Locklin on science

Dynamite Cruiser Vesuvius

Posted in big machines by Scott Locklin on February 16, 2018

The 1800s were a time of revolution in technology. Everyone knows about the  H.M.S. Dreadnought, which made all other proto-battleships obsolete. There were a few false starts along these lines which were also interesting. One of the most hyped ones, at least as hyped as “stealth ships” or the “littoral combat ship” was the idea of the Dynamite Cruiser.

The Dynamite Cruiser Vesuvius was the only example of the kind. It was about as high tech as they come. Instead of using explosives to launch projectiles, it used compressed air. This made the first salvo completely silent. The main innovation was that the brobdingnagian 15″ guns which shot enormous quantities of explosive at the enemy. It was much faster than conventional ships, being lightly armored (only 900 tons, compared to an average of 4000 tons for a typical warship of its class) and equipped with enormous engines. The idea was to sneak up on the enemy, silently lob a couple of tons of dynamite on them and stealthily slip away. Back in the day, the perfidious Yankee’s idea was to build an enormous fleet of cheap  Dynamite Cruisers to challenge the European domination of the seas.

lookit dem gunz

In those days, filling shells with high explosives was a tricky business. To place this technology in historical context: the fact that it used an electric detonator was considered a really big deal. This thing was commissioned in 1890; a time when electricity and magic were pretty close to indistinguishable. We don’t have a parallel today, simply because technology has not advanced since 1970 or so, but imagine being in 1970 and being told you’d be able to carry a cell phone some day; that’s about the same as electrically detonated shells in 1890.


Black powder was still the main propellant used in launching shells back in those days: “smokeless” powders like cordite had not quite been invented yet. Guncotton was still high technology stuff of science fiction (in fact, this thing used a form of guncotton in its shells). Lots of early explosive shells would just explode inside their guns. So, early battle ships either used low explosives or solid shells. Everyone knew about dynamite: it was the new wonder technology of the age. More stable forms of high explosive which could survive launch via cannon hadn’t been discovered yet: picric acid explosive shells were some years away. TNT wasn’t used in shells until 1902. The main idea of the Dynamite Cruiser was to launch the fairly unstable explosive by a sort of aerial torpedo so it wouldn’t blow up inside the launching vessel’s cannon.

Image result for dynamite cruiser vesuvius

The fact that nobody has ever heard of the Vesuvius means it probably had a few problems. First problem: since it was a pneumatic launched projectile, it couldn’t use a gun turret. It was impossible to build air hoses which could withstand much pressure and be flexible enough to rotate. To this day, torpedo tubes only point forward or aft for the same reason. This meant the Vesuvius had to point itself at the enemy and hope that the bobbing of the sea didn’t bounce the point of impact around too much: a futile hope. It was also an extremely structurally unsound boat. It was built like a streamlined Yacht. But the designers managed to forget about the enormous cannon it sported in the front. This made it almost impossible to maneuver. In fact, it made the thing so structurally unsound, the bolts that held it together would explosively sheer in choppy water. The tanks and compressors which drove the cannon took up so much space in the boat, there wasn’t much room for people to do useful work. It was so cramped, it could only carry 30 shells. It also had a tiny beam, which, while useful for making for a good top speed, made it incredibly unstable as a gun platform; it rolled enormously and at a period of once every two seconds. Not good at all for a gun platform.

dem air valves

It was eventually used in the Spanish American war to bombard Cuba. It did succeed is scaring the crap out of the Spaniards, since they didn’t hear the report of the guns before it was raining humid dynamite. However, whatever damage it caused was accidental. The ineffectiveness of dynamite bombardment was rapidly realized, so the mighty Dynamite Cruiser was relegated to courier duties. Eventually it was refitted as an ordinary Torpedo boat, and then ignominiously sold for scrap.

I don’t know if there are any lessons to be learned from the Vesuvius. I guess the main one is a weapons system should be used in combat or something close to it before it is declared the latest thing. If we want to compare this giant leap forward in technology to modern American naval vessels, the LCS are so incredibly silly and can barely remain afloat.  Perhaps the Naval drone is more comparable in being “advanced,” expensive and completely untried. Or perhaps the government actually consists of anointed military genius Frederick Barbarosa types and I’ve been taking too much advantage of California’s legal marijuana crop in 2018.

I originally read about this thing in a Patton essay. Perhaps the best way to close is with what Patton said.

“When Samson slew the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, he probably created such a vogue for the weapon that throughout the world no prudent donkey dared to bray. Certainly the advent of the atomic bomb was not half as startling as the initial appearance of gunpowder. In my own lifetime, I remember two inventions, or possibly three, which were supposed to stop war; namely the dynamite cruiser Vesuvius, the submarine, and the tank. Yet, wars go blithely on and will when our great-grandchildren are very old men.”

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3 Responses

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  1. crocodilechuck said, on February 16, 2018 at 8:50 am

    “Shear”

    Great post.

  2. Anonymous said, on February 16, 2018 at 7:08 pm

    All this stuff that is fast/sneaky but not well protected, if it works, creates
    a window of opportunity during which you’re supposed to destroy _all_ of your
    enemies because if some survive they will probably adapt to your weaknesses. So
    the idea that something like that can end war is silly. On the other hand this
    kind of stuff works well if it’s expendable, like a missile or a cheap drone. I
    think historically variations of the combo one mothership + lots of drones
    worked better that anything else, on average.

  3. Toddy Cat said, on February 22, 2018 at 5:12 pm

    Cool idea, way ahead of its time, but too cutting edge and overtaken by technology, sort of the B-58 Hustler of its day. By the way, that article on the LCS is really disturbing. This has been going on for almost sixty years now, and our military has still not learned that weapons systems that are sold as being “multi-mission” almost never work – the F-111, the F-35, the XM29, and now the LCS, along with a lot of others. To paraphrase the old SNL skit, if something is billed as both a floor wax and a dessert topping, it probably isn’t very good as either.

    By the way, good to hear from you again…


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