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Friday, June 20, 2008

HOW TO GO BROKE IN A HURRY

I heard about a guy who came up with a brilliant idea, convinced some money to invest in his dream and made a billion dollars. He built himself a huge mansion and lived happily ever after. But you never hear about the fifty or sixty guys who came up with exactly the same idea and then went broke. I call this the “Savannah Effect” that being the name of the first ship to cross the Atlantic using steam power. And if you were wondering why Detroit doesn’t have an electric car ready for sale or why the U.S. spent billions on a Space Shuttle that is now considered a white elephant the answer is the “Savannah Effect”. It happened in 1819 and if you check the history books you will discover that the first steam ship to cross the Atlantic was the “Great Western” or the “Cape Breton” in 1833, or the “Siruis” in 1838. But you will not hear about the “Savannah” because, well, because it never made a dime.
Everybody now knows that sailing ships can cross the ocean powered by the free fuel of the wind: except the wind is not free. It requires masts and sails and a lot of rope and a large crew to handle it all. And even then you can only move when the wind is blowing. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the world had five thousand years invested in sailing technology. But living with that technology meant that the advantages of steam power were obvious. A steam ship could leave port when it wanted to, and even travel against the wind. The crew could be a tenth of the size needed on a sailing ship, which meant more of the power was used for moving cargo and less for moving the ship and crew. The ship and crew are expenses. The cargo is the profit. And the new nation of America had a shortage of manpower, meaning a shortage of sailors. Steam ships were the obvious way to increase profits.
Which is why, in 1818, the successful cotton merchant William Scarbrough of Savannah, Georgia paid $50,000 for a 319 ton packet ship then under construction at the Fickett and Crockett shipyard, on the East River, in New York City. Scarbrough was convinced that the future of naval commerce was in steam, and he was president of (and principle investor in) the newly formed Savannah Steamship Company. He was intent upon establishing regular steam ship service between America and Europe. And to shepherd that dream into reality Scarbough sought out Captain Moses Rogers.
Moses Rogers seemed to have grown up in almost the perfect time and place for a young man with a maritime heritage, a mechanical bearing of mind and an adventurous spirit. He was pure Yankee, born in New London, Connecticut. He had been one of the first captains of Robert Fulton’s “North River Steamboat” (Later called the “Claremont”) and in June of 1808 had shared command of John C. Steven’s steamboat “The Phoenix”. Stevens had missed beating Fulton to the honor of first steamboat in America by just a month, and missed profitability by not having the Governor of New York as a partner.
While Governor Livingston granted Fulton and himself the sole right to operate steamboats on the Hudson River, Steven’s designs were used on runs between New York and Philadelphia. And it was on such runs in costal waters that Rogers built his reputation as a navigator and an engineer. It was, at the time, a relatively rare combination of skills. Also, Captain Rogers had already discussed the idea of oceanic steamships with Stephen Vail. He owned an iron works in Moorestown, New Jersey. Vail employed engineers who had worked with Watson Watt, the developer of the steam engine. Vail’s engineers not only had personal experience at building steam engines but a few had also managed to smuggle out of England vital data on them. It seemed like a partnership of these three men was made in heaven. How could they fail?
On August 22, 1818 the newly named “Savannah”, 98’6” long by 25’10” wide, with three masts and a man’s bust for a figurehead , slid off the ways in upper Manhatten and immediately sailed to Vail’s Speedwell Iron Works, at Mooristown, New Jersey where a 90 horsepower 30 ton steam engine, removable side paddlewheels and a 17’ bent smokestack were installed . The work took six months. On March 29th 1819 the Savannah sailed on her shakedown cruise to her namesake port. Then on May 22nd, she set sail for Liverpool, England.
The correct word here is “sailed” as the Savannah’s double boiler engine gobbled up 10 tons of coal a day, and she could only carry 75 tons (with about another 5 cords of wood as a backup). Besides, under sail, the Savannah could make 10 knots an hour, while under steam alone she could only average about 5 knots. So the steam power was used only when the winds failed, less than 80 hours in total during her crossing. So the Savannah broke no records in making her crossing, covering the 3,000 miles in a mediocre 22 days, and running out of coal in the process. The boilers had to be fed the wood so the Savannah could make her "grand entrance” into Liverpool under steam.
The British were not impressed. It seemed to them the limited power of the steam engine was not worth the loss in cargo space. Given the cold shoulder in England the Savannah sailed for Copenhagen, where the King of Sweden offered to buy the ship for $100,000. But not having been authorized to sell, Captain Rogers said no. Ah, if he had only said yes, this story might have had a happier ending, because back home in America, the nation was being rocked by the Panic if 1819.
Early in 1818 the First National Bank of the United States in Boston began to call in its outstanding debts. And like falling dominos State banks were forced to follow suit. And as credit dried up jobs in state after state evaporated, and salaries collapsed. (Sound familar?) Record numbers of people in Boston were sent to debtors’ prison. In Richmond, Virginia property values fell by half. Farm workers, making $1.50 a day in 1818, were only earning fifty-three cents a day a year later; wood cutters were being paid thirty-three cents for a cord of wood in 1818, but only ten cents for a cord by 1821. And one of the bigger victims of the panic was William Scarbrough, of the Savannah Steamship Company.
On June 5, 1819 Scarborough had to take out a mortgage on his new mansion to secure his debts, which then totaled $87,534.50. A year later, May 13, 1820, Scarborough was forced to sell his beautiful home to Robert Isaac, his brother-in-law, for $20,000. Isaac allowed William to continue to live in the house. But the very next day Lowe & Company laid claim to everything else that Scarborough still owned, including his shares of the steamship Savannah.
The Savannah was stripped of her boilers and put back into service as a standard packet ship. In November 1821, in a gale, she ran aground and brole up off of Long Island, New York. Stephen Vail, whose Speedwell Iron Works had installed the engine on the Savannah, was still owed $3,527.84 for his work. He never got paid. Moses Rogers went back to work commanding a coastal steamer, the “Pee Dee”. He died of yellow fever at Georgetown, South Carolina., November 15, 1821, at the age of 42.
And William Scarborough, the inspiration for this noble attempt and misadventure, lived out the rest of his life in his own home, (thanks to his brother-in-law) leaving it to his daughter in his will. He died in 1838, at the ripe old age of 62 and is buried in the Colonial Park Cemetary in Savannah. His home is still standing at 42 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. It now houses the Savannah “Ships of the Sea” Maritime Museum, featuring a model of that amazing failure, the steamship Savannah.
The steamship Savannah was a good idea. But like most ideas, good and bad, it was judged a failure. Nobody got rich off the Savannah and most people associated with her went broke. And that is why they should be remembered. It's the way history moves forward; not in a great sweep of historic successes followed by success, but in fits and false starts and at least half the time when humanity does succeed it is almost by accident and in spite of ourselves. At no time in history was anybody any smarter or more talented or luckier than anybody alive right now. And I think it helps to be reminded of that, every so often. The Savannah is such a reminder.
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