April 25, 2019

Curator’s Log April 2019: Herreshoff Biographies, Part One

This is the first of a multi-part series on Captain Nat Herreshoff’s efforts, starting in 1926 and extending into the early 1930s, to correct and add to the published biographies of himself and his two older brothers, James Brown Herreshoff and John Brown Herreshoff.

Curator’s Log April 2019

Captain Nat and the Herreshoff Biographies-

Part One; The Bios of 1904

Introduction

This is the first of a multi-part series on Captain Nat Herreshoff’s efforts, starting in 1926 and extending into the early 1930s, to correct and add to the published biographies of himself and his two older brothers, James Brown Herreshoff and John Brown Herreshoff.  The series is primarily based upon admittedly incomplete records from the archives of the Herreshoff Collection housed in the Herreshoff Marine Museum and Captain Nat’s papers found in one small folder of Mystic Seaport’s L. Francis Herreshoff Collection 138- Box 16, Folder 13. The latter papers are very important to a better understanding of how Captain Nat viewed both, his life and career, and the part his two brothers played in the founding and shaping of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company. I am certain that if these documents had been known in the late 1990s, Carlton Pinheiro and Halsey Herreshoff would have included them in the Herreshoff Marine Museum’s 1998 book Recollections and Other Writings by Nathanael G. Herreshoff.

The Herreshoff Biographies

In 1893 James T. White began publishing The National Cyclopedia of American Biography to contain the “ history of the United States as illustrated in the lives of the founders, builders, and defenders of the republic, and of the men and women who are doing the work and moulding the thought of the present time”. Volume 12 of the series published in 1904, Page 352, Page 353 and Page 354,  contained the biographies  of six Herreshoffs, starting each with a one or two word  characterization as to who they are – the father, Charles Frederick Herreshoff “shipbuilder and agriculturist” (1809-1888) and brothers James Brown Herreshoff “inventor” (1834-1930), John Brown Herreshoff “shipbuilder” (1841-1915), Nathanael Greene Herreshoff “boatbuilder and designer” (1848-1938), John Brown Francis Herreshoff “chemist” (1850-1932)  and Julian Lewis Herreshoff “educator” (1854-1919). These biographies are attached at the end of this Log and can also be found on-line beginning at; https://archive.org/details/nationalcyclopae12derbuoft/page/400

Captain Nat Reacts to the Biographies: April 1926 

Capt. Nat received the six family bios in an exchange of letters with The Cyclopedia’s Assistant to the Editor, F. W. Wilson, in the early Spring of 1926. He had not seen them before – not unusual for Capt.  Nat- known for his strict focus to business at hand and hours devoted to self-improvement, he did not go looking for commentary, especially from persons he did not know and respect. There were at least two letters from Wilson and two or more immediate responses from Capt. Nat, followed by additional thoughts and writings through at least 1932. As is the case with most of Nat’s correspondence what we find is his handwritten draft letter or manuscript that he passed to a secretary to type and mail. Some drafts are dated, some provide the date the typed letter was mailed; some provide neither.

In his first letter (which does not survive) Wilson was seeking information about Lewis Herreshoff for a new bio. From Wilson’s second letter of April 6, 1926 it is obvious that Capt. Nat, after reading the bios, had responded to Wilson’s first letter with pointed comments about the absolute importance of john Brown Herreshoff to the founding and success of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co, as compared to the very minor role played by James Brown Herreshoff. Wilson writes, “I note that you give your brother John B. credit for founding the Herreshoff Mfg. Co., whereas it had been considered that James B. should have had the credit for it.  You must be in a better position than we to know the exact facts for which reason we would be deeply appreciative of any assistance you may care to give us in expanding and bringing these articles up to date. This applies to your own article as well as those of the rest.”

Capt. Nat there upon undertook to correct the record as presented in the 1904 bios and his responses will be the subject of the following parts of this series. But first- what is it in the 1904 bios that could cause him to raise strong objection?

James B. Herreshoff

  • 1904 Bio “In 1873 he produced his coil-boiler, a pattern now very popular; and this was soon followed by the invention of the fin-keel for sailing yachts and mercurial antifouling paint. These three inventions have enabled the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. to construct the fastest steam and sailing yachts in the world.”
  • Capt. Nat’s objection
    • The coil boiler-
      • It ignored John B’s contribution to facilitating the first practical application of the coil boiler in a launch.
      • He knew the coil boiler to be a limited success and out of production for about 20 years.
    • The fin keel- He knew that James did not invent the fin keel.
    • The thrust of Wilson’s belief that James B. should be credited with founding the HMCo and the bio’s assertion that James’ inventions alone were the basis for the success of the company totally ignored the facts of over whelming contributions by the two partners, John and Nat.

John B. Herreshoff

  • 1904 Bio- “He had a common school education, and at the age of fifteen lost his eyesight. In 1864, he began the business of yacht-building at Bristol, being associated first with his father and subsequently with Dexter Stone….In 1879 the corporation the  Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. was formed, with Mr. Herreshoff, who became known as the ‘blind boatbuilder’, as its president. By the aid of his father’s eyes he planned, outlines and details with astonishing accuracy, and with his brother Nathanael G. he improved the ‘coil -boiler’…”
  • Capt. Nat’s objection
    • Completely misses and understates the significant handicap that John overcame at a very young age to achieve business success.
    • Implies that John’s success at every stage of his career was primarily dependent upon an associate; first his father, then Stone and finally Nat. John’s strength of character and ability to “see” i.e. “think” through a problem better than anyone else in the room is not acknowledged.

Nathanael G. Herreshoff

  • 1904 Bio-
    • Characterized as a “boatbuilder and designer”
    • “…studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and at twenty-one years of age became a draftsman at the Corliss Engine works in Providence, RI. He reinforced this training with a course of long study among the best boat and engineering shops and yards abroad and four years association with a corps of government experts stationed at Bristol by the navy department for the purpose of experimenting with the Herreshoffs in compound  and triple expansion engines.” (Underlined for emphasis.)
  • Capt. Nat’s objection
    • He objected to the characterization as only a “designer and boatbuilder”. When all was said and done, he considered himself first and foremost an engineer.
    • To state that his success was related to “association with government experts” was the ultimate affront. He owed them nothing. In fact he had a continual battle with the navy’s bureaucracy of hull constructors and steam engineers to have his designs accepted; even though they out performed bureau designs every time.
    • Ignored his careful development as an engineer while at Corliss.
    • There was no “course of long study among the best engineering shops and yards abroad”. He did however take the opportunity of foreign trips to advance his knowledge, just as he did every day at home. During his 1874 cruise in the 16-foot Riviera from the Mediterranean coast through rivers and canals to the North Sea and England he did view and probably visit a number of yards. Later he inspected the Admiralty’s latest torpedo boat, became a member of the Royal Institute of Naval Architects and regularly studied papers by leaders in the field- Froude, Yarrow and Thornycroft.
    • There was no permanent government staff in Bristol for “experimenting with the Herreshoffs in compound and triple expansion engines.” That implies a shared development process between the navy and Herreshoff. What did happen- Nat designed, built and experimented with the engines until satisfied.  Then John made the vessel available to the navy to conduct trials and other tests.

More to follow in the next edition of The Current.

John Palmieri

Derby, G., & White, J. T. (1904). The National cyclopaedia of American biography: Being the history of the United States as illustrated in the lives of the founders, builders, and defenders of the republic, and of the men and women who are doing the work and moulding the thought of the present time (Vol. 12). Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/nationalcyclopae12derbuoft/page/400 Click to view: Page 352 | Page 353 | Page 354