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Industrializing American Shipbuilding: The Transformation of Ship Design and Construction, 1820-1920

Author(s):Thiesen, William H.
Reviewer(s):Sicotte, Richard

Published by EH.NET (November 2006)

William H. Thiesen, Industrializing American Shipbuilding: The Transformation of Ship Design and Construction, 1820-1920. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2006. x + 302 pp. $55 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8130-2940-6.

Review for EH.NET by Richard Sicotte, Department of Economics, University of Vermont.

William H. Thiesen’s Industrializing American Shipbuilding is a carefully researched, insightful book that focuses on the evolution of U.S. shipbuilding from a craft to a modern heavy industry. Thiesen is the curator of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. With impressive command of the details, he chronicles the enormous changes in the design and construction of ships from 1820 to 1920. Thus, the book is primarily of history of technology, but Thiesen’s very effective presentation also contains substantial information about particular business enterprises, shipyards, entrepreneurs, scientists and naval officers.

The book is organized as follows. The first chapter discusses the origins of U.S. craft shipbuilding methods. The ascendance of scientific design and construction in Great Britain in the nineteenth century is the topic of chapter two. Chapters three and four describe the growth and heyday of American wooden shipbuilding. The fifth is one of the most creative and interesting chapters, in which Thiesen describes the transition from wood to iron. In the sixth and seventh chapters, the author discusses ship design, and the belated adoption of scientific methods in U.S. shipbuilding. Thiesen then describes the revolution in U.S. ship construction, through the invention and adoption of labor-saving machinery and greatly improved production organization. The final chapter is a thoughtful summary and conclusion.

Thiesen has provided an important, perhaps indispensable contribution for answering some of the questions about U.S. shipbuilding that would probably be of most interest to economic historians. For example, when and why did the U.S. apparently lose its comparative advantage in shipbuilding? American-built steamships played a minor role in international shipping in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, carrying only a fraction of U.S. oceanborne commerce. Previous scholarship has focused, without much quantitative evidence on costs of production, on the changes from wood to iron and sail to steam, as explaining the decline of U.S. shipping. Although Thiesen provides little in the way of quantitative analysis, his detailed account of American shipbuilding methods will provide researchers interested in the comparative advantage question with a number of promising leads of where to look for evidence, and how to develop alternative hypotheses. In chapter five, he convincingly demonstrates the “cross-fertilization” of techniques between the wood and iron branches of the U.S. shipbuilding industry, and argues that the construction of iron ships in mid-nineteenth century United States was largely a craft. Thiesen describes the step-by-step process of the construction of the iron steamship Saratoga in the 1870s. The extent of custom-fitting is striking. Still, I was left wondering whether it was possible to provide a reasonable quantitative estimate of how much additional cost these methods implied relative to practices employed in other countries. Just how important were demand-side factors, relative labor costs, and access to resources in determining the comparatively poor performance of U.S. iron shipbuilding?

Thiesen’s description in chapter eight of the application of electric power and cutting-edge technology at the New York Shipbuilding Company is highly provocative. He cites European visitors to the yard as being awestruck by the high-tech operation, and describes how the U.S. began to be a source of shipbuilding technology transfer rather than only a destination. He does not show, however, what the effects of these innovations were on the competitive position of American shipbuilding relative to its foreign rivals. Because foreign firms adopted many U.S. innovations, it seems likely that the effects were mitigated.

A second major research question about U.S. shipbuilding concerns the effects of U.S. public policy toward the industry. Thiesen is decidedly critical of the tariff on iron, arguing that it was a serious impediment to the industry’s development. He argues that without the federal regulation reserving coastal traffic for American ships, the industry would have been much smaller. (The Great Lakes became the major center of U.S. shipbuilding in the late nineteenth century.) The most innovative and well documented contribution he makes insofar as public policy, however, is the vital role that the U.S. Navy played in bringing scientific design and modern naval architecture to the industry. The Navy sent officers and engineers to Europe in the 1870s and 1880s to learn modern techniques. Later, naval engineers were assigned to teach courses at American universities, eventually leading to the establishment at several universities of degree programs in naval architecture. Thiesen states that the “development of a naval-industrial complex paved the way for more systematic ship design and construction methods” (p. 159).

William Thiesen has produced an excellent book. It is a must-read for maritime historians, and of major interest for historians of technology. It also will stimulate research on some of the most interesting questions surrounding the comparative advantage of U.S. shipbuilding industry and of U.S. heavy industry more generally.

Richard Sicotte is Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Vermont. His research has focused on the shipping industry, its market structure and effects on international trade and migration.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII