The Royal Navy built its first steam-powered ship, the HMS Comet, in 1822. The first generation of steamships normally had both sails and a steam engine. A ship with both sails and a boiler had a long range and was mobile in close quarters. A boiler reduced the tactical importance of wind direction, and allowed maneuvering in disadvantageous winds or when becalmed. Over the next 40 years, the Royal Navy converted many sailing ships to steam by retrofitting boilers.
The capability came at a cost. A worldwide coal distribution system was required. The ship had to contain a stack, machinery, the boiler itself, and tons of coal. The added weight changed how the ship moved and reduced space for supplies, weapons, and ammunition. Refueling, called coaling, changed operational patterns.
Boilers required special technical knowledge, a new watch organization, and new management techniques. Within 20 years, the Royal Navy had a school for steam engineering and a manual covering how to operate, maintain, and repair boilers.
The 1843 Royal Navy steam manual made a clear connection between daily maintenance, reliability, tactical mobility, and the organization’s strategic goals:
“It is needless to expatiate on the importance of this subject; for independently of the value and costliness of the material, the efficiency of the vessel so totally depends upon the machinery being kept in perfect order, that it is evident that too ceaseless an attention cannot be devoted to obtaining this object. It is a great point to keep the boilers properly cleaned outside, and inside, and although it may not be a pleasant duty, yet the Captain should frequently go inside the boilers, and judge for himself whether they are kept clean, and free from scales and deposit.” (Chapter 3 “Care of Machinery”, p 56)
The manual recommended personal attention from the senior manager on site, the ship’s captain, to matters of repair and maintenance. The captain’s attention was required even though a steam vessel was likely to have a specially trained engineer. A special branch for engineer officers had been established in 1837. When assigned to a ship, the Engineer reported to the Carpenter, who in turn reported to the Captain.
The manual gave an example of an unnamed captain’s involvement in boiler cleaning. The captain started giving a prize of a dollar to the stokers with the cleanest boiler. The competition between the stokers to clean the boilers was so fierce that the captain routinely paid them all after each inspection from his personal funds. After 15 months, there was no visible internal deterioration. This was a high compliment because at this point in history, British naval boilers had a technical life as short as two or three years.
The 1843 steam manual predated the introduction of screw propulsion by a few years, so existing steam vessels had sidewheels. The manual recommended turning the wheels over 3-4 times a day in port, and scraping and repainting the paddles every 6 weeks. (p. 59) In 1858, safety requirements for an energy control program were established by an Admiralty circular memorandum:
“Accidents of a serious and even fatal character having sometimes occurred on board Her Majesty’s Steam-Ships…men are on no account to be permitted to go into, or remain in, the Paddle Wheels, except when they are effectually secured by a bar being passed through them, by a secure lashing, or by some other simple mode, the efficiency of which can be judged of by any Seaman.”
The manual recognized that minor repairs would prevent decay:
“So much does the efficiency of a steamer depend upon care, and attention, and by supplying in due time the necessary trifling repairs, that I hesitate not to say that by attending to the foregoing directions, the machinery and boilers will be in as good a state of preservation, at the end of three years, as they were at the time when the ship was first commissioned.” (pg 70)
Three years was a respectable service life for British naval boilers in this era, so the author’s contention was that service life could at least be doubled by small preventive repairs.
In the very next paragraph, the author connected machine reliability with military strategy:
“I would remark that steamers constitute a power which effects what a celebrated master [the Emperor Napoleon] of the art, called “the perfection of war,” namely, the capability of bringing upon any one point, an overwhelming superiority of force to act upon that of the enemy; officers in command then, cannot too seriously consider, can not too often bear in mind, that the efficiency of this arm, will depend upon a due economy of their ‘source of moving power.’”
The introduction of steam brought new management challenges to navies that had evolved with sails. In Britain’s case, maintaining boilers explicitly resulted in maintaining an empire.
Royal Navy regulations grew more specific about maintenance management over the next several decades. This was the most obvious in the area of steam machinery, where an entirely new organization had to be established. The Admiralty issued Circular Memos throughout the mid-1800s directing how the engineering departments were organized. Subjects included:
-special pay, and requirements to qualify for pensions
-establishment of new ratings, like stoker and artificer
-requirements for accession of new sailors and officers and their training requirements
-promotion criteria, including the schedule and subject covered by qualifying exams
-uniforms and uniform allowances
-the relationship between the chief engineer, the captain, and the Inspector of Machinery Afloat
In particular, an 1859 memo from the Admiralty noted that engines and boilers had been found in “worse condition than would appear to be consistent with proper care.” Blame had been hard to assign between the Captain and Engineer. A requirement already existed for a new boiler inspection whenever a new Engineer Officer took charge. The Admiralty memo now required this inspection to be reported in writing. In addition, the inspection now had to be conducted every year. The navy was capable for identifying the organizational cause of poor machinery conditions and implementing broad preventive and corrective actions.
Screw propellers were often designed to be lifted up when the ship was under sail. Lifting the screw reduced drag and wear on the windmilling machinery.
Modern photographs of models of screw raising devices show the many moving parts that could be reliability problems when exposed to seawater or biological growth like barnacles. HMS Rattler’s screw propeller raising device is in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich:
A Dutch model of screw propeller raising device from HMS Duke of Wellington exists in the Rijksmuseum: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/NG-MC-562
In 1856, an Admiralty memo established a requirement to periodically inspect the screw and raising device. The need for a new periodic inspection was that it was “sometimes neglected for too long a period.” A good habit had been ignored, probably came to the attention of the Admiralty because of a breakdown, and was now a preventive action required of every one.
The trigger for this new periodic maintenance inspection was complex. It was required once a month or after 2000 miles of steaming. If the screw had not been in use, it had to be lowered, engaged, and turned over using the engine or turning gear. Accomplishment had to be reported to the Admiralty in the quarterly machinery report.
This preventive maintenance requirement was made permanent by including it in the 1861 revision of the Royal Navy Regulations (Chapter 20, Article 16)
1717: “The Oeconomy Of His Majesty’s Navy-Office: Containing The Several Duties Of The Commissioners And Principal Officers Thereof: Being The First Rules Establish’d For Them By His Royal Highness The Duke Of York, Then Lord High Admiral Of England And Ireland, Under King Charles Ii, And Continu’d In Force To This Day; With Several Letters Relating To The Same From His Said Royal Highness, To The Navy Board, By An Officer Of The Navy.”
Williams, W. J. Steam Manual for the British Navy. Portsea: W. Woodward, 1843.
Paddle Wheels; Precautions to be Taken Against Accidents when Men are in Them
Admiralty Circular No. 347, November 20, 1858
Machinery, Examination of, on and after Change of Engineer
Admiralty Circular No. 353, January 14th, 1859
Examination of Screw Propellers
Admiralty Circular No. 247, April 4th, 1856
Good history about screw propellers: https://www.shippingwondersoftheworld.com/screw_propeller.html
Burgh, N. P. (Nicholas Procter). A Practical Treatise On Modern Screw-propulsion: Illustrated With Fifty-two Plates, And One Hundred And Three Woodcuts. London: E. and F.N. Spon, 1869.