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Weird & Wacky—The Lighter Side of Lifesaving

By Robert M. Browning Jr.

The man who initially oversaw the board connected with boats and other appliances was Robert B. Forbes. He was an expert on lifesaving craft and equipment and his association with the Massachusetts Humane Society made him well known in the lifesaving community. Captain James Merryman of the Revenue Cutter Service oversaw the ordnance board with assistance from U.S. Army Captain David Lyle, an ordnance officer who invented the line-throwing Lyle gun. By 1882 the boards had merged into a single body, the Board on Life-Saving Appliances. Seven men sat on this board, keeping the business of appraising submissions in two classes: wreck ordnance and miscellaneous apparatuses. When there were not enough submissions, the board did not meet. 3

Vessels by the Boatload

The inventions offered arrived from all over the world. Some came from true marine professionals, others from novices. Clearly some sought to enrich themselves. Equally clear, however, was that those who submitted ideas believed their offers would help mankind. The items presented included boats, ordnance, batteries, binoculars, engines, signaling systems, clocks, rafts, lanterns, shot and lines, and all types of gear.

Not surprisingly, proposals for boats inundated the board, but the new inventions had to compete with ever-improving technology that the British had tested for more than a century. In 1873 Kimball adopted the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s design of the self-righting, self-bailing boat. It became the prototype used by the U.S. government for the next 90 years. For decades, inventors offered scores of new boat models to the board, including steam vessels and variations on the life car—a type of enclosed boat. The board found most of the ideas impracticable. In time, boats designed by Captain David P. Dobbins, the superintendent of the Ninth Life-Saving District, and Revenue Cutter Service Captain Charles McLellan, inspector of the Life-Saving Service, were adopted by the board. Because the board strove to keep the boat inventories at coastal stations as standard as possible, new boats proposed for the service had to overcome that inertia. The board never fully reviewed or tested most of the submissions, dismissing them as “deficient in description,” needing improvement, or having “no practical value.” 5

Several boat ideas were submitted in 1882 alone. One, Eddy’s patent surfboat, at 1,750 pounds, was deemed too heavy to transport to the beach and its probable cost considered too high. The board found Dwyer’s steam launch impracticable. Miller’s oscillating life raft had “no advantages over those in service,” and Alonzo T. Boone’s lifeboat—propelled by compressed air—would require each life-saving station to have compressors to replenish the reservoirs. 6

In 1888 the board appraised Parker’s Ark Life-Boat, which had a canvas cover supported by iron or wooden stays, or ribs. Oars fit through openings in the canvas to propel the boat. The canvas cover had hatches and openings for the entrance and exit of passengers. The inventor claimed the boat was self-righting and could go through any surf in “perfect safety.” Initially he submitted only drawings—no model. The board said it would test Parker’s boat if he provided a full-sized model. He did so. The board rejected the idea. 7

Paul Hübner offered in 1893 a sheet-metal lifesaving boat similar in many ways to the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley , built 30 years earlier. A hand crank would turn a propeller for propulsion. The passengers would ride in the safety of an enclosed car. The board declared the submission “complicated, impractical, of great weight and not adapted to the uses of the service.” In 1897 Hübner returned with a gasoline-powered version; it was rejected as well. 8

Three inventors offered an electrically propelled, cigar-shaped “dirigible boat” to the service in 1899. The craft was designed to carry a line from a disabled ship to shore. But because the device was not controlled from shore, the board determined it did not fall under its purview. Additionally, members also found that it would require electricians and machinists to keep it in repair—an unneeded expansion of personnel and expense. 9

Imaginations on the Loose

More imaginative submissions to the board came in forms such as Captain Donvig’s Life Saving Globe. Donvig proposed to provide a craft with a round shell made of light steel plates, with a cork belt surrounding it. The craft would have four tanks for freshwater and others for stores and food. In the center was a telescopic air ventilator and a centerboard keel. Passengers could hoist sails or row the craft. The 8-foot diameter vessel purportedly could hold as many as 20 people. Because the craft would be deployed by large steamers, however, it was found outside the purview of the Life-Saving Service. 10

Along the same lines, but more ludicrous, was an invention from Mr. J. Manes of New Haven, Connecticut, in 1879. He envisioned a hollow globe made of wood or metal. A hollow mast would provide fresh air and allow the occupants to hoist signals. Manes advertised that the craft would “never capsize even in the roughest seas.” Like Donvig’s globe, the board never gave it any serious thought because it was a ship-borne craft. 11

Thomas B. Griffith envisioned a life raft he said would be light, buoyant, flexible, and sturdy—made of cork bars and cork floats enclosed in canvas. Griffith designed the raft so people would use the spaces between the bars and floats. It would accommodate nine individuals, with footropes to help support them. The inventor claimed that lifesavers ashore could pull the craft to the beach in rough seas when they could not launch a small boat. Yet the opinion of the board was that the breeches buoy or life car were better options, and that life rafts were “virtually useless” for the Life-Saving Service. 12

In 1888 Patrick Carolan of Ohio submitted an idea loosely based on the breeches-buoy apparatus then in use. The board found numerous problems, however, among them extra lines that might be tangled or twisted during use. Carolan’s device was not as efficient as the breeches buoy, and the board believed it likely that waves would wash or throw an exhausted person out of its sack. 14

Putting Firepower to Work

Ideas for better ordnance to get lines out to wrecks predated the board, and new line-throwing inventions were frequent. In 1875 because of a lack of ordnance expertise within the ranks of the Revenue Cutter Service, the secretary of the Treasury asked for assistance from the Army’s chief of ordnance. The chief of ordnance detailed then-Lieutenant Lyle for special service, and the outcome of his work was a specially designed gun and projectile that bore his name. The service quickly adopted the Lyle gun and by 1879 had supplied it to every station. The gun was portable and could fire a line 700 yards. Lyle’s invention served throughout the Life-Saving Service and in the U.S. Coast Guard until the 1950s. All other devices offered to the service would have to be better than this gun. 15

Still, the ideas for new wreck ordnance were numerous, sometimes strange, and at times laughable. One of the earliest ideas to supplement the Lyle gun was Aiken’s Flying Cannon. Submitted in 1878, it called for the gun to travel to the wreck, rather than the projectile. The firing stand, which was a steel rod, was set into the sand, and the gun was placed over it and on top of a charge—thus “shooting the gun off the ramrod.” Lyle found the invention “overly complicated” and the “uncertainty” of recovering the gun after firing was problematical. Lyle wrote that nothing excels the smoothbore gun in “economy” and “simplicity” and certainly, it was a bad idea to fire the most valuable piece rather than the least expensive. 16

In 1881 the board tested Hunt’s Life-Saving projectile, essentially a cylinder with fins. Coiled inside the projectile was 250 yards of line that the inventor designed to feed out after firing. An additional 250 yards of line would feed from a “shore can.” The board thoroughly examined the merits of this gun and evaluated it compared with the Lyle gun. It could never compete with the Lyle projectile in accuracy, distance, or cost since after each use the projectile either needed replacing or to be recharged with line. 18

Projectile devices took all forms and the board appraised rockets as well. In 1878, Lyle looked at two rocket devices offered to supplement the Lyle projectiles. The inventor designed one to carry a message to a distressed vessel and the other to carry a line. Lyle considered the mail rocket “superfluous in this age.” He believed it impractical and the range too short. Lyle considered the other rocket “many years behind the age.” 19

Over the decades that the board met, it studied many hundreds of proposals. Its work enabled the Life-Saving Service to employ only the best and most appropriate devices to help rescue thousands of shipwrecked souls along the shores of the United States. When the Revenue Cutter Service and the Life-Saving Service were merged in 1915, the board’s work was deemed so important that it continued to meet for a number of years under the auspices of the resultant creation—the U.S. Coast Guard.



1. Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Service for the Fiscal Year ending 30 June 1876, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1876, pp. 21, 23–24; Annual Report 1877, pp. 38–39.

2. Annual Report 1879, pp. 48–49.

3. Annual Report 1879, pp. 49–52; Annual Report 1882, pp. 40–41; Annual Report 1887, p. 56.

4. Annual Report 1882, pp. 418, 484-87; Samuel Fox, The Vacuum Gun of 82, pamphlet, n.d., n.p.; Entry 334, RG 26, NARA.

5. Annual Report 1880, p. 30

6. Annual Report 1882, pp. 416, 418.

7. Annual Report 1888, pp. 489, 551–52; plate XI.

8. Annual Report 1893, pg. 383; Annual Report 1897, pp. 477–78.

9. Annual Report 1899, pp. 478, 498, plate VI.

10. Broadside for Captain Donvig’s Life Saving Globe, Correspondence Concerning Appliances A–Z, 1877–1911, Entry 334, Records of the United States Coast Guard, Record Group 26, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC (hereafter cited as Entry 334, RG 26, NARA.

11. Broadside for “A Novel Life-boat,” ibid.; H. P. Nickels to Kimball, 8 February 1879, ibid.

12. Annual Report 1886, pp. 485, 527–29.

13. Unnamed proposal, Entry 334, RG 26, NARA.

14. Annual Report 1888, p. 538, Plate V.

15. Annual Report 1877, pp. 39–41; Annual Report 1879, p. 59.

16. Report on Aiken’s Flying Cannon, 17 February 1879, David A. Lyle, Entry 334, RG 26, NARA.

17. Annual Report 1890, pp. 565–568, plate IV.

18. Annual Report 1881, pp. 347–78 and plates, I, II, VII, and VIII.

19. Lyle to Kimball, 11 December 1878, Entry 334, RG 26, NARA.

20. Annual Report 1899, pp. 471–72, 495–96, plate V.

 

 
 

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