Screw -v- Paddle

It didn’t take long for the trading classes to realise that the screw propeller was streets ahead of the paddle wheel when it came to the open seas. After Francis Pettit Smith created his Archimede’s Screw, and subsequent improvements, shipbuilders and owners bought into the technology immediately. Not so the Royal Navy.

The Admiralty was a bit stodgy about change and were never early adopters. This might have been a bit of a leftover of the Establishment rules that had governed the Naval Fleet since 1719. Obviously there were amendments through the years but once changed, they didn’t like changing again. So, when screw propulsion was set to replace the only recent paddle wheel, they were obviously a bit reticent.

Francis Pettit Smith was not a great and famous marine engineer. Born the son of a lifelong postmaster from Kent, Frank was a poor farmer for the first 37 years of his life. He had an idea – he had been a bit ship-manic since childhood – that a propeller was better than a paddle and to prove it, he built a little model ship with his original screw and a spring to wind it up.

The model flew across the water of a small reservoir so, with the help of a friend, he built a bigger and better model. This model was put through lots of tests at Hendon, near his farm. Eventually, he took out a patent and, with the promise of purchase by the Admiralty, he formed the Propeller Steamship Company which built the Archimedes.

Sadly, the Admiralty didn’t buy the Archimedes and poor Frank went broke, winding up once more as a farmer, this time on the island of Guernsey. It’s even sadder when you think that, having let Isambard Kingdom Brunel take a trial run on the Archimedes, Smith changed the great engineer’s mind about propulsion, prompting him to put a screw on the SS Great Britain…as we saw when we visited it back in 2011.

Propeller of SS Great Britain, Bristol

Propeller of SS Great Britain, Bristol

However, before Frank left, there was the little matter of HMS Rattler.

Finally, the Admiralty decided it should look into this propeller thing a little deeper so they built a warship to test the new technology. It was built at the Royal Dockyard, Sheerness with engines by Maudslay, Son and Field on the Thames. Completed in 1843, she then had no less than 24 propellers tried on her. Eventually, the many and varied forms of screw were whittled down to four contenders, Thomas Sunderland, George Blaxland, Bennet Woodcroft and, of course, Francis Pettit Smith. Tom and George fell by the wayside, leaving two of the greatest propeller inventors to battle it out between them*.

It was a very close thing but Frank’s screw won out and was fitted onto the Rattler permanently. The navy then fitted all subsequent screw ships with Frank’s propeller, making him very famous but not a jot wealthier. He continued farming but not forgotten, on Guernsey**.

And don’t feel sorry for Bennet Woodcroft. He did extremely well for himself***.

But, back to the Rattler. As well as the propeller tests, the Admiralty wanted to cover all bases so they pitted her against another ship, the paddle steamer HMS Alecto, a ship almost her equal in every other detail.

There were a series of 12 tests. They mostly consisted of speed tests over open water. It was quickly clear that the screw was better than the paddle and the Admiralty decided to change after the first few tests. However, given they’d planned them, the rest of the tests had to be run. Which, as it turned out, was a good thing because the final test (some say it was only a publicity stunt) was a mighty tug-a-war between the two ships.

A massive cable was strung between the sterns of both ships and they fired up their engines to full. The Alecto reached full power the quickest and she was soon pulling the Rattler behind her but then, with a great cheer, Rattler’s engines reached capacity and the mammoth struggle was on. It wasn’t long before the mighty screw propeller showed it’s superiority and Rattler started towing Alecto at an amazing 2.5 knots.

It was a great and festive event with thousands lining the shoreline at Portsmouth, a lot of them journalists and artists.


HMS Rattler served the Navy well until being broken up in 1856. She worked to fight the final vestiges of the slave trade as well as taking part in a successful tussle with Chinese pirates then taking part in the Second Anglo-Burmese War. Her greatest claim to fame, however, was her demonstration of the screw propeller which changed the British Navy forever.

* There was a third: A Swedish chap called Ericsson who had tried to convince the Admiralty that his screw was best but they’d ignored him. He then went to the US and was responsible for the propellers on all the ships in the US Navy. He became very wealthy and engaged in litigation for most of his later years because of perceived copyright infringements.

** In 1860, after a bit of pressure from his friends, Francis Pettit Smith was appointed Curator of the Patent Museum (which became the Science Museum). Final recognition came about in 1871 when he was knighted.

*** As well as developing screw propellers for ships, Bennet Woodcroft made his money from textile machinery in the North. He eventually founded the Patent Museum and worked along with Frank to build up the objects that eventually made up the Science Museum Collection.

This entry was posted in Biographical sketch, Gary's Posts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Screw -v- Paddle

  1. Mum says:

    Well what do they say, Better late then never but poor Frank waiting all those years.
    Love mum xx

  2. Hello there,

    I read this page about the Propeller with great interest. I am a direct descendant of George Blaxland and have the original patent of his propeller design (+seal) on my wall in Mosman, Sydney.

    I would love to know where you got your information from. It’s very interesting, and I’d like to send you some details I’ve dug up.

    Best wishes, Joss.

  3. admin says:

    Hi Joss

    I used to volunteer at the Science Museum in London where I had access to their records (both technical and personal) which is where I found a lot of the information in the course of my research. Then I managed to find some in the newspaper archives of the time – mostly the Times but also the London Gazette and some local newspapers.

    An indispensable book I have used often when researching early powered ships, is A Short History of Marine Engineering by Edgar C Smith (1937). Blaxland is mentioned in this book but with little information beyond the bare bones I’ve included in this post. I’d be glad of anything you might be able to add.

    You’re very lucky to have the patent document and seal hanging on the wall. That is so cool. To be completely honest, I reckon it’s pretty cool being related to a Victorian marine engineer!

    As for you living in Mosman…I lived for many years in Neutral Bay and know the lower North Shore very well!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.