Thirteen/WNET New York Navigates the Turbulent Waters on Naval History and Technology in Warship, a New Documentary

Sea Classics, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Thirteen/WNET New York Navigates the Turbulent Waters on Naval History and Technology in Warship, a New Documentary


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The history of naval technology is a sweeping epic of triumph and tragedy, heroism and defeat, war and peace. It is also a human story, replete with ingenuity, stupidity, courage, arrogance, cruelty, and lives saved and lost. Premiering over two nights on Wednesdays 7 and 10

November 2001, at 9 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings), WARSHIP brings history to life through a dramatic study of 200 years of technological advances that have shaped modem navies and changed the course of history.

From the last great confrontation of wooden warships during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 to today's sophisticated weaponry, WARSHIP illustrates the reciprocal connection among human ingenuity, history and technology, revealing how circumstance or need has prompted the evolution of technology, which, in turn, has altered history, and vice versa. Rich with archival footage capturing the excitement and uncertainty of early periods of innovation, as well as vivid interview that evoke pivotal figures and events, WARSHIP is much more than a history lesson.

"Like any good adventure-on-thehigh-seas story, WARSHIP is punctuated by human drama and emotion. The featured players are quirky inventors, daring explorers, courageous heroes, and egotistical leaders. They are at the helm of this story, steering the course of history," says executive producer Beth Hoppe. "At the same time, WARSHIP looks at the relationship of technology and history - how technological advances have helped shape history, but also how history drives technology."

The first half of the premiere evening, Sea Power (Wednesday, 7 November, at 9 p"m.), examines the dawn of a new age in warfare as the old wooden warships gave way to armored ones. Beginning with Admiral Nelson's stunning victory at Trafalgar, it sets the narrative context of the entire series by allowing history to unfold through a look at major technological achievements and the stories of pivotal figures behind them. This program goes on to tell how one early engineer unwittingly invented a more efficient propeller, a necessary means of propulsion for these monoliths, when a prototype he was testing broke.

The man behind this accidental innovation was the engineer Francis Petitt Smith, who reversed the ancient principle of the Archimedean screw - the basic technology for lifting water - to drive a ship through water. While conducting the first trials of his full-turn Archimedean screw on a canal, he hit a piece of wood and broke the propeller in half, causing the ship to move faster.

Other accidents had more tragic results. The USS PRINCETON was the United States' first screwpropelled ship and the world's first to have her engines below the waterline, out of harm's way. It was designed by John Ericsson, a brilliant Swedish engineer brought to the United States to work with Petitt Smith after having served a brief period in the London Debtors Prison. It seemed as if Ericsson's star was rising once again, especially after the Secretary of the Navy, Abel P. Upshur, agreed to pay a VIP visit to the ship. On the day of the visit, one of the guns being fired to entertain the public suddenly exploded, killing several people, including Upshur.

Early on, it was determined that big guns fired together in salvo would be the best and only way to arm the new battleships. And the bigger the guns, the better. Big Guns (Wednesday, 7 November, at 10 p.m.) opens with the first battle between two ironclad warships and outlines the rapid technological developments that led to World War I-era battleships as large as floating cities and manned by crews numbering in the thousands. …

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