part. The packet, because she carried mail, was expected to be fast, but, as she carried passengers, they were hopeful that she would also be safe.

   
Packet ship Montezuma of the Black Ball Line, New York.

§ 5

Though the clipper ship had such a vague and mysterious development that even the expert maritime historians seem to have difficulty in tracing it, one of its immediate parents was undoubtedly the packet. Using a biological metaphor, we might well say that a mating of the fast frigate and the packet would produce something very like the clipper.

The frigate was designed to dodge, fight and pursue, and to carry guns; the packet was designed to make speed carrying a cargo of human and other livestock, mail and money. Speed was common to them both. It was intrinsic in the frigate, her existence depended on it. In the packet it came from competition.

When more intricate business developed with Europe, the man who got there first—or got his message there first—put over the deal. Then the packets got to racing and sport came into it. With the clippers sport seemed to be the main motive, except when the California gold spasm lent a semblance of necessity.

The fast packet was not a Yankee institution. New York had become a center of business deals many of which were fictitious enough to demand hurry.

Solid Yankee goods could wait on their own merit; stocks, bonds, specie and the manipulation of markets could not. It is fair to add that such things as cows and pigs, expensive to transport, were also shipped from New York and Philadelphia. At any rate, the famous Black Ball and Cope lines functioned respectively from these ports in 1816 and 1821. They managed packets to Liverpool.

Some of the passages made in these early days are scarcely credible. It was many years before steamship records caught up with them. By 1823, they were already attracting the world’s attention.

It was not, however, until 1825 when the Erie Canal was opened and New York became the gateway to the West that the great packet era began. From then until 1850, there was constant racing across the Atlantic between the lines and speed became essential in terms of money as it is today.

By 1831, there are records of passages from New York to Liverpool in fourteen and a half days. In those pre-cable times, the packets were the only means of getting news across the ocean. Some of the best records, for example, were made in carrying the President’s message to England. This became a custom and the sailing date of the message carrier was set for March 6 of every year.

The packets marked at least one important point in the history of American sociology. Aboard them, we find one special change which reflected what was happening in industry.

The crew was no longer American. It was recruited from the slums of England and the continent, even from their jails.

Every sort of abandoned wretch found his way at one time or another before the mast of a transatlantic packet. Drunkards, degenerates, murderers, thieves manned these fine fast ships and, naturally, there came about a stern division between officers and crew and an attitude of the officers toward the men which carried over into the clipper-ship era.

The reasons for this were much the same as those in the factories. The western movement drew men away from the coast. The ones that were left went into the factories or did other kinds of shore labor at higher wages than they could get at sea. As the captains found they could get foreign riff-raff crews cheap, merchant marine wages grew less.

Occasionally an American boy with an irresistible impulse for the sea would sign up with a packet or clipper crew and found himself immediately on a different basis from the foreigners. He had his pick of quarters and the best of everything. Often after his first voyage he would be promoted.

Officers were in great demand and quick promotion (“coming in by the hawse hole,” it was called) became the rule where Americans were concerned. That was why it was so common for boys who went to sea at fourteen to become masters before they were twenty. Always, in these early periods of American history there was a shortage of men.

   

There were other cases where a boy became corrupted and stayed for the rest of his life a hopeless victim of drink and port dissipation. Any American who was still a seaman in his twenties was usually an incurable drunkard at the mercy of the crimp racket.*

* Crimps were port buzzards who pounced on a sailor as soon as he landed, got him drunk or drugged and kept him so until he was shipped often unconscious and with empty pockets on another voyage.

Captains of the sea had certain advantages over captains of industry in labor matters. For the sailor there was no escape until the voyage was finished. For the voyage, the captain owned him body and soul. Much effort has been made to soften the history of cruelty resulting from these facts, but there can be no doubt there was plenty of it. Dull, vicious, unreasoning men could be handled only with the belaying pin and other, darker torments.

Yankee skippers developed considerable ingenuity in these matters and it is difficult to see how they could have done otherwise. The surprising thing is that with such material, there were such efficient results. The results have been unequalled in any sailing period of the world’s history.

Through the packet era, vessels had become sharper with flush decks, less freeboard, and easier lines. Sail was crowded on as it had never been before. Gilfillan says that the clipper was merely a perfection and refinement of the packet rig and hull—the hull “getting back toward the Viking model.”

The two periods overlapped, for it was not until 1860 that steamships began to offer serious competition to the sail packets, and by that time the clipper era was all but over.

§ 6

When we speak of the clipper, we usually mean the clipper ship, full-rigged. There had long been clipper schooners, brigs and brigantines with sharp bows, great dead rise or V-shaped bottom, low freeboard or space between water and deck, and the greatest breadth moved aft. Many of these, like the Baltimore clippers which became famous as privateers, developed high speed.

But it was when the demand came for fantastic speed plus great carrying capacity that the true clipper ship arrived to answer it and the Yankee clipper ship commander arrived to answer the strange problem of sailing this anomaly.

The technical answer was largely one of greatly increased length and sail capacity. Any increase in hull size which made the ship full-bodied was fatal to speed. At the same time, sparring had to become much heavier to stand the strain imposed by the bold, reckless speed maniacs who would command these vessels.

No wonder such a genius as Donald McKay was needed in the moulding lofts to resolve all these apparently contradictory factors. It is an uncanny fact, suggesting that man attains his highest art under the most extreme, difficult pressure of his desire, that the results were the most beautiful craft that ever sailed on any sea. In pagan times, seeing such works of beauty, men would have been convinced that the gods themselves had stooped from the skies to lend a hand in their shaping and, as we read the various histories of the clipper era we are led to much the same conclusion.

No layman, reading a half dozen accounts of clipper development, can escape the sense of confusion into which the writers seem to have been plunged. Clark speaks of the ‘Ann McKim’ as “the first clipper ship ever constructed,” Morison says that the type was invented in New York in 1845 when John Griffiths produced the ‘Rainbow,’ GilfIllan explains that it was never invented at all and possessed no novelty beyond its beauty, and Chapelle sets the career of the clipper ship from 1846 to 1859 and speaks of the type as uneconomical and “the most over advertised type in maritime history.”

   
Plan of the hull model of the “Clipper” Ship ‘Ann McKim.’ From Henry Hall’s ‘Report of the Shipbuilding Industry of the United States, 10th Census’ Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C.

These are only a few of the disagreements, but most writers admit the terms “early clipper,” “extreme clipper” and “medium clipper” as definitions for more profound discussion.

For our purposes, interested as we are in invention, Cutler gives the most illuminating passage:

“One searches,” he says, “in vain for some heroic, outstanding figure as the ‘inventor’ of the clipper and misses the thrill of being able to point to some beautiful vessel and say: ‘Here is the first true example.’ There seems to have been no ‘first clipper ship.’ Model shaded imperceptibly into model: new ‘improved rig’ followed old ‘improved rig’ until men felt it could serve no useful purpose to attempt to gain a further increase in speed. Somewhere between the first uncertain steps and the last glorious creation is the ‘first clipper.’”

This is only an advanced case of what has happened in many inventions. And, as the experts can only agree on what a clipper actually is in the case of the “extreme clipper” we shall do well to confine ourselves to that and to dwell rather on its causes and effects than on its technology. For the fact that its principal building period lasted only four years, there is an excellent reason.

§ 7

It is pleasant, when reading history, to find the pieces of it running by themselves into a complete picture. It does not always happen. Often we search long for the empty space where an odd piece must fit and often we never find it. But in this maritime history, cause arid effect do frequently match up and having found one piece the other is immediately obvious.

Thus, Oregon and California were largely the product of the China trade and California created the overwhelming necessity for the clipper-ship. In the leisurely early days of the China fur trade, the ships laden with sea otter and other skins drifted along south to a pleasant Spanish shore.

California, by all the rights of discovery and exploration, belonged to Spain. San Francisco was a Mexican city. Yankee sailors made themselves at home there. Sometimes they stayed. Always they smuggled.

   
San Francisco harbor.

The tales they brought home of this lovely coast with its magnificent mountain wall, its figs, palms and climate made it seem desirable to make this outpost strip American. There is still something about California which makes people want to talk about it. Its publicity material seems to have been just as good in the twenties and thirties.

At any rate, by the time Mexico had divorced herself from Spain and Texas had divorced herself from Mexico and President Polk had worked the Texan situation into a war, it seemed quite natural for California to pass from Mexico to the United States.

It never quite seemed so to Mexico, aghast at such a powerful and honorable nation executing a steal on such a large scale, but Mexico was pacified by Zachary Taylor and a cheque on the United States Treasury and the pieces called California, Utah Territory and New Mexico Territory were fitted into the puzzle-map and established the expansionist doctrine. It may be said, however, to James Polks credit, that the rainbow over California with the Sutter’s Mill pot of gold at the foot of it, had not yet become visible when the deal was consummated.

The rainbow became visible to the whole country, however, in 1848. Everywhere it drove men into a frenzy and from the midwest the trails were crowded with wagons. It stirred the same frenzy on the Atlantic fringe but not with precisely the same effect.

These people were not overland travellers. They were the ones who had stayed behind when the first great trek began. Land and agriculture had not lured them and they had gone instead into industry, foreign commerce and domestic business. In these things they had been pressed and distraught by absence of capital, uncertainty of monetary values.

Thus the sure, hard, yellow, valuable gold worked where the land had failed. To them an overland trail with its wild mountain and Indian dangers never occurred.

To them, accustomed to the ways of fast ships, both speed and safety were on the sea.

They began by forming companies and chartering any ship they could get. Men liquidated their entire estates and pawn shops did a record business. But such a sudden movement brought a boom everywhere. Clothes, equipment, provisions for a long voyage were in swift demand. Rumors of wild California lawlessness brought, as we shall see in the next chapter, a cry for firearms and rifle and pistol factories exhausted their capacity.

These people seem to have thought last of speed in ships because whatever hulk they could get would at least get them off to a quick start and picking, choosing and waiting for a clipper to be built would delay the departure.

The shipbuilders, however, being more sober and longer-thinking men, foresaw the new demand. They saw that ships would be needed to carry not only men but freight to a land where potatoes were selling for a dollar apiece and to get it there in a hurry.

Everything was ready. The China trade and the packet service had prepared the way. Already the ‘Sea Witch’ had beaten the ‘Rainbow’ in the China trade and both had convinced the shipping world that the extreme clipper was the fastest ship afloat.

Donald McKay had not yet launched a clipper but his reputation as a shipbuilder was established and his East Boston shipyard was equipped for vessels of well over a thousand tons.

   
Donald McKay. From an engraving by W. G. Jackman.

Now, everywhere along the Atlantic coast the great merchants began to think of California. Overnight capital had apparently become liquid and these men did not delay their orders to the shipyards.

The gold rush had an extraordinary effect on American psychology. It enlarged men’s conceptions. Becoming aware that for a long time they had been hungry for something more than mere solid wealth, they felt that nothing was impossible when gold was at the other end. Gold, the new bright object, uneatable and undrinkable, unwearable as it was, conjured new visions not of wealth but of luxury.

Americans had got beyond mere food and drink and cloth. The China trade had educated them to silk and spice and, indeed, to harems, divans, rare wine, servants and costly habits of life, and Calvinism was lapsing a little at least in the middle ports.

New York was already wicked. New England, still strait and narrow, had heard from the sea the rumors of “no Sundays off soundings.” Gold was the answer to a more abundant life in the mid-century. It restored to Americans that old sense that nothing was impossible—a sense dormant in the East in the stuffier forties.

Donald McKay, though an immigrant, was a Yankee at heart. He had no longing for gold but he knew that if men wanted gold enough, invention would reconcile the contradictions that produced the word “impossible.”

Griffiths’ ‘Rainbow’ had been called impossible. Sea captains had said her bow was “turned inside out.” They had shaken their heads over the concave lines and they had been even more certain that putting the greatest breadth so far aft was fatal because it broke the old “cod’s head and mackerel tail” tradition.

But the ‘Rainbow’ had floated and sailed fast with a cargo and then the extreme ‘Sea Witch’ had beaten the ‘Rainbow’ and had made the voyage from New York to San Francisco in ninety-seven days.

But the ‘Sea Witch’ was only 890 tons. McKay knew that that was far too small for the cargoes the gold rush would demand. There must be greater size and, at the same time, even greater speed. So his first clipper, the ‘Stag Hound,’ was 1534 tons. Immediately she justified her size.

   
The Clipper Ship ‘Stag Hound’ built by Donald McKay. Length, 215 feet; beam, 40 feet; draught, 21 feet; crew, 46—1535 tons. From “The Clipper Ship Era” by Arthur H. Clark. Courtesy of G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

McKay set to work again at a ship ordered by Enoch Train. While she was building, Grinnell, Minturn and Company of New York saw her possibilities and bought her from Train for $90,000 which seems to have been double what Train was paying for her.

This was the famous ‘Flying Cloud,’ McKay’s masterpiece of beauty which still stands in maritime history among the finest of the world’s ships. She was registered at 1784 tons and established a record which never was beaten.

Clipper ship business in the Gold Rush soon ceased to have much to do with passengers. When the Panama Route was established, people preferred it to the dangerous voyage around Cape Horn. The line of Panama packets did everything possible to make this way attractive. The clippers were therefore left with the enormous business of cargoes.

We are amused today at the tales of San Francisco prices when “bread cost fifty cents a loaf, eggs two dollars a dozen, tin tacks ten dollars apiece, and paper of any sort one hundred and fifty dollars a sheet.”

We have seen the bursting of several such bubbles. But the merchants of the East took them seriously and all these things were shipped in vast quantity.

So size became a pressing clipper necessity and captains, relieved of passenger responsibility, could drive their new beauties without mercy.

Answers to the demand came from up and down the coast, from Damariscotta, Maine, as far south as Portsmouth, Virginia. In 1851, William Webb of New York built the ‘Challenge’ of 2006 tons and the ‘Comet’ of 1836 and Jacob Bell of New York went as high as 2030 with the ‘Trade Wind.’

The outstanding builders were William Webb and Smith and Dimon of New York, Paul Curtis and Samuel Hall of Boston—excepting always McKay.

Hall prided himself on his scientific precision, but the artist in him betrayed itself in a flair for the dramatic. He built the ‘Surprise’ and carried out the name in her launching. He staged a grand party for this event, building a pavilion for the ladies and serving refreshments in the moulding loft. The guests could scarcely believe the sight of this fine new ship not yet launched but fully rigged!

But Hall’s calculations proved equal to the feat; she slid into the water with her sails set without accident.

But the highest honors must go, always, to Mckay. Between 1850 and 1854, he produced some of the finest clipper ships that ever sailed round the Horn. Then, for a British order he built his celebrated quartet in 1854-55: ‘Lightning,’ ‘Champion of the Seas,’ ‘James Baines’ and ‘Donald McKay.’

The ‘Lightning,’ Monson tells us, “made the greatest day’s run ever performed by a sailing vessel; a day’s run that no steamship at that day could equal by a hundred miles, that no steamship equalled for a generation, and that barely fifty ocean steamers today could surpass.” This was the astonishing record of 436 miles in twenty-four hours.

Yet the smoke of the steamship was already on the horizon. While American captains were beating their crews into crowding on sail in wild storms off the Horn, quiet English engineers were working over the inventions of poor John Fitch and silver-spoon John Stevens.

Already the ‘Sirius’ and the ‘Great Western’ were being sneered at and spat at by old-time sailors, to disguise the fear that must often have been in their hearts.

Now, with the bursting of the California bubble and a little later in the disastrous Civil War, with angry little monsters like the ‘Alabama’ tearing the clippers to pieces, the American merchant marine with all its beauty would vanish from the seas and the grim, smoky leviathans of Britain would come forever into their own.

   
THE JAMES BAINES. Built in 1854 by Donald McKay for James Baines and Company, Liverpool. On June 17, 1856, she made twenty-one knots with main skysail set, the highest rate of speed ever made by a sailing vessel.

§ 8

There may be readers who will doubt the place of the clipper in a history of invention. In such a mechanical age, it seems almost like a throwback. It is perhaps too imponderable for consideration in any ordered story of the march of science. Yet its development offers a mirror which reflects many social and technical trends.

- It reflects the idea of speed for its own sake from the still infant and sportive trains and telegraph.
- It reflects cut-throat competition from land commerce.
- It reflects the entrance of liquid capital upon the American scene.
- It reflects the large-scale overland movement of merchandise.

The clipper-ship era, embracing the most daring feats of Americans in all history to that point:
- reflects the mastery of man over elemental forces which was completing the conquest of the continent.

But, more directly, it contributed to that conquest. It brought the East to the West—not its men, perhaps, but its goods. It stuck the piece of California firmly in place and, from California, now, overland would come that eastward push which would help to organize the middle and do its part toward throwing communications across it.

The gold seems, somehow, to have disappeared. But the impulse it bred was still strong and growing hourly stronger. From gold the West would turn to building, to organizing, to cultivating rich new fruit-land and ore mountains.

There was, suddenly, a new world, a world to the far West on a new ocean, a world with strange, warm, half-tropical aspects, a world with new frontiers to the East. The clipper had made it real.

The clipper ship, like all maritime inventions before science put the power inside, has a mysticism which gives it charm. Perhaps it is this quality which has caused sailors to build up that queer, inexact language of their own which only suggests and never quite explains. That jargon draws a curtain between the ship and the landsman which he may never quite penetrate unless he has babbled sea-words in his first child-speech.

Hence our attempt may have left landward students in something of a haze. Perhaps it is just as well to let the mystery lie.

   
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