Up till then naval powers had developed ships with a mixture of guns with different calibres. There was constant experimentation with calibres and layout. Ships, at the time, were driven by lumbering great reciprocating engines.
The ship Cuniberti envisaged in his article was a "colossus" of the seas. His main idea was that this ship would carry only one calibre of gun, the biggest.
Powerfully armoured, this colossus would be impervious to all but the 12-inch (305 mm) guns of the enemy. Cuniberti saw the enemy's small calibre gun as having no effect on his heavily armoured colossus. His ship would carry a single calibre of gun, the largest; at the time 12 inch. Cuniberti's "ideal ship" had 12 of these large calibre guns and she would show a significant advantage over the (usual) 4 of the enemy ship.
His ship would be fast, so that this colossus would choose her point of attack.
Cuniberti saw this ship able to discharge such a heavy broadside, all of one heavy calibre, that she would engulf first one enemy ship, moving on to the next, and the next, disdainfully destroying an entire enemy fleet. He conjectured the effect of a squadron of, say six, "colossi" would give this fleet such an overwhelming power as to deter all possible opponents.
Naturally there was a cost and part of Cuniberti's contention was that this colossus was available only to a "navy at the same time most potent and very rich".
Cuniberti approached the Italian government to build a ship based on his ideas. The Italian government declined, but gave Cuniberti permission to write an article for Jane's Fighting Ships.
He died in Rome.
The political atmosphere in Britain at the time was explosive. For the first time since Trafalgar there was a serious challenge to the Royal Navy. A short distance across the North Sea the German Navy was building a powerful fleet. Behind that fleet lay the overwhelming power of the German Army. Behind Britain's sea shield lay her numerically small (but fully professional and highly effective) army, the 'Old Contemptibles'.
The challenge to Britain was serious. Admiral Sir John Fisher, Royal Navy, was the driving force behind the revolutionary HMS Dreadnought. The ship was completed in a year and day and was launched in 1906. Dreadnought's speed was ensured by using the revolutionary Parsons' turbines.
Immediately this ship defined the era. It rendered all previous battleships obsolete, because ship to ship Dreadnought would sink them. Thereafter all battleships following its design would be referred to, generically, as "dreadnoughts".
Jacky Fisher never gave any credit to Cuniberti, or to any foreigner. It is possible that all the major sea powers were converging toward the basic Dreadnought design. The Americans were building (slowly) the USS South Carolina, the Japanese (incorporating some British technology) were building the Satsuma.
Cuniberti, however, was the first man to publish the idea.
Cuniberti's influence on Russian dreadnoughts
After the launch of the Royal Navy's Dreadnought, Russia, along with all other major naval nations, saw its fleet of battleships rendered obsolete overnight. In Russia's case this was exacerbated by the losses suffered in the Russo-Japanese war. The Imperial Russian Navy was short of battleships.
The Gangut-class battleships were ordered. After a convoluted bidding process they were eventually built in Russia, with "technical assistance and supervision" by John Brown and Co., "but the influence of Cuniberti was evident".
- Cuniberti, Vittorio, "An Ideal Battleship for the British Fleet", All The World’s Fighting Ships, 1903, pp. 407-409.
- The 'Old Contemptibles' a reference to the Kaiser's presumed disparaging term for the tiny (by comparison) British Army. The term was taken up by the soldiers of the BEF in the First World War and they used the term with pride.
- Fred T Jane, Jane's Fighting Ships
- Robert K. Massie, Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War
- Richard Woodman, The History of the Ship