Annoy the enemy upon all quarters!

15 April 2014

Empire and Globalism | History

Long experience has shown the human race that the surest way to provoke technological innovation is to fight a war. This being so, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find in the papers of Henry Knox, general in the Continental Army and artillery specialist during the American War of Independence, a design from about 1775 for an improved, and rather intriguing, type of naval vessel.

Image © The Gilder Lehrman Institute. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


The ‘impregnable floating engine’ is, according to its designer, ‘constructed to destroy barges, tenders, ships, towns, villages, castles & magazines etc etc etc’. He elaborates:

The bottom or floor of this machine consists of large square pine beams about 40 feet long, & to be strapp’d and bolted strongly together with iron.. the walls are made of bolts of hard timber with their ends outward & inward, & to be secured by strong bars of iron.. the covering or bomb proof likewise to be made of such timber as will most resist cannon balls, bombs etc.

Image © The Gilder Lehrman Institute. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


I’m no naval historian, but this contraption appears poised somewhere between conventional wooden warships and the first ironclads of nearly a century later, with some aspects of a classical galley mixed in. The vessel is not shaped like a conventional ship, being of an ‘octangular figure […] tho’t best in order to annoy the enemy upon all quarters’, but it is made substantially of wood. It seems from the description to be essentially a raft, so presumably it would lie, like the ironclads of the American Civil War, very low above the waterline, and it is enclosed, the ‘covering or bomb proof’ intended to provide protection from enemy fire.

But unlike ironclads, or the ships with which it would share the seas and whose men would wonder what on earth this was in front of them (until the eight large swivel guns were manoeuvred in their direction), the impregnable floating engine is powered by oarsmen – although the arrangement of the oars, at least judging by the diagram, is evocative of paddle steamers.

Although this design is in Knox’s papers, and Knox was instrumental in founding the regular US Navy in the 1790s, there is no suggestion that he himself was responsible for it. The paper is signed only ‘Taliacotius’, who (the internet informs me) was a 16th-century Italian doctor and pioneer of reconstructive surgery. Given the humanist education this suggests, the pseudonym was presumably chosen as an allusion to something, but exactly what remains a mystery. Possibly the designer felt that those of the enemy who were successfully annoyed would benefit from the attentions of a decent surgeon.

The full collection of the Henry Knox Papers will feature in American History 1493-1945, which will be published in October 2014.

About the Author

Nick Jackson

Nick Jackson

Since joining Adam Matthew my main field of work has been with British diplomatic documents, having edited several of our Archives Direct collections of material from The National Archives in London. But I've also helped build resources featuring everything from guides to London nightlife to records of American slaves' court appearances.