If You Went to California in 1849, You Were Probably on One of His Ships

June 19, 1816

William H. Webb, a prominent shipbuilder who is widely considered to be the first true American naval architect, was born in New York City. His father owned and operated a shipyard in the city.

William H. Webb showed a strong aptitude for mathematics at an early age. Webb created his first vessel – a small boat known as a skiff – when he was only 12. His great enthusiasm for this type of pursuit ultimately led him to serve as an apprentice at his father’s shipyard for six years starting at the age of 15. Webb was 20 when he was awarded a subcontract for building the vessel Oxford, a packet ship used to transport passengers and goods between New York City and Liverpool; this subcontract was his first commercial contract.

After completing his apprenticeship, Webb sought to further deepen his knowledge of marine architecture by going outside the United States. He traveled to Scotland to visit the world-renowned shipyards along the River Clyde. When his father died suddenly back in New York, Webb cut short his tour and returned home to assume management of the shipyard.

During the next several decades, Webb oversaw the production of more than 130 large-scale and influential vessels. Webb attributed his shipbuilding success to close attention to detail, and he specifically managed to combine a strong artistic sensibility with his formidable mastery of mathematical calculations.

By 1849, his shipyard had become known far and wide for its innovative designs for sailing ships. That same year, Webb built the packet ships Albert Gallatin and Guy Mannering. At the time, these ships were the largest merchant vessels in the world.

The California Gold Rush provided a readymade market for Webb, who developed a number of clipper ships to transport prospectors and supplies alike to and from that region of the west coast. The vessels built at Webb’s shipyard for the Gold Rush included the Challenge, Comet, Gazelle, Invincible, and Swordfish. Another notable clipper ship produced by Webb was the Young America, which made voyages as far as Australia and the Far East. Webb also designed and constructed the Ocean Monarch, which was the largest sailing vessel ever built at a New York shipyard.

Webb also built a large number of steamships. These included the United States, the first steamship to operate in the New Orleans trade; the Cherokee, the first steamship to serve on a regular route between New York City and Savannah; and the California, the first steamship to enter the strait known as the Golden Gate between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

USS Dunderberg under construction at the Webb shipyard, 1863

In 1859, Webb built the steam frigate General Admiral for the Imperial Russian Navy; she was the fastest vessel of her kind during that era. During the American Civil War, Webb’s shipyard constructed the giant ironclad USS Dunderberg for the Union Navy. This vessel was not ready for service until after the war ended, but she still earned acclaim as the longest wooden-hulled ship built up to that time.

Webb ended up shutting down his shipyard in 1869, but his interest in maritime activities did not diminish. He founded the Webb Academy and Home for Shipbuilders, which provided educational opportunities for naval architecture and remains in existence today as the private undergraduate engineering college Webb Institute. In addition, Webb was a charter member of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers. He died in 1899 at the age of 83.

For more information on William H. Webb, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_H._Webb.

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