Lately I’ve been interested in the history of warships, and by lately I mean the past year. More specifically, I’ve been interested in the ironclads and pre-dreadnoughts that nations were building in the late 1800s.
Most people reading this probably know about the USS Monitor. During the Civil War, the American government hired John Ericsson to build a ship that would be a match for the South’s new ironclad; the CSS Virginia. The Monitor represented a major advance in ship design, and its construction resulted in forty patentable inventions.1
The Monitor was just one of many designs that were tried during this era, and the sheer variety in designs is what I find so fascinating. It was a time of great technological advancement, and designers were looking to both the past and future when building these ships. This hybridization of new and old ideas can be seen in the inclusion of rams on many pre-dreadnaught warships, which went on to encourage new innovations in damage control onboard ships. 2
Finally, there were ships like the Mikasa, Japan’s flagship at the battle of Tsushima in 1905, that more closely resembled what think of when we imagine a battleship. For a time she was the most advanced warship in the world, but that title was soon lost with the coming of the new dreadnought battleships.3
If you want to read more about these ships, Wikipedia has a wealth of information on the many ships of this era. For me though, that wasn’t enough. Whenever I start to develop an interest in something I start looking for books on it. I’ve referenced the three books I’ve found on the topic so far, and if you’re interested in reading them I’ve cited them at the bottom of this post.
So what use are these ships to world building? First off, many ships of this era have a unique aesthetic that can help set the tone of your setting. Seemingly anachronistic designs lend themselves well to steampunk settings, or to periods in which your world is undergoing rapid technological advancement.
I have also found that outlining a nation’s warships helps me wrap my mind around where its priorities lie, and how it’s going to interact with its neighbors. The reason for this is that warships are expensive, and their presence is an easy way for countries to show off their military and industrial might. If your country should find itself in possession of a large colonial empire, it’s going to need a large and modern navy to protect all of its territory. On the other hand, a fleet of older warships might help to showcase a country’s lack of resources, or otherwise help to illustrate the outdated thinking of its leaders.
From a story telling perspective warships have a huge potential for adventure. A good ship could take your characters around the world and back. Encounters between old and new warships can show the reader what sort of changers are occurring in your world.
Researching historical designs will help you get an idea of what these ships is capable of. This information can come in handy if your character’s ship runs into trouble. What the ship can and cannot do are going to determine whether your characters will be able to stand and fight, attempt a retreat, or find a way around the obstacle.
What sort of research have you done to build your worlds? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
- Warships of the World to 1900 by Lincoln p. Paine p. 108-110
- An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Battleships: From 1860 to the First World War by Peter Hore p. 38.
- Battle at Sea: 3,000 Years of Naval Warfare by R.G. Grant p.252