Learn about Life in the 1920s


A BATTLESHIP operated without a man aboard is a hitherto unprecedented realization of the United States Navy Department. The U.S.S. "Iowa" has been equipped with wireless apparatus adequate to its complete control from another vessel at a considerable distance. The bombing tests of the Army and Navy air forces afforded the incentive for the operation of a crewless battleship, the "Iowa" maneuvering as an enemy boat—a target for dummy bombs from the air.

Radical modifications have been made in the power plant of the 'Iowa" to insure its functioning without a man aboard. The boilers have been equipped to consume oil instead of coal as fuel. The propelling machinery will function for a considerable length of time without the care of a machinist. Automatic devices are capable of dispensing fuel to the burners and supplying water to the boilers. The main engines may be started at a slow pace, and the ship forthwith abandoned. Meanwhile an officer, aboard the controlling vessel, has assumed direction of the proverbial "ship without a rudder."

The apparatus for guiding the boat adrift comprises a standard radio transmitter aboard the controlling ship, a receiving aerial on the "Iowa" with special wireless receivers, amplifiers, relays, etc. These, in turn, convert radio signals into such a form as to insure the operation of electrical equipment which controls the steering gear and throttle of the main engine. The "Iowa" is thus placed at the beck and call of the officer who directs the transmission of wireless signals. All points of the compass,may be attained and the crewless vessel summarily halted in response to the wish of the commanding officer.

Side View of Battleship

The initial wireless signal flashed from the controlling boat is intercepted by the aerial its reception being acknowledged by the radio receiver situated well below the deck. The signal is amplified by vacuum-tube amplifiers which operate an extremely sensitive relay or switch which in turn gives impetus to a larger relay. The latter closes an electrical circuit which operates an electrically controlled pneumatic valve. When this valve opens, compressed air is admitted to the throttle control of the main engines. The subsequent opening of this throttle speeds the ship to its maximum capacity.

Radio Control Unit in Ship's Radio Room

The large relay referred to in the previous paragraph likewise gives momentum to a device described as a commutator— the steering mechanism. The guiding gear embraces a standard steam-engine-driven rudder, the throttle valve of this engine being geared to an electric motor. The operation of this unit is thus capably effected, the electric motor in turn being responsible for the steam engine driving the rudder to either starboard or port as needs may dictate. A gyro-compass, electrically connected to the control panel of the electric motor on the steering gear, provides a means of automatic steering.

The commutator has been called the "mechanical brain" of the manless battleship. The scope of its activities is quite as varied as are the responsibilities imposed. Radio signals are received, interpreted, and conveyed directly to the electric motor controlling the steering engine by the commutator. The latter duty is hedged by the proviso that the order be either starboard or port; otherwise, the gyro-compass is given control. The ship may be halted by the transmission of a signal of ten seconds duration. Such a prolonged warning serves to operate a relay which opens the circuit on an electrically controlled pneumatic valve. Forthwith, fuel oil and water are taboo, the power plant suspends action, with the resultant effect of a motionless ship. Anticipating the unforeseen contingency of the radio-receiving apparatus failing to function at the critical moment, a safety device has been provided. This takes the form of a time dock which automatically suspends activities.

The first absolutely radio-guided battleship in its adaptation as a moving target for bombs, to all practical purposes, will maneuver as an enemy ship just as though a crew were aboard. War conditions will be simulated. Starting from a point say 100 miles at its off the Virginia capes, the "Iowa" will move toward shore, while bombing airplanes, starting at the same hour, will go on a searching errand. Having determined the location of the battleship, dummy bombs will be dropped mercilessly thereon in the hope of fortifying the contention that future wars will be waged from the air

Source: Popular Mechanics - August, 1922