Home » Newspaper Articles » Steam ram prediction

Steam ram prediction


On April 18 1862, the Times published a letter by “J.W.” entitled “Naval Warfare”. The letter quoted a section from On Naval Timber and Arboriculture (pp.97-99) in which Matthew predicts that naval warfare would be transformed by “steam rams” – steam-powered warships employing ramming tactics to sink enemy vessels – and by steam-powered gunships carrying powerful “bomb-cannons”. Matthew’s passage begins by considering the use of larch timber as a defensive cover for warships, but also notes that “the employment of bomb-cannon … throwing explosive shot … will render any other than metallic defensive cover ineffectual”.

A retrospective on Matthew published shortly after his death (Editorial (1874-09-05)) reports that this “J.W.” was “Mr. Walter of the Times”, in other words its managing editor and proprietor John Walter. The retrospective also suggests that Walter met Matthew prior to publishing his article, although this contradicts what Walter’s own preamble, which states that he had “no acquaintance with the writer”:

It was only by accident that Mr. Walter, of the Times, met one day with an old man upon whom age sat lightly, and whose talk so interested him that he dipped into the same book on “Naval Timber,” and found to his amazement that he had been conversing with a Seer who had in his youth put upon paper his pre-vision — a vision seen with the eye of the mind — of the steam fleets of the future with their iron rams, their changed manoeuvres, their rapid movements, and their heavy armour plating. Mr. Walter was so impressed by the chapter on armour-plated steam rams that he republished it in the pages of the Thunderer to let the world see that there was in England one man who, at the time when steam navigation was in its infancy — a mere timidly tentative thing — foresaw the changes which steam had made necessary in naval warfare, and foreseen some of those changes with a clearness which the Admiralty have hardly realised at this hour. An agriculturist had, in nautical matters, gone ahead of all recognised nautical authorities by more than thirty-five years. The chapter re-issued in the Times read like a revelation, and furnished one of the most curious illustrations this generation has seen of the triumph of mind over circumstances.

The reason why Matthew’s passage “read like a revelation” was because by the 1860’s steam-powered iron-clad warships, of the shape and size predicted by Matthew and fitted with ramming prows, were indeed transforming naval warfare and tactics. In fact, the “ramming craze” would prove to be short-lived, but in 1862 it was the wave of the future. Certainly, Matthew was way ahead of the curve in writing about such things in 1831.

Matthew’s predictions on naval warfare were part of a longer list of predictions that he had enumerated in an article “National Prospects” published in the Mark Lane Express the previous year, and copied by the Dundee Advertiser and the Farmer’s Magazine. The longer list included “my Theory of the Law of Natural Selection”, his prediction of the impending Irish Great Famine in Emigration Fields, and his ditch system for draining agricultural fields.

The fact that this letter was published in the Times meant that it received widespread attention, and it was reprinted in many other newspapers. In fact, this piece of Matthew “prophesy” received much greater newspaper coverage than his anticipation of Darwin’s Origin of Species, which was only picked up by the Dundee Advertiser (see Matthew (7 April 1860) and Darwin (21 April 1860)).

The attention given to Matthew’s prediction of steam rams explains why it is also given prominence on the title page of his 1864 pamphlet Schleswig-Holstein. In addition to describing himself as “The Solver of the Problem of Species”, he also describes himself as “First Proposer of Steam Rams, Metallic Cover, Sloping Sides, Heavy Gun Boats, Etc.”

“Naval Warfare”. The Times, 18 April 1862, p.9 (pdf image)
The original letter by “J.W.” (John Walter) in the Times, quoting pp.97-99 of On Naval Timber and Arboriculture. The missing text denoted by “. . . .” is: “; but even though the external arch were covered with assailants like a swarm of bees, they would be harmless, or could be easily displaced”.



Looking over the pages of a very remarkable work on Naval Timber, written more than 30 years ago by Mr Patrick Matthew, I came upon the following passage, which, read by the light of modern science, appears so prophetic that I am sure it will interest many of your readers. I have no acquaintance with the writer, but the volume to which I have referred shows him to be a man of no ordinary genius and capacity, and I strongly recommend it to the perusal of every one who, either as a planter or a builder, takes an interest in the growth of timber.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

“Larch, from its great lateral toughness, particularly the root, and from its lightness, seems better adapted for the construction of shot-proof vessels than any other timber; and, opposed endway to shot in a layer, arch fashion, several feet deep round a vessel, would sustain more battering than any other subject we are acquainted with, metal excepted. Were the part above water of a strong steam vessel, having the paddles under cover, a section of a spheroid, or half-egg, cut longitudinally, and covered all round with the root-cuts of larch five or six feet deep, with the hewn-down bulb external — well supported inside, having nothing exposed outside of this arch, and only a few small holes for ventilators and eyes — there is no shot in present naval use that would have much impression upon it. Had such a vessel a great impelling power, and a very strong iron cut-water, or short beak, wedge-shaped (in manner of the old Grecian galleys), projecting before the vessel under water, well supported within by beams radiating back in all directions, she might be wrought to split and sink a fleet of men-of-war lying becalmed, in a few hours. This could done by running successively against each, midships, and on percussion immediately backing the engine, at the same time spouting forth missiles, hot water, or sulphuric acid from the bow to obstruct boarding. . . . To prevent combustion of red-hot shot, the larch blocks, after drying, might have their pores filled by pressure with alkali. However, the employment of bomb-cannon about to be introduced in naval warfare, throwing explosive shot, regulated with just sufficient force to penetrate, without passing through the side of the opposed vessel, will render any other than metallic defensive cover ineffectual; but this circumstance will, at the same time, completely revolutionise sea affairs, laying on the shelf our huge men-of-war, whose place will be occupied with numerous bomb-cannon boats, whose small size will render them difficult to be hit, from which one single explosive shot, taking effect low down in the large exposed side of a three-decker, will tear open a breach sufficient to sink her almost instantly.”

“Naval Warfare”. Dundee Advertiser, 19 April 1862, p.3 col.1 (pdf image)
Copies the letter in yesterday’s Times on the “prophesy” of Matthew. The preamble states:

In the following letter, signed “J. W.,” in yesterday’s Times, a well-merited compliment is paid to Patrick Matthew, Esq. of Gourdiehill, for prophesying, with his well-known sagacity, the revolution which would at no distant day take place in naval warfare:—

“Naval Warfare”. Liverpool Daily Post, 19 April 1862, p.8 col.3
Copies the same letter in yesterday’s Times on the “prophesy” of Matthew.

“A Curious Prophecy”. Caledonian Mercury, 21 April 1862, p.4 col.4 (pdf image)
Prints the same excerpt from On Naval Timber and Arboriculture, but this time with no mention of the letter having been published in the Times. Instead, there is a new title “A Curious Prophecy” and a shorter preamble.

In a work on naval timber, written more than 30 years ago, by Mr Patrick Matthew, occurs the following passage, which reads like a curious prophecy:—

“A Curious Prophecy”. Glasgow Herald, 21 April 1862, p.6 col.4
A copy of the same version, “A Curious Prophecy”, as in the Caledonian Mercury above.

“A Curious Prophecy”. Northern Whig, 21 April 1862, p.4 col.4
A copy of the same version, “A Curious Prophecy”, as in the Caledonian Mercury above.

“Iron-Cased Ships Predicted”. Glasgow Herald, 21 April 1862, p.4 col.5
A copy of the same version, “A Curious Prophecy”, as in the Caledonian Mercury above, except the title is changed to “Iron-Cased Ships Predicted”.

“Naval Warfare”. Dundee Advertiser, 22 April 1862, p.2 col.4
A repeat, in the same newspaper, of the version “Naval Warfare” carried in the Dundee Advertiser on 19 April 1862.

“A Curious Prophecy”. Lincolnshire Chronicle, 25 April 1862, p.6 col.4
A copy of the same version, “A Curious Prophecy”, as in the Caledonian Mercury above.
“A Curious Prophecy”. Ulster Gazette, 26 April 1862, p.3
A copy of the same version, “A Curious Prophecy”, as in the Caledonian Mercury above.

“The Great Exhibition”. Dundee Advertiser, 11 June 1862, p.2 col.3-5 (pdf image)
In a long article on new Navy warships, the development of the iron-clad “steam ram”, Matthew (“the Carse philosopher”) is praised and Admiral Sartorius derided. The style and content of this article suggests that the writer is W. C. Leng, who at that time was working at the Dundee Advertiser and who would later become editor/owner of the Sheffield Daily Telegraph.

Admiral Sartorius, who claims to be the inventor of the ram theory, puts forward a proposal, which is as absurd as his claim to the invention of the steam ram. Mr Patrick Matthew of Gourdie Hill, Carse of Gowrie, more than thirty years ago, described the uses of steam rams, and gave some strikingly sensible rules as to the forms, the material, and the manoeuvres of these vessels, and, even to your correspondent, who then knew nothing of either the Admiral or the Carse philosopher, the idea of making the war fleets and one each other down has, for more than ten years past, being familiar. Admiral Sartorius proposes to put a screw at each end of his rams; and yet the first thing a vessel so fitted would do would be to destroy her foremost propeller.

Several further articles on naval warships referencing Matthew’s prediction of iron-clad stem rams were published in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph in the years following Matthew’s death – see Newspaper Articles > Retrospectives.

%d bloggers like this: