Nathanael Greene Herreshoff

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Nathanael Greene Herreshoff I
Nathanael G. Herreshoff.jpg
Born March 18, 1848 (1848-03-18)
Bristol, Rhode Island
Died June 2, 1938(1938-06-02) (aged 90)
Bristol, Rhode Island
Occupation naval architect-mechanical engineer
Known for designing motor and sailing yachts, but especially America's Cup defenders between 1893-1920
Spouse(s) Clara Anna DeWolf
Ann Roebuck
Children Agnes Muller Herreshoff
Lewis Francis Herreshoff[1]
Relatives J. B. F. Herreshoff, brother
Charles F. Herreshoff, nephew
L. Francis Herreshoff, son
Halsey Chase Herreshoff, grandson.

Nathanael Greene Herreshoff I (March 18, 1848 – June 2, 1938), was an American naval architect and mechanical engineer. "Captain Nat," as he was known, revolutionized yacht design, and produced a succession of undefeated America's Cup defenders between 1893-1920.


He was born on March 18, 1848 in Bristol, Rhode Island and was named after General Nathanael Greene.[1] He had as brothers Lewis Herreshoff and John Brown Herreshoff.[2]

He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1870 with a 3-year degree in mechanical engineering.[3] After graduation, he took a position with the Corliss Steam Engine Company in Providence, Rhode Island. At the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he oversaw operation of the Corliss Stationary Engine, a 40-foot tall, 1400-horsepower dynamo that powered the exhibition's machinery.[4]

In 1878 Herreshoff returned to Bristol where he and his older brother, John Brown Herreshoff formed the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company. While Captain Nat provided the engineering expertise, J.B., his brother, contributed genius-level business acumen. Despite going blind at the age of 14, J.B. suffered under no handicap when it came to making deals. For example, he did all the cost calculations of building the boats in his head—an extremely challenging but critical task under any circumstances. J.B. was responsible for negotiating with the firm's wealthy and demanding clientele, and was also a good manager, keeping up the enthusiasm of his employees. Under the partnership, the business burgeoned from about twenty employees to over 400.[5]

In 1888, tragedy struck while Herreshoff was supervising speed trials of a 138-foot, 875 horsepower steamboat named Say When. After a safety valve opened to release over-pressure, Herreshoff closed it so the boat could achieve its anticipated maximum speed. But a boiler exploded, fatally injuring a member of the crew. Consequently, Herreshoff lost his steam engineer's license.[4]

Two of Herreshoff's sons would also become yacht designers: Sidney Dewolf Herreshoff and Lewis Francis Herreshoff.

He died on June 2, 1938 in Bristol, Rhode Island.[6]

Yacht building[edit]

While the firm's early work centered on steam-powered vessels, by the 1890s the Herreshoffs began focusing on the yacht designs that would win their firm world renown and earn Nat another sobriquet: "the Wizard of Bristol." Herreshoff Manufacturing built its reputation chiefly on the superbly crafted sailboats it produced for America's elite, including Jay Gould, William Randolph Hearst, John Pierpont Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt III, Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, William Kissam Vanderbilt II, Harry Payne Whitney and Alexander Smith Cochran.[7]

The Herreshoffs resolved to turn out yachts of only the highest quality. To retain skilled craftsmen they paid among the highest wages in the state. This inducement to lure the most highly skilled workmen to the company may not have been strictly necessary as most who came simply wanted to be associated with the Herreshoff name, a symbol of the highest standards in construction and craftsmanship. Many of those men made lifelong careers at the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company.

Herreshoff is credited with being perhaps the most innovative sailboat designer of all time. His designs were notably graceful, scientifically engineered, and speedy. Because of his many accomplishments, Herreshoff was among the few people ever made an honorary member of the New York Yacht Club, his name being listed immediately before those of England's King George V and the Prince of Wales. His fame spread around the world and the period of his greatest activity from 1890 to 1920 became known as the "Herreshoff Era" so greatly did his personality and the yachts he designed dominate the sport.

New York 30 class design
Reliance ahead of Shamrock III, Sir Thomas Lipton's 1903 America's Cup contender designed by William Fife

The range of boats drawn by Herreshoff was vast and eclectic. It included everything from the 12½, a 16-foot (12½ foot waterline) sailboat for training the children of yachtsmen, to the 144-foot America's Cup behemoth Reliance, with a sail area of 16,000 square feet.[8] He received the first US patent for a sailing catamaran. Among Herreshoff's few technical failures was the 123-foot Defender --- its radical construction featured steel-framing, bronze plating up to the waterline and aluminum topsides. The possibility of making a lighter and faster boat using aluminium had been pioneered by the French racing yacht Vendenesse , an inshore racer under the One ton Godinet rule, intended mostly for lake and river use. Vendenesse was reviewed in a NewYork times article and closely examined by members of the Vanderbilt Americacup syndicate. In salt water, the then little-understood phenomenon known as galvanic corrosion immediately began "dissolving" the boat. Defender won the Cup race, but never competed again and was broken up in 1901.

It should be noted that this story about Defender is the one that was told by hostile journalists who disliked Herreshoff for his secretive ways. Capt. Nat had little use for yachting journalists, so the feeling was mutual. However, Defender was not a technical failure at all. She lasted five years, winning the America's Cup in 1895 over Lord Dunraven's Valkyrie III, and she was used as an effective trial-horse for Herreshoff's new Cup defender Columbia in 1899. Maynard Bray and Carlton Pinheiro quote a letter from Herreshoff on this subject in their book Herreshoff of Bristol. According to Herreshoff "[Defender] had performed her mission, and that was all that she was constructed for. From the start, durability was put aside." To suggest Herreshoff and his people did not understand the consequences of mating aluminum to bronze is absurd. He knew exactly what he was doing, and those aluminum topsides on Defender were surely one reason she was so fast for so long.

Cup boats then, and now, were not intended to last very long. None of Herreshoff's Cup boats survive, and none were intended to do so. In particular, the syndicates that paid for their construction generally had them broken up for scrap (often quite valuable scrap) after the boats had outlived their immediate usefulness. They were tools to win races. No more, no less.

Many of the 2,000-plus designs by the "Wizard of Bristol" have fared better, and today are highly prized by connoisseurs of classic yachts. Herreshoff S-Class sailboats, designed in 1919 and built until 1941, are still actively raced in Narragansett Bay, Buzzards Bay and Western Long Island Sound (Larchmont, New York).[9] His 12½ design of 1914 is still being built and raced in New England as well. The New York 30 is widely considered—to this day—among the finest racer/cruiser one-designs ever created. For more than a century now "New York 30s have been raced and sailed in all kinds of weather, and, with their original gaff-sloop rigs, enjoyed a reputation for never having to be reefed, no matter how hard it blew." (Maynard Bray)

A facility dedicated to the preservation of Herreshoff's legacy, the Herreshoff Marine Museum, now occupies the site where the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. formerly operated.

Herreshoff America's Cup designs[edit]

Herreshoff innovations[edit]

Herreshoff torpedo boat, engraving from Harper's Weekly, June 1889
Nathanael Herreshoff climbing aboard Defender in 1895; photograph by John S. Johnston

During a career spanning 72 years, Herreshoff:

  1. Designed and built five winning America's Cup yachts. He could sail them as well, earning a reputation as a skilled helmsman. Additionally, his firm built the winning Cup yachts Enterprise - 1930, and Rainbow - 1934 (designed by Starling Burgess). Every winning America's Cup Yacht from 1893 to 1934 was built by the Herreshoff yard.
  2. Designed well over 2000 craft and produced more than 18,000 drawings. Between 1890 and 1938, the number of yachts he designed that won the Astor Cup, Puritan Cup and Kings Cup outnumbered the winning yachts of all rival yacht designers combined.
  3. Built the first torpedo boats for the U.S. Navy.
  4. Developed the first handicapping formula (the Herreshoff Rule) to allow yachts of different sizes and types to race together.
  5. Developed yacht scantlings (specifications) based on scientific load calculations; prior to Herreshoff, most yacht designers simply relied on traditional rules of thumb to determine the proper dimensions for planks, frames and rigs.
  6. Invented streamlined bulb and fin keels.
  7. Invented the sail track and slide in its present form along with many other patterns of marine hardware.
  8. Developed long overhangs on racing yachts that produced longer immersed waterlines, hence greater speed, when underway.
  9. Developed the first light steam engine and fast torpedo boats.
  10. Developed nearly all of the methods of constructing light wooden hulls.
  11. Introduced screw fastenings for planking to this country.
  12. Invented the crosscut sail, with panels running at right angles to the leech, in order to combat cotton canvas' tendency to distort under load.
  13. Designed more types of steam engines than anyone else.[citation needed]
  14. Designed the web frame and longitudinal construction for metal hulls afterward patented and known as the Isherwood System.
  15. Developed light hollow metal spars combined with scientifically engineered rigging.
  16. Developed the flat stern form of steam yachts capable of being driven at high speed/length ratios.
  17. Designed the first folding propeller.
  18. Designed below-deck winches - Reliance 1903.
  19. Developed the method of splicing rope to wire.
  20. Herreshoff yachts were the first to attach shrouds and stays to mast tangs.
  21. Invented the modern turnbuckle.
  22. Invented sail tracks on masts and slides attached to the luff of sails to ride in the tracks (up until then, sails had been attached with mast hoops or laced to masts).
  23. Invented the modern winch.
  24. Received the first U.S. patent on catamaran sailboats (the Amaryllis, 1876).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Richard V. Simpson (2007). Herreshoff Yachts: Seven Generations of Industrialists, Inventors and ... The History Press. p. 16. ISBN 1-59629-306-3. Nathanael Greene Herreshoff III offers the following: Captain Nat, a seventh child, was named after Revolutionary ... 
  2. ^ "Lewis Herreshoff Dead. Brother of Men who Built Defenders of the America's Cup". New York Times. February 17, 1926. Retrieved 2011-04-26. 
  3. ^ L. Francis Herreshoff, Capt. Nat Herreshoff: The Wizard of Bristol; Sheridan House, Dobbs Ferry, New York 1953
  4. ^ a b Richard V. Simpson, Herreshoff Yachts; The History Press; Charleston, South Carolina 2007
  5. ^ Orison Swett Marden (1901). "Chapter 17 - Herreshoff, the yachtbuilder". How they succeed. Lothrop Publishing Co. pp. 276–303. 
  6. ^ "America's Cup Yacht Designer Dies at 91". Associated Press. June 3, 1938. Retrieved 2011-04-26. Captain Nathanael Greene Herreshoff know in the yachting world ... a descendant of Charles Frederick Herreshoff who emigrated from Germany in ... He died in 1891. Meanwhile Herreshoff had ... 
  7. ^ Gregory O. Jones, Herreshoff Sailboats; Motorbooks International, Osceola, Wisconsin 2004
  8. ^ Christopher Pastore, Temple to the Wind; Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut 2005
  9. ^ Herreshoff S-Class of Western Long Island Sound


  • Bray, Maynard; Pinheiro, Carlton (1989). Herreshoff of Bristol: A Photographic History of America's Greatest Yacht and Boat Builders (Hardback). Brooklin: Woodenboat Publications. ISBN 978-0-937822-19-7. 
  • Herreshoff, L. Francis (1996) [1953]. Capt. Nat Herreshoff: The Wizard of Bristol. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y: Sheridan House. ISBN 1-57409-004-6. OCLC 45990752. 
  • Herreshoff, Nathanael G. Recollections and Other Writings (Bristol, RI: Herreshoff Marine Museum)
  • Herreshoff, Nathanael G. and William Picard Stephens, annotated by John W. Streeter, Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, William Picard Stephens: Their Last Letters 1930-1938 (Bristol, RI: Herreshoff Marine Museum) 1998.
  • Page, Franco (2008). Herreshoff and his Yachts (Hardback). Brooklin: Woodenboat Publications. ISBN 978-0-937822-98-2. 
  • Simpson, Richard V. (2007). Bristol, Rhode Island's Herreshoff yachts. Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press. ISBN 978-1-59629-306-9. OCLC 226055968. 

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