From the 1890s until World War II, the Navy witnessed tremendous technological development. Wooden ships ceased to exist. The airplane was invented and became mainstream, and submarines entered broad use world-wide. During this same period and with the same rapidity, the Navy (and the rest of the world’s navies like Japan) adopted wireless communication, completely changing the way navies fought battles and coordinated movements. Wireless technology directly impacted the course of all future conflicts, particularly WWII, with interceptions of German and Japanese communications leading to key Allied victories. To this day, wireless communication technology continues to develop and change at incredible speed.
Commander Robert Peary made eight polar excursions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. On each one of these, he was accompanied by Matthew Henson. However, whereas Perry received wide-spread acclaim, Henson spent most of his life in relative anonymity because he was African-American. Nevertheless, Henson’s contributions to polar exploration were tremendous, and he is now remembered as one of the great American polar explorers.
In 1927, young Army Air Corps reservist Charles Lindbergh was catapulted to international fame when he won the $25,000 Orteig prize for the first solo New York to Paris flight. Months later, he published a book on his life, exploits, and his views on aviation. Today we feature one of two authors copies that were signed by Lindbergh himself, one which was presented to his friend and benefactor, Harry Guggenheim. Although not a Navy pilot, Lindbergh nevertheless had a tremendous impact on both naval aviation and the U.S. space program.
Even though submarines entered mainstream use during World War I, they nevertheless were dangerous, and accidents were usually fatal. A series of mishaps on US submarines finally inspired one man to develop the tools that would help sailors escape from a sunken submarine. Charles Momsen was a pioneer in underwater rescue, and developed the rescue device that bears his name.
The recent 72nd anniversary of the attack at Pearl Harbor allows for a pause in our chronological narrative of naval history. Fifteen Medals of Honor were awarded to Navy sailors for heroism during that attack, and our object today is one of those medals.
World War I spurred naval aviation development into high gear, and helped set in motion the development of the aircraft and the training of aviators that would go on to make the first trans-Atlantic crossing. In a tremendous logistical undertaking that in many way’s eclipsed that of the Great White Fleet, the US Navy set up an unbroken line of warships across the Atlantic Ocean. These ships held position in stormy seas with their spotlights illuminating the sky to help guide the Glenn Curtis-built flying boat NC-4 during its historic crossing.
While the Navy was building its new steel battleships, and airplanes were in their earliest stages of development, polar exploration, long a hallmark of the Navy, was in its heyday. Two of the Navy’s great polar explorers, Admirals Byrd and Perry continued to push north and south from the late 19th century through World War I and beyond. Today’s object, a bronze bust of Admiral Byrd, helps take us back to the days of the first explorers to reach the poles.
As naval aviation was under development, so was another pivotal early 20th century invention, the radio. The Navy was a very early adopter of wireless communication, and the outbreak of World War I necessitated an alternative to the transatlantic telegraph. The massive radio complex at Greenbury Point across the river from the Naval Academy filled this need. The three towers remaining today help us discuss the birth of radio, and the incredibly rapid evolution of wireless communications in the Navy.
Even as the most powerful battleships ever to float were still under construction during the first decades of the 20th century, they nevertheless were on the verge of being made obsolete by a new emerging technology, the airplane. Although much of the naval senior leadership still believed in the concept of the battle fleet, even in the early days there were visionaries in naval aviation who saw the potential of this new technology. Most of the first naval aviators conducted their training right on the banks of the Severn River across from the Naval Academy, and they used aircraft identical to our object today, a replica of one of the earliest naval aircraft built by the Wright Brothers.
The major overhaul and construction efforts of the US Navy from the 1890s into the 20th century were dwarfed by those of Germany and England. A massive naval arms race was underway, catapulting the world towards its first world war. When the United States finally was pulled into the conflict in 1917 with the commencement by the Germans of unrestricted submarine warfare, one of the first naval undertakings was the laying of massive mine fields to combat the German submarine force. However, mine warfare was nothing new to the US, because we had been developing and using mines since the Revolutionary War.