Joshua Humphreys, America’s First Ship Builder

In 1785, just two years after the end of the Revolutionary war, the last Continental Navy warship, the Alliance, had been sold off to help pay off America’s war debts. The new nation was left with the second largest merchant fleet in the world with no navy to protect them. It was not long after we gained our independence that we faced a new threat.

On March 27, 1794, the Act to Provide a Naval Armament was signed by President George Washington. With this document, Congress authorized the construction of six Navy frigates to confront a new enemy. This measure was in response to the growing problem of piracy off the northern coast of Africa. The Barbary States started capturing American merchant ships and sailors for ransom and tributes.

We needed to build new naval warships to meet this growing problem on the high seas. Secretary of War Henry Knox turned to Joshua Humphreys.

The Unsung Patriot
Joshua Humphreys was born on June 17, 1751, in Haverford, Pennsylvania, the son of Welsh Quakers. At a young age, he began his apprenticeship in Philadelphia as a shipwright and builder. Before the end of the Revolutionary War, he was appointed to master shipwright.

As the war for independence raged on between the colonies and Great Britain, Humphreys worked on converting merchantmen into warships for the Continental Navy. During this time he worked on creating a ship design that had a greater emphasis on speed, building his reputation as a master ship designer and builder in Philadelphia.

When it came time to appoint a naval constructor for the six new frigates, Humphreys was the man for the job. His created ships’ drawings with a shape like no other of its class at the time. His frigates were 20 feet longer and 3-5 feet wider than the French and British frigates of the period. With the addition of diagonal riders, large timbers much like a ribcage that ran along the hull on the lower levels, the ships were able to carry a heavier armament than typical frigates of the era.

The Secret Weapon
The ship’s secret weapon was the live oak that Humphreys insisted on using in their construction. At the time, live oak could only be found in the southeastern part of the United States. The wood was so strong and dense, that during the battle between the USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere on August 19, 1812, cannonballs were bouncing off the hull of our ship. Eventually, the British designated our ships as “super frigates.”

USS Constitution was involved in thirty-three engagements and never once struck her colors. With the dedication to performance and the ability to apply untried ideas, Humphreys created his masterpiece. The birth of the United States Navy would not be the same without this unsung patriot. His proof of supreme shipbuilding still stands today in Boston, Massachusetts, at the Charlestown Navy Yard where his last remaining ship holds the title: “The Oldest Commissioned Warship Afloat in the World.”