History of Steam Reciprocating Engines

and the USS Texas BB-35

By Dennis Mitchell - First Texas Volunteer

The Battleship Texas was built between 1911-14 by Newport News and Dry-Dock Co. At this time in our history the Panama Canal was completed, the Titanic sank on her maiden voyage and the Wright brothers had flown for the first time ten years earlier. Seems like a very long time ago yet the USS Texas is still with us today.

Our Navy first began using steam engines during the Civil War. Although there were several different types of Ironclad’s built during the war most remember the USS Monitor and the CSS Merrimack. These two ships both claimed victory in their battle but one thing was certain it was a revolution in Naval ship architecture.

The first American, steam powered ship for commercial use was the Clermont. The Clermont was a 133-foot. passenger ship that traveled on the Hudson River in 1807. It had a one-cylinder steam engine that drove paddlewheels on either side and had a top speed of 5 knots.

The application of steam engines had proven itself in the 1850’s but it wasn’t until the late 19th century before a drastic reduction in the size of the power plants, together with huge increases in their efficiency, was developed. This was thanks to the new types of boilers and compound cylinder engines operating at previously impossible temperatures and pressures.

A surprise came when an English engineer named Charles Parson demonstrated to the Royal Navy a steam driven turbine engine in 1897. The steam driven turbine soon became the engine of choice for naval ships beginning in the U.S. Navy with the USS North Dakota BB-29 commissioned in 1910.

HMS Dreadnought was built in 1906 and became the new standard in battleships that year due to her size (22,194 tons) which was in some instances twice the size of previously built battleships. The Dreadnought used ten 12- inch guns mounted in five turrets, the all big gun design. The Dreadnought incorporated the steam driven turbines for her engines that gave her a top speed of 21.6 knots.

An example of ship sizes built during the same time frame was the German battleship Deutschland which was launched in 1904 was 13,993 tons and a top speed of 18 knots. The Deutschland had four 11- inch main guns in two turrets and fourteen 6.7- inch guns.

The USS Texas BB-35 was built when the steam driven turbines of the time were replacing the steam reciprocating engines. The Navy had installed turbine engines in battleships from USS North Dakota BB-29 up until the USS New York BB34 and the USS Texas BB-35. USS Nevada BB-36 went back to a turbine engine. The USS Oklahoma BB-37 was the last battleship to have the steam reciprocating engine installed (smaller than the ones installed in the USS New York and USS Texas). The reasoning for going back to a reciprocating engine at that time was due to improved design resulting in better fuel efficiency and reliability. In 1935 (ten years after her retrofit) of the fifteen battleships in the navy’s inventory the USS Texas ranked sixth in fuel efficiency at 5 knots. But at 10 knots she was thirteenth out of fifteen and at 20 knots she was still thirteenth. The USS Oklahoma and the USS Arkansas consumed more fuel.

The Texas had her boilers replaced in a 1925-27 retrofit from a coal burning to the three drum express boilers which burned fuel oil. A 1923 drawing showed turbines to be installed during the retrofit but this did not take place and another drawing showed the installation of a turbo-electric drive, neither of which were installed. The engines of the USS Texas from what I have researched were not modified or updated during her entire career. There were of course many parts replaced or repaired but never upgraded. The engines had 629,000 nautical miles on them from 1913-46.

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The drawing of the engine of the USS Texas (above) shows four views of the engine starting with the top view, you are looking down at the top of the engine. The engine is referred to as “Triple expansion double action reciprocating steam engine”. There are three different sizes of pistons in four cylinders. The steam first enters the 39-inch diameter High Pressure cylinder. From there it travels to the Intermediate Pressure cylinder which is 63- inch in diameter, and then last it is split in two for the forward and aft cylinder which are the largest cylinders, these are the Low Pressure 83- inch in diameter. The term "double action" is due to the fact that the pistons are pushed down by steam pressure and then are pushed up by steam pressure. So for those of you familiar with your car engine they are a four strokes, where this is a one stroke. Each stroke is powered.

The three different piston sizes is designed so that when the engine pistons use the steam pressure (energy) the steam expands in each cylinder, reducing its pressure as volume increases. This develops mechanical power to turn the crankshaft. At each stage its increased volume requires a larger cylinder to contain it. This is achieved by increasing the diameters successively. This prevents the uneven loads on the crankshaft. The steam enters the engine at 295 psi and exits at minus 14 psi, this vacuum helps to purge the engine of any steam.

The engine piston/rods have a throw of 48-inch. In other words the rods that connect the pistons to the crankshaft travel four feet down and up to make one rotation of the crankshaft. To obtain the ship’s maximum speed of 21 knots the ship’s engine needs to put out 129 rotations per minute.

Yes, two revolutions per second. That would be an impressive sight to see. There are no reduction gears or transmissions on the Texas. The crankshaft is connected via a thrust bearing directly to the propeller shaft so you have a one for one rotation. The shaft horse power is 28,100 from both engines or 14,050 from each.

When the engines are cold it would take 1.5 to 2 hours to warm the engine to the point when you could get it underway safely. This info is from the Instructions for Operation and Maintenance of Main Propelling Machinery –Section III—Reciprocating Steam Engines. Dated 1941 United State Navy Department. The reason for this amount of time was to ensure the engine and other systems had warmed up to operating temperatures evenly so as to prevent cracking of the pipes or engine components.

When the steam is exhausted from the low-pressure cylinders at minus 14 psi, the steam is converted to water in the condenser located against the outboard bulkhead of each Engine Room. The converted water is pumped into the main feed tank. From there it is pumped forward to the boilers and the process starts over again to steam.

One last item for thought, to give you an idea what it takes to get this engine underway the following steps are taken from the Navy’s Operations manual previously mentioned dated 1941.

The following are steps taken in preparing reciprocating engines for getting under way:

The view above is a silhouette of the ship’s engine room. Below shows both the engine room and boiler rooms locations. These drawings are from Charles Moore’s web site.  http://users3.ev1.net/~cfmoore/ 

The USS Texas BB-35 is part of the San Jacinto Battlegrounds Park:

3527 Battleground Rd.

LaPorte, TX 77571

Park Manager Mr. Jerry Hopkins. Ship’s acting manager and curator is Mr. Barry Ward. The First Texas Volunteers of which I’m a member of perform the hands on restoration of the ship as well as the Docent or Live History Reenactments held aboard the Battleship Texas.

The ship’s staff deserve all the credit for the superb condition that the USS Texas is currently in. In either 2004 or 2005 the Battleship Texas will be going to dry-dock for needed repairs thanks to some very hard work by the staff and the voters of the State of Texas for passing Prop 8.

Sources for this article were: The Encyclopedia of Ships by: Chris Marshall, U.S. Battleships an Illustrated Design History by: Norman Friedman, Battleship Texas by: Hugh Power. Instructions for Operation and Maintenance of Main Propelling Machinery –Section III—Reciprocating Steam Engines. Dated 1941 United State Navy Dept. Volunteers web site: www.usstexasbb35.com  , Charles Moore’s web site:

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This photo is the control area on the second level in the starboard (right) engine room. Note the open Hatch (door) to the Port Engine room.
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Photo taken in same area as above looking towards the engine.
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Photo is taken on the second level in the engine room looking at the aft (rear) end of the engine.

Note the engine case is almost two stories tall.