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Technological Change and the United States Navy, 1865–1945

, 352 pages

18 halftones

November 2000



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Technological Change and the United States Navy, 1865–1945

Winner, Engineer-Historian Award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers

Navies have always been technologically sophisticated, from the ancient world's trireme galleys and the Age of Sail's ships-of-the-line to the dreadnoughts of World War I and today's nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. Yet each large technical innovation has met with resistance and even hostility from those officers who, adhering to a familiar warrior ethos, have grown used to a certain style of fighting. In Technological Change and the United States Navy, William M. McBride examines how the navy dealt with technological change—from the end of the Civil War through the "age of the battleship"—as technology became more complex and the nation assumed a global role. Although steam engines generally made their mark in the maritime world by 1865, for example, and proved useful to the Union riverine navy during the Civil War, a backlash within the service later developed against both steam engines and the engineers who ran them. Early in the twentieth century the large dreadnought battleship at first met similar resistance from some officers, including the famous Alfred Thayer Mahan, and their industrial and political allies. During the first half of the twentieth century the battleship exercised a dominant influence on those who developed the nation's strategies and operational plans—at the same time that advances in submarines and fixed-wing aircraft complicated the picture and undermined the battleship's superiority.

In any given period, argues McBride, some technologies initially threaten the navy's image of itself. Professional jealousies and insecurities, ignorance, and hidebound traditions arguably influenced the officer corps on matters of technology as much as concerns about national security, and McBride contends that this dynamic persists today. McBride also demonstrates the interplay between technological innovation and other influences on naval adaptability—international commitments, strategic concepts, government-industrial relations, and the constant influence of domestic politics. Challenging technological determinism, he uncovers the conflicting attitudes toward technology that guided naval policy between the end of the Civil War and the dawning of the nuclear age. The evolution and persistence of the "battleship navy," he argues, offer direct insight into the dominance of the aircraft-carrier paradigm after 1945 and into the twenty-first century.

William M. McBride is a professor of history at the U.S. Naval Academy and former inaugural Shaeffer Distinguished Humanist at James Madison University.

"An intellectual history of American naval technology that examines the dominance of the battleship mentality... Thought-provoking, a book sure to spark debate."

"One could say this is yet another book about the rise and fall of the battleship as the centerpiece of naval power. But what sets the author's subtle work apart from earlier histories is his purpose. He sets out neither to defame nor defend naval leaders. Do not expect to find even the most obvious troglodyte of an admiral belittled in this text... [A] well-balanced analysis."

"An excellent survey of how the U.S. Navy adapted to changing technology, and how technological change in turn shaped the Navy."

"McBride examines the tendency of military institutions to favour stability over radical innovations... Well researched and clearly written."

"Well written, easy to read, and ultimately leads the reader to think about the larger issues of technological change."

"This fine study explores the dynamics through which American naval officers have interacted with technological change."

"This masterly study of the interaction between technological change and service politics in the U.S. Navy deserves to become a standard work."

"An excellent book. Technological Change and the United States Navy addresses a historical issue of acknowledged importance—the persistence of the battleship culture in the U.S. Navy—and does so on the basis of a substantial body of original research, much of it archival. This book makes original and important contributions to our understanding of what might be termed the intellectual life of the Navy, a matter of no small significance to the course and conduct of two world wars, a host of lesser conflicts, and the future of the Navy. Comprehensive, exhaustively researched, convincing in its arguments, and even-handed in its judgments, this book will remain the definitive work on the subject for the foreseeable future."

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