"Too Far on a Whim to Walk Back on a Hunch:" The US Navy and High-Steam Technology, 1930-1945

Thumbnail Image


Pitrof_umd_0117E_20672.pdf (2.64 MB)
No. of downloads:

Publication or External Link





American interwar development of a high-pressure, high-temperature steam propulsion system for its navy has long been hailed by scholars as a major operational advantage in the Pacific Theater of World War II. This study challenges that narrative, which is almost entirely dependent on the autobiographical account of Vice Admiral Harold G. Bowen, Sr. “High steam,” as the system was called, was a major part of Admiral Bowen’s legacy as Chief of the Bureau of Engineering from 1935 to 1939. His account should therefore be analyzed critically as a partisan primary source. Using this approach, and through consultation of the archival records of the Navy, it is clear that while high-steam developments improved the operational ranges of US Navy warships, the system failed to reach the lofty endurance levels claimed during its development and parroted in subsequent scholarship. This was largely due to faulty assumptions that were made about the nature of modern operational environments. To make matters worse, the improvements that were obtained were accompanied by substantial production and training problems. All of these issues combined with the bureaucratic subdivision of the Navy to place significant limits on the pace of US naval operations in the Pacific Theater of World War II.