Monday, February 25, 2019

25 - Benjamin Bradley - Steam Engine Dominance

The USS Princeton, a Steam Powered Wooden Warship 

Benjamin Bradley

(Today is "X" so we have another truly forgotten inventor)

Maybe 1830-?

Who Was he?

Benjamin Bradley was born into enslavement in Maryland somewhere around 1830. He was a bright kid who picked up both reading and mathematics from the slaver's children.

-Some sources claim the children taught him themselves though this was considered illegal, and other sources say that he listened in while they were being tutored. I even found one reference that suggested he'd been sent to some academy or other, but that does not sound credible.

When he was a teenager, he was sent out to work (no sources I saw explain where) and while he was there, he built a working steam engine from scrap metal.

Yes, he is yet another self-taught engineer. 

His steam engine somehow brought Bradley to the attention of The United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. All of the sources I found sort of fudged how this happened, so I am going to assume it is pretty lost to history as there are vague accounts of how this came about, but nothing specific.

It might have something to do with the slaver himself, but nobody has preserved that name, and I've already spent too much time looking for it.

Bradley was assigned as a teaching assistant in the science department. He was the first African American to work at the Naval Academy in a job that was not menial.

 He prepared and conducted experiments for the science classes. The instructors at the Academy were amazed that Bradley was so smart and learned so quickly. They heaped praises on him and couldn't get over how effective and capable he was at his job or anything at all they handed him. In his day, he was definitely acknowledged as a brilliant and capable man.

Benjamin soaked in all of the science, the new technology of the day, and explored the mechanics of steam engines - which was his first love.

He received a salary from the naval college, but the slaver reaped the rewards. Bradley was only able to keep five dollars a month for himself. 

What Did He Invent?

Bradley continued to experiment with steam engines and eventually used his savings to design and build the first steam engine powerful enough to move an ironclad warship with speed.

Here is a tiny DIY engine if you are interested!
He wanted to patent his invention, but the slaver claimed that anything Bradley created actually belonged to him, and he should get all of the fruits of that work.

Bradley did not patent his steam engine. The Navy, however, did buy it and install it in their warships.

There are few texts that attribute this advance in American naval power to Bradley, but he was the one who ignited it. I found this essay interesting and informative.

Bradley saved as much of his money as he could, and depending on the source you read, he either sold the first engine he created as a teenager to a naval academy student, or he was able to reap enough money from the sale of his engine to the navy to buy his freedom from the slaver.

At that point, he disappears from history. All we know is that he is reputed to have lived out the rest of his life as a free man.

Did he continue to work for the Naval Academy?

I don't know. Maybe?

We don't have any idea when he died or what else might have happened to him.

What Is His Legacy?

The USS Kearsarge 
Bradley's steam engine powered some of the American Naval War Sloops during the Civil War. One of those Sloops was called the Kearsarge.

it was fast, dangerous, and devastating. 

The prototype engine Bradley created was used continuously, being upgraded as the technology evolved, but the underpinnings of the engine itself are all down to Bradley.

The legacy of the USS Kearsarge lives on today as a steam engine powered amphibious assault ship 

Thank you, Benjamin Bradley, for creating the engines that powered our dominance on the seas for over a century. This particular vessel services the Marine Corps.

Celebrate Black History -

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