Don Leggett
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The Captain catastrophe and the politics of authority
in Shaping the Royal Navy
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This chapter explores number of important aspects of the topic, the Captain Catastrophe, relating to public experiments in naval architecture and the politics of authority. John Scott Russell used the tragic news of the shipwreck to reveal the powerful political authority at work in the ship's construction. Nineteenth-century naval architects, engineers and mathematicians cast doubt on the testimonies of naval officers by examining how the physical experience of the ship at sea gave illusionary and misleading visual observations. Lairds of Birkenhead had significant experience with turret warships, having constructed two vessels for the Confederate Navy, in defiance of the British position of neutrality in the American Civil War. The lobbying efforts of Cowper Coles and his associates throughout the 1860s drove the political construction. The Admiralty continued to investigate Coles's ideas and placed an order with Joseph Samuda's London yard for HMS Prince Albert, a coastal defence turret ship.

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Shaping the Royal Navy

Technology, authority and naval architecture, c.1830 –1906


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