French Battleship Napoléon (1850)

French Battleship Napoleon under steam power, sails furled

Ship's History - Read on.    |     Specifications    |     Fitting Engines into a Wooden Warship

The Napoléon was the first purpose-built steam-powered battleship in the world, designed by the French naval architect and Chief Constructor, Dupuy de Lôme. As can be seen from this period painting, she was a modification of the existing standard "First Class" line-of-battle ship which had stood in naval battles from the 1600s through the great confrontations of the Napoleonic Wars: St. Vincent, the Nile, Copenhagen, Trafalgar, etc. In the Napoleonic age these vessels and their near-equals, the 74s, were known as ships of the line -- meaning the "line of battle." It was a term distinguishing the very heaviest-built, heaviest-armed vessels from frigates and lesser ships which, though speedier, were inherently less able to stand up to the heavy battering of a full-on fleet action. Starting around the time that armored vessels appeared (c. 1860), the term "line-of-battle ship" was abridged to the now familiar "battleship."

For some years before the Napoléon appeared, Britain and France had been converting their existing sailing ships-of-the-line to auxiliary steam power. This was a mixed blessing for, although it allowed maneuvering in light airs or contrary winds, the wooden hulls tended to break down under the pounding of steam propulsion, particularly at the thrust block area where the prop shaft exits the hull. At the same time, there was an emergent crisis in materials. Europe's forests had been almost completely depleted of the critical woods for building warships: oak for knees and planking, tall, true pine for masts. Masts on continental warships were being made up of fished-together short segments with iron bands shrunk around them to force the pieces together; not nearly as strong as one-piece mast sections made from a single huge tree, common in the U.S. Navy where the old-growth forests had not yet been depleted.

Napoleon III of France, with waxed mustachesThere were significant issues of performance associated with this practice, as with the practice of building hulls from unseasoned timber. This practice, especially prevalent in France, made the ships vulnerable to dry rot. Thus many of the early ironclads (late 1850s - 1860s) lasted only 10-15 years in service, while iron-hulled versions of the same designs, produced at the same time, were still afloat 70 years later! Large ships built at this time (up to the longest wooden warship ever built, the 377' Rochambeau) were fastened together and braced with metal fixtures to compensate for the inferior quality of the timbers used and the unnaturally large hull dimensions. The armament consisted of 22 Paixhans shell guns and 56 muzzle-loading cannon firing inert projectiles (i.e. cannonballs).

Napoléon's appearance was a thunderclap, energizing the British to answer the French challenge. The ship was such a success in every respect that the French built 8 copies between 1851-1861. Politically, Louis Napoléon (Napoléon III) had siezed power in a coup in December 1851, in a backlash responding to the Revolution of 1848. These were heady times for France. Napoléon III made a fresh bid for pre-eminence as a continental military power. At the same time he instituted a peculiar mix of reactionary militarism and progressive social programs, modern architecture and urban planning, and scientific and technological advances. Dupuy de Lôme remained in favor and the build-up of the French fleet continued (though with considerably less fervor as the years rolled by) until Napoléon lost his crown in the defeat by Prussia in 1870. Crowned with the launch of the first ironclad battleship La Gloire in 1858, the initial French bid severely frightened the British Admiralty into major building of their own to answer the French innovations.


NAPOLEON leaving port, color oil painting

The Napoléon at Toulon in 1852: a splendid oil painting by Lauvergne in the Musée de la Marine, Paris. Click here for a spectacular enlarged view!

Napoléon's specifications:
Length: 234'5" Beam: 64'1" Draft: 24'6"   Displacement: 5,120 tons Armament: (56) 30-pdr, (8) 8.7", and (14) 6.4" muzzle-loading guns. Hull construction: Pine and oaken plank on oak frame, with significant iron bracing and transverse fasteners. Propulsion: 2-cyl Indret geared engine developing 574 ihp, shafted to single screw. Sail rig: Full 3-mast ship rig. Maximum speed: 12.1 kts. Crew: 392.

Metric specs:
Length: 71.44 m Beam: 19.5 m Draft: 7.5 m   Displacement: 5,120 tons Armament: (56) 30-pdr, (8) 22 cm, and (14) 16 cm muzzle-loading guns. Hull construction: Pine and oaken plank on oak frame, with significant iron bracing and transverse fasteners. Propulsion: 2-cyl Indret geared engine developing 428 kW, shafted to single screw. Sail rig: Full 3-mast ship rig. Maximum speed: 22.4 km/hr. Crew: 392.

Fitting Steam Engines into a Wooden Battleship

So how did they fit all that machinery into an already crowded wooden ship-of-the-line? If a picture is worth a thousand words, then here is 2,000 words worth: a transverse plan and a longitudinal cutaway plan showing how the machinery was distributed, deep beneath the wooden knees and beams of a huge man-o'-war in the early days of steam. Lord only knows what the life of the stokers was like; but these vessels spent a lot of their time under sail with their boilers cold. One supposes high-status stokers were given challenging duties such as cleaning latrines, chipping rust, etc. while waiting for the orders to re-light the boilers. The Black Gang formed a kind of under-class in naval ships in these days, even the engineering officers being encouraged to form fraternities of their own and not to mingle with the deck officers. Although this prejuduce gradually became milder, stokers, trimmers, oilers, and other engine room "monkeys" remained at the bottom of the shipboard heirarchy well into the 20th century.

Section of one of France's greatest steam battleships, the Louis XIV, built as a sailing ship and converted in the 1850s. This is a 3-decker (the top, or spar deck, does not count since it doesn't mount cannons all round). Because of France's relative technological backwardness, the entire engineering plant had to be imported from Britain -- a fact proudly trumpeted by Robert Napier of Glasgow in the engraving partially reproduced here. The side-lever engine can be seen deep below the waterline, surrounded by its supply of coal, and drawn in greater detail beneath the ship's keel.

The largest wooden battleships in the British fleet were the Howe and Victoria of 121 guns (vs. the Napoléon's paltry 90). These two mighty wooden ships were added to the Registry in 1858, among the first purpose-built British steam battleships. Longitudinal section (above) shows the sly arrangement which allowed these mammoth ships to attain 13.5 kts: 2 sections of 4 boilers each for extra steam pressure. These were the only British steam line-of-battle ships to have two funnels. The funnels were collapsible so as to be nearly invisible when the boilers were not lit, a common practice in the early years of steam -- and one used to disguise Confederate blockade runners and other dodgy characters of the high seas. Below, Howe as she appeared in her prime. With her stacks retracted, she looks like any other sailing 3-decker. Only the greater length -- and the absence of gilt carving -- distinguish her visually from the "wooden walls" of the Napoleonic Wars.

A parting thought: this quoted from the eminent Andrew Lambert, as published in Conway's History of the Ship, vol. VII (© 1992 by Conway Maritime Press):

Despite the success of the screw steam fleet of the 1850s it was clear to all intelligent naval constructors that the use of wooden hulls, however strongly reinforced, limited their freedom to exploit steam and new guns . . . Wooden screw steamships suffered from a number of disadvantages inherent in the material of which they were built. They could never be made strong enough to resist the inevitable deformation caused by the action of the sea on such heavily laden craft, along with the heat, damp, vibration and strains created by their engines, heavy guns, and hard service.

Lambert's further observations are worth investigating, and the book Steam, Steel & Shellfire is highly recommended for a thorough overview of the period.

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