[The following narrative is taken from Frederick W. True’s Semi-centennial history of the National Academy of Sciences, A History of the First Half-Century of the National Academy of Sciences 1863-1913, pp. 213-217.]

The second committee appointed during the Civil War had for its task the consideration of means for protecting the bottoms of iron ships from injury by salt water. It was appointed May 9, 1863 at the request of the Navy Department, communicated by Admiral Davis May 8, 1863. This was a short-lived committee. It made a brief report on January 9, 1864, and was discharged.


The substance of the report was that, though many plans for protecting the hulls of iron ships had been devised, no one of them had proved sufficiently effective to justify the committee in recommending it for use in the Navy.


It was suggested that experiments should be tried by the committee of the Academy in case means were provided. No means being forthcoming, however, the investigations were never undertaken by the Academy, although the laboratory of the Smithsonian Institution was placed at its disposal.


It may seem strange that the committee, which included among the members the Sillimans and Wolcott Gibbs, should have been unable to make any suggestions in the line of the inquiry with which it was concerned, but it appears that the composition of paints, and the effectiveness or non-effectiveness of different mixtures against corrosion and the fouling of ships has only recently been the subject of scientific investigations. We learn from the writings of Naval Constructor Henry Williams that it has only been within the last five or ten years that the United States Navy has conducted experiments with paints. Prior to that time commercial brands of paints were adopted and when a vessel was painted with a particular kind that kind was ever afterwards used for the same vessel. This practice proved both inconvenient and expensive, and in 1906 the Navy Department began a series of experiments to determine what mixtures were most effective to prevent corrosion and fouling. The experiments resulted in the adoption of a paint, known in the service as the “Norfolk paint,” for practically all vessels of the navy, two formulas being used, one for an anticorrosive paint and the other for an antifouling paint. Mr. Williams remarks:


“Estimates made in 1910 of the cost of paint for the bottoms of all vessels on the navy list, using the kinds of proprietary brands of paint that were purchased usually prior to 1908 and distributed among the ships in the proportions of each brand then customary and at the prices then current, show that the cost of paint for a single painting of the bottoms of all vessels of the navy, not including coal barges, etc., under the conditions noted, would have been somewhat more than $100,000. The costs of an equal amount of the Norfolk ship’s bottom paint at the prevailing cost of manufacture would be less than $33,000. As a majority of the vessels of the navy are painted twice a year, it will be seen that the annual saving to the government by this means at the present time is probably not less than $100,000 annually. It should be noted, however, that largely as a result of the government entering the field with its own paint the prices asked for ship’s bottom paint by various firms previously supplying the navy has been so reduced that if, for expediency or for some other reason, the Navy Department decided in the future to purchase all or a portion of its ship’s bottom paint, there still would remain an appreciable saving to be credited to the Norfolk paint.”

[Engineering News, vol. 66, no. 5, August 3, 1911, p. 138.]


He further remarks on the subject:


“The question of protecting the underwater bodies of sea-going ships always has been vital, and since the use of steel for hulls has become general, a suitable paint for this purpose has been in demand. Various manufacturers offer commercially, generally under proprietary names, so-called ship’s bottom paints or compositions, which are designed to effect the double purpose of protecting the bottom plating from the corrosive action of sea-water and, also, of preventing the attaching of the various marine growths, such as grass, barnacles, hydroids, etc. The necessity for the periodic docking of ships, often at intervals of less than 6 months, bears witness to the fact that so far no satisfactory ship’s bottom paint has been produced; those in general use represent the best available, but all leave much to be desired.”

[Engineering News, vol. 66, no. 5, August 3, 1911, p. 136.]

The foregoing comments on the subject of ships’ paint, which are from an authoritative source, and of very recent date, serve to make it clear why the committee of the Academy was unable to recommend definite compositions, or mixtures, and to justify it in proposing that experiments be made to determine the relative effectiveness of different substances. If the subject of ships’ paints is still open to investigation, it is obvious that its condition a half century ago must have been much more unsatisfactory.

Committee on Magnetic Deviation in Iron Ships


The committee known as Committee No. 3, or “the Compass Committee,” was appointed on May 20, 1863, at the request of the Navy Department, communicated by Rear-Admiral Davis on May 8, 1863, and had a direct bearing on the operations of the Navy during the Civil War. It grew out of a commission appointed by the Secretary of the Navy in accordance with an Act of Congress “to make experiments for the correction of local attraction in vessels built wholly or partly of iron,” approved March 3, 1863, the same day as that on which the Act of Incorporation of the Academy was approved. When the Academy had been organized, the Secretary of the Navy turned the matter over to it, requesting that it would “investigate and report upon the subject of magnetic deviation in iron ships.” The similarity of the personnel of the two bodies—the commission and the committee—is of strong interest in connecting with the present history. We learn from Professor Bache that the Commission of the Navy Department consisted of himself as chairman, Joseph Henry, Wolcott Gibbs, Benjamin Peirce, and W. P. Trowbridge. The committee of the Academy was the same, with the addition of Charles H. Davis and Fairman Rogers. This transformation goes far to convince us of the truth of Admiral Davis’ assertion that the practical plan for the organization of an Academy was suggested by the commission of the Navy Department. There appear to have been several such commissions and the one under consideration performed other duties besides the particular one for which is was established. It met in New York on March 19, 1863, to act, by request of the Secretary of the Navy, “as a scientific committee to superintend the placing of the standard compass on board the United States steamer Circassian, and to examine the correction and register of its deviations.” Its second meeting while acting in this capacity was held in New York, April 21, 1863, the day before that on which the Academy met for organization, and on which a committee drafted the constitution. Not only so, but the committee met in the same place as the Naval commission—the Brevoort House—and three of the members of the committee were also members of the commission. These coincidences and relationships reveal to us how close was the interaction between the Naval Commission and the leading spirits in the founding of the Academy.

This committee performed an extraordinary amount of work and prepared a detailed report which covers 73 printed pages. It is difficult to understand how men charged with many onerous duties could devote so much energy to a special investigation, until one considers the condition of the times. Not only were many of the ordinary activities of life suspended or retarded by war, but every loyal citizen, and especially every officer of the Government, felt that he had a patriotic duty to perform in aiding, as far as in him lay, to sustain the cause of the Union.

The Civil War happened at a time when iron ships were fast superseding wooden ones. The Navy had in commission or under construction in May, 1863 some 88 vessels, the majority of which had wooden hulls protected above the water line by plates of iron. These were known as iron-clads. The vessels with iron hulls were mainly prizes. They were built in England and employed as blockade-runners. The rigging of some vessels was all of rope, of others part iron and part rope, and still others, all iron. The decks of wooden vessels were also often of iron.

Vessels at this time appear to have carried several compasses which were sometimes arranged in pairs, and were placed in what were thought to be the most convenient locations. The presence of large masses of iron, often within a few feet of the compasses caused a large and variable amount of deviation on which account navigation was at times extremely precarious. Various plans had been proposed from time to time for overcoming the local attraction, some of which seem strange indeed, such as setting the compasses in iron pots four inches thick, placing them in zinc cases packed with charcoal, etc. The method which seems to have been most effective was the one invented by the English astronomer Airy, which consists in counteracting the local attraction by means of bar magnets placed in suitable locations. The committee of the Academy adopted this method for the war vessels which they inspected, making use of the services of an expert, A.D. Frye, of New York, to carry it into practical effect. They supervised the correction of the compasses on 27 vessels of all kinds, including sloops, monitors, gunboats, propellers, side-wheel steamers, tugs and transports, and were occupied in the task from March until late in September. Some of the vessels were at New York, others at Boston, Philadelphia, and Hampton Roads. At Philadelphia a compass station had not been established, and at the request of the Bureau of Navigation, one member of the committee, Fairman Rogers, gave personal attention to the ship Ticonderoga, which was lying there, and made a special report to the committee.

In addition, Charles A. Schott and G.W. Dean, assistants in the U.S. Coast Survey, made, by direction of Professor Bache, an extended series of magnetic observations on the first-rate iron-clad Roanoke and the monitor Passaic at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and also some experiments in the iron-clad Monadnock at the Charlestown Navy Yard.

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