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.
Since its inception, the Navy has been a leader in science and technology in the United States. Less known, however, is that several famous U.S. scientists have had close associations with the Navy, including Nobel Prize winner Albert Michelson, Naval Academy Class of 1873. The establishment of formalized scientific research in the Navy was spearheaded by another famous scientist and inventor, Thomas Edison, with the establishment of the Naval Research Laboratory. So it is fitting we use our object today, a rotating mirror used by Michelson to study light, to talk about science and the Navy. Michelson’s studies would win him the Nobel Prize in physics and helped another Albert develop his famous theory of relativity. It all started at the Naval Academy on the banks of the Severn River.
Last week we looked at the implications of the Great White Fleet’s cruise around the world. This week, we look at the voyage itself, and what better way to remember a long trip than through a scrapbook. Today’s object is the scrapbook of a crew member who was a part of this famous voyage, and it helps tell the story of what it was like to sail around the world as part of the one of the most powerful naval surface fleets ever assembled.
The arrival of the twentieth century brought with it one of the greatest naval arms races the world had ever seen. New battle ships were produced incredibly rapidly by all major maritime powers, and countries vied for influence in the Pacific. Recognizing the many implications of what was going on geopolitically around the world, President Theodore Roosevelt sent the United States Atlantic Fleet in a monumental 43,000 mile cruise around the world, a bold statement of the new naval capability of the U.S., and a logistical feat that remains of the greatest accomplishments ever of the U.S. Navy. Today’s object helps us understand some of the ramifications of the voyage, and the strategic impact it had.
The 19th century concluded with the construction of a whole new generation of ships – in fact it was a whole new navy. In the wake of the explosion of the USS Maine, the United States declared war on Spain in 1898. Facing off against an aging, under-gunned Spanish fleet, the modernized U.S. Navy won two spectacular victories over the Spanish, firmly establishing itself as a navy equal to the other global maritime powers. Our objects today belonged to the leader of the first American victory, Commodore (later Admiral of the Fleet) George Dewey.
Although sails and wind power had dominated naval propulsion for the previous five hundred years, it took less than fifty during the 19th century for every major navy to completely transition to steam power. Steam power opened the door to electricity generation, and the first American ships to have electricity had to be retrofitted to receive electrical systems. Our object today comes from the USS Maine, sunk in Havana, Cuba in 1898, and one of the first ships to be designed from the beginning with electrical power included.
In WWII, the Battle of Midway between the main Japanese and U.S. fleets was fought over a tiny air strip located on the Midway Atoll, halfway between the U.S. and Asia. The battle for the island was a decisive victory for U.S. forces, and helped even the odds between the U.S. and Japanese navies. But how did the U.S. come to control this island in the first place? Our object today helps tell the story of how Midway Island and dozens of small islands like it became U.S. territories just after the Civil War, thus setting the stage for some of the largest naval battles of World War II.
Polar exploration has been a hallmark of the U.S. Navy’s many accomplishments. Tales of bravery during legendary polar exploration missions have captivated the American people for nearly two hundred years. Today we look at a monument to one of those early polar expeditions, and at the same time examine the timeline of the polar exploration mission set that the Navy has been engaged in almost continuously since 1839.
The Civil War ended, and when it did, the Navy returned to its roots of exploration and expansion, particularly in Asia. And, where Navy ships sailed, so did Marines. When sailors went into combat on land, Marines often led the charge. Our object today is a Medal of Honor awarded to a Marine during the little-known Corean Incident of 1871.
Today’s object helps us understand how the disciplinary and military justice system of the Navy has developed from the middle part of the 19th century until now. JAG and NCIS are not just TV shows – they are important parts of the naval justice system. The institution of formalized disciplinary codes and personnel began during this time, in addition to all of the other developments that we have already discussed in previous episodes. Although flogging is long gone in the Navy today, we go back and take a look at early navy punishments, and see how they compare with the Navy today.