“I have read with much interest the complete success of the steam ship Princeton which you have the honor to command.”
Thus wrote one J. Hassett Chandler in a letter from Siam, dated 12 May 1845, to Captain Robert F. Stockton, U. S. Navy, commanding officer of the USS Princeton, the world’s first screw-propelled warship.*
Chandler was in the service of the Baptist Board of Missions in Bangkok and, although an artisan at the time, was close to the ruling family. What his background was and how he came to advise and influence the royal family is not known. He must have been a man of rare talents, however, because some years later, he rose to the position of tutor to Prince Chulalongkorn, a son of Mongkut who ruled as King Rama IV from 1851-1868. Chulalongkorn eventually succeeded his father as Rama V (1868-1910), Siam’s greatest ruler. Chandler’s letter to Stockton goes on to say:
“The news of the great race with the English steamer Great Western reached us some time ago.
“His Majesty the King [Phra Nang Klao, Rama III], and several of the Princes wishing to procure a Steamer, I had the account of the race translated and presented to His Royal Highness Prince T. Momfanoi [younger brother of Mongkut] and several others. It was presented on Saturday the 10th and I have not yet learned the result. An old Steamer was brought here by an english merchant about a year ago, but the King refused to purchase it. The course taken by the merchant who brought it so enraged the King that he banished him from the country.
“I brought with me a small Engine Lathe when I came to this place and set it up in the type foundry. His Royal Highness hearing of it, called and wished a little turning done for him.
“The Prince [Momfanoi] has a great fondness for mechanics, and wished to purchase it. I finally sold it to him and he set it up in his watchmakers room at the Palace.
“He soon found his room too small, and immediately built a machine shop about 60 X 20 feet. About four months after he added 30 ft. more. The shop is built of brick and stands on the outside of the Palace walls next to the river. A variety of tools have been ordered from U States; these when they arrive, together with what have been already made, will make a very good shop.
“Nothing of the kind was ever attempted before in Siam, and much praise is due to the Prince for the zeal and energy he has taken in the work. It would be gratifying to me to know the size and tonnage of the Princeton, together with the power of her Engines, and advantages over the old or common paddle wheel, and if not incompatible with your duties and the public interest, I have no doubt of your willingness to communicate the desired information.
“I am a Machinist by profession, but gave up the business about four years ago, and entered the service of the Board of Missions as type founder and punch cutter to their Mission in the East.
“I left the U States in 1841, and although there is no prospect of ever returning, still I feel myself an American, and all her interests are as dear to me as ever. The King and Princes are at a loss to know why American ships do not visit Siam. Perhaps you can give a reply better than I am able.
“Wishing you all honor and abundant success, I am, Dear Sir,
Your humble servt.,
J. Hassett Chandler
“All communications to my address should be directed to the care of Bap. Mission Rooms, Boston.”
Along with the letter to Stockton, Chandler enclosed the following account of the “Great Trial of speed between U. S. Steam Ship Princeton and the English Steamer Great Western,” which he had translated into Siamese and addressed to Chao Phraya Prayoonrawong, one of King Rama III’s chief ministers.
“I, Mr. Chandler, wish to present to Your Excellency an account of steamships to inform you that about seven years ago someone in the U. S. invented a new steamer engine which could travel faster than the old type. He [John Ericsson] started by building it and trying it out on a small vessel first. When he saw that the small vessel performed very well, he then built a larger one. That larger vessel sailed from New York to a group of islands called the West Indies, then returned to New York. When the Ruler [President Tyler] found that the steamer could sail very fast, he ordered a big steam-screw warship [Princeton] built with that new engine. The construction was completed in that year, the Year of the Rabbit [A.D. 1843]. Upon completion he then wanted to try out her speed. On the 10th day of the waning moon in the 11th lunar month of the Year of the Rabbit an English steamship [Great Western] was going to sail from New York to England. That English vessel surpassed all other steamers in speed. They therefore wanted to test these ships’ speeds against each other. They agreed to have a race at 2:30 p.m. In the race the English steamer started about 1,600 yards ahead, and the U. S. steamer which was built with the new engine followed. In a little while the latter overtook the English steamer just at the time when they arrived at the junction of the two courses. One was a straight course. The other round-about. The latter was about 4,800 yards longer than the first. The English steamer took the straight course. The U. S. steamer took the round-about one. The English vessel reached the appointed destination . . . only two lengths ahead of the U. S. vessel.† The course that the American steamer took was about 52,480 yards long and it took her one and a half hours against the current. The British and other people were convinced that that steamer sailed faster than all other ships in the world. The engine used in that American vessel is called Ericcson. I, Mr. Chandler, would like to inform Your Excellency that that type of engine has become more and more popular every year. This type of engine is installed under the water and cannot be seen. It is not the same as the engine that is attached to both sides of the ship as generally seen in the steamers which have come to this country.
“I, Mr. Chandler, think that, if His Majesty the King wished, it would be to his advantage to purchase one with the Ericcson Engine.”
Whether King Rama III eventually took Chandler’s advice and purchased a steamer equipped with an Ericsson engine, we do not know. Nevertheless, “I, Mr. Chandler” was a firm believer in the new screw-propelled steamers and was doing his utmost to promote Ericsson’s inventions amongst the natives. As a sort of self-appointed naval advisor to Siam, this expatriate American must have had considerable influence in furthering the technological progress of this underdeveloped country in the mid-19th century.
* See H. C. Watts, “Ericsson, Stockton, and the USS Princeton,[”] September 1956 PROCEEDINGS, pp. 960-967.
† In two more minutes the American vessel passed the English ship, turned and came back.