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Monday, July 15, 2013

Another Historic X-Prize - How The South Did Better Than It Should Have

   I ran across this claim of an X-Prize 

    "The Confederate Prize for Inventions that Sink or Destroy Union Ships (1861)
During the Civil War, the confederacy couldn't compete with the Union navy. So the the Confederate Congress authorized a prize for a "new kind of armed vessel, or floating battery, or defense invention" capable of sinking or destroying enemy vessels. The legislation led to the development of the H.L. Hunley — the first submarine ever to sink an enemy vessel (though the Hunley sank on its way back to port, killing its entire crew.)"

     There is remarkably little information, well almost none, on these prizes. This is what Wikipedia says

The C. S. Navy could never achieve equality with the Union Navy, so it used technological innovation, such as ironclads, submarines, torpedo boats, and naval mines
(then known as torpedoes) to gain advantage. In February 1861 the Confederate Navy had thirty ships, only fourteen of which were seaworthy, while the Union Navy had ninety vessels; the C. S. Navy eventually grew to 101 ships to meet the rise in naval threats and conflicts.

On 17 April, 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis invited applications for letters of marque and reprisal to be granted under the seal of the Confederate States, against ships and property of the United States and their citizens:
Now, therefore, I, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, do issue this, my proclamation, inviting all those who may desire, by service in private armed vessels on the high seas, to aid this government in resisting so wanton and wicked an aggression, to make application for commissions or letters of marque and reprisal, to be issued under the seal of these Confederate States....
which is not quite an X-prize but is compatible with it and certainly an outsourcing to the private sector.

   As a submarine the Hunley was of only limited success - it sank killing the entrepreneur responsible, Mr Hunley, then while it succeeded in sinking the Housatonic it was so close to the explosion that it sank itself, killing its 2nd crew.

        But this is in line with test pilot experience - test pilots die testing the limits of new vehicles - as the original X aircraft programme showed. Possibly the fact that they were at war meant that the testing was "on the job" as it were.

         What is certainly the case is that the CSA, generally an agricultural society, where the North had the industrial capacity, produced a remarkable range of naval high tech (for the time) and with ironclads came very close to defeating the Northern Navy, with its far greater resources. I am assuming that the Confederacy prizes stimulated the whole range of naval warfighting not just the submarine.

        Also that this war came close to rendering all previous navies obsolete (only close because none of these ironclads were capable of crossing oceans. I believe that war stimulates technology partly because governments are normally not keen on technological progress and it is only during wars which threaten the existence of specific governments that they are willing to go for high technology and X-Prizes.

        An example of this is that, despite the 1861 experience the US government insisted that submarines were "impractical" right up until they were virtually forced to start building one 32 years later in 1893.

"Ten years after the end of the Civil War, Irish-born John Holland began designing and building submarines in the United States. Holland submitted his first submarine design to the U.S. Navy in 1875, which at the time was dismissed as impractical. Seeing this rejection as a challenge, Holland quickly went back to the drawing board to redesign and improve on the construction of these underwater boats.
By 1888, the U.S. Navy recognized the potential for submarines in its fleet and held a design competition for a new underwater vessel. Holland won the competition and began building the submarine Pluger five years later."

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