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Modern technology helps studies of high-tech Civil War ships

Two of the most famous ships from the Civil War were the subject of an MIT mini-symposium that neatly juxtaposed technology of the 1860s with that of today.

In "Civil War High Tech: Excavating the Hunley and Monitor," panelists including MIT professors and the chief archeologist on the Hunley project described why the two ships were so ingenious and how 20th-century technologies have been key to locating and excavating the ships.

The Confederacy's Hunley was the first practical submarine. Attached to its front was a long spar fitted with an explosive. "The idea was to dive under the water, implant the harpoon into an enemy vessel, then get away. When [the sub] was at a safe distance, [they'd] trigger an explosion," said Maria Jacobsen of the Hunley project.

In February 1864, the Hunley did just that to bring down the U.S.S. Housatonic. "The mysterious thing is that the Hunley disappeared as well," Jacobsen said.

The sub's ultimate loss and several prior swampings were not, however, due to major flaws in the vehicle itself, said Brendan Foley, a graduate student in the Program in Science, Technology and Society (STS). "It actually worked well," he said; the problem was that the technology was so new that "the crew didn't know how to use it. They hadn't yet built the operational program to make it effective."

Despite intense interest in finding the sub--P.T. Barnum offered a reward of $100,000--it wasn't until 1995 that the Hunley was discovered.

"It was clear that, if left where it was, the Hunley would be looted and destroyed. It was rumored that the propeller alone would [bring] $3 million," Jacobsen said. As a result, the ship was lifted in a kind of form-fitted body cast and brought to a custom-fitted tank and surrounding lab.

There, the Hunley has been carefully probed with high-tech tools including X-ray machines and a laser scanner that created a 3-D point cloud, or picture, that's so detailed that attached marine life can be seen. David Mindell, the Dibner Associate Professor in the History of Manufacturing and Technology, noted that the Hunley excavation has resulted in at least eight new tools at the intersection of archeology and science.

Mindell also addressed the Monitor. One of the first ironclad battleships, the Union ship was dominated by a turret 20 feet in diameter and 10 feet high. The Monitor, which sank in 1862, was found in 1973 by a team that included the late MIT Professor Harold "Doc" Edgerton. In 2001 Mindell and a graduate student inspected the ship's turret with a sonar instrument designed by Mindell. The goal was to find out whether either of two giant guns was still inside (the turret fell off as the ship went down; the ship ultimately landed on top of it). Knowing whether the guns were still inside would impact how the turret would be brought to the surface.

"The acoustic images did reveal that it was very likely that a very large metal object was in the center of the turret," Mindell said. Later, after the turret was recovered, the researchers found inside both guns and the remains of two sailors.

The rest of the wreck still lies on the ocean floor. Mindell noted that he and a research team from MIT will use an autonomous undersea vehicle to map the site with a new kind of sonar technique. "If we can pull this off, we'll have a new capability to image shipwrecks and underwater sites," he said.

The April 25 symposium was sponsored by MIT's "DeepArch" Research Group in Technology, Archaeology and the Deep Sea, led by Mindell; STS; and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. It will be aired on the web via MIT World in late May.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 14, 2003.

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