Museum Restoring USS Monitor’s Engine

The Battle of the USS Monitor & the CSS Virginia

The Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia is currently working to restore and reconstruct the innovative engines of the USS Monitor. The USS Monitor was one of the first ironclad naval vessels in the United States and was constructed to confront new Confederate naval technologies that were being employed to break the Union blockade. Most famously, the USS Monitor clashed with the CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack) in the first battle involving ironclad ships in Hampton Roads, Virginia. While officially the battle was a standstill, the Monitor was successful in that it prevented the CSS Virginia from breaching the Union blockade.

In a brutal storm in 1862, the Monitor sunk off the coast of Cape Hatteras in the notorious “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” The wreck was rediscovered in 1973 and declared a protected national landmark in 1983. You can read about that expedition in National Geographic’s article: “Civil War Wreck Rises Again: Restoring the Monitor.” This month’s National Geographic highlights the efforts of the Mariner’s Museum to reconstruct and restore the innovative engines of the ill-fated ship in this article: “Monitor’s Innovative Engine Being Restored at Virginia Museum.”

5 thoughts on “Museum Restoring USS Monitor’s Engine

  1. Jim Wheeler

    This appears to be an opposed-piston steam engine with two pistons in one cylinder. The same concept was used on WWII and later Fairbanks-Morse diesel engines for submarines. The model in the You Tube link is wonderful – an engineer’s pride and joy!

    All too often students of history underestimate the intelligence and creativity of our ancestors, but there is much of that in this design. Advances in science and engineering have always built on past knowledge and experimentation. New inventions and insights spur peaks in technological development, almost always mixed with trial and error. Ocean-going steamships only began operating less than two decades before the Monitor was built, but the engine shows a good deal of sophistication. We humans can be quite clever!

    Outstanding post and links, Jennifer. If insights like this don’t interest some students in engineering, nothing will. 🙂


    1. Jennifer Lockett Post author

      Thank you for your insightful comments! I really appreciate your unique insight here. I’ll admit, I am not an engineer so much of the terminology was a bit above my head.

  2. Jim Gregg.

    Hi All.

    Assuming the model illustrated in the movie clip, is correct, the engine is not strictly an opposed piston engine, in that the piston are 90 deg. out of phase, as are the pistons of a normal two cylinder marine steam engine. This makes them self starting.
    In an opposed piston engine, the pistons share a common cylinder, and move 180 deg. out of phase. This gives good balancing, but is not self starting. That is not in itself an insurmountable problem – eg all the single cylinder Walking Beam engines that operated in American ships!

    What the model is, is a pair of single ended trunk engine cylinders arranged head to head, and driving a 90 deg crankshaft via bellcranks. Obviously there must be a division in the middle so the two ends operate as separate cylinders. It is a very clever arrangement to reduce the width of the engine, as well as its’ height. Mind you the balancing, and lateral vibration at speed must have been pretty bad with all that unbalanced mass thrashing about.

    What amazes me about Monitors engine is that they built such a complex machine for a rushed emergency ship build.

    As a matter of interest, there is a 2 cylinder horizontal trunk engine of similar vintage, in both manufacture and wrecking date, in the Western Australian Maritime Museum, and this has been de-concreted and surprisingly will now actually turn over by hand. This one was from a Crimean War British gunboat, re cyled to a small merchant ship called Xantho, which sank off the West Australian coast.

    Jim Gregg
    Western Australia.

  3. Jim Wheeler

    Interesting. Mr. Gregg obviously knows a lot more about engines than I, having never heard of this head-to-head design. How it minimizes the size is not clear, but I will take his word for it. I did notice an unusual amount of vibration when it was running on the video and wondered about that.

    Western Australia! What a machine is this internet. Thanks, Jim Gregg.


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