History’s Finest: The Legacy Of Nathanael Greene Herreshoff

Quality and craftsmanship are interwoven elements that are synonymous with world-class yacht building. Nathanael Greene Herreshoff was an innovator in this sense; with a large amount of capital and America’s most influential men backing his creations, Herreshoff was free to explore the boundaries of early modern yacht design.

Life

Born during the waning years of the Industrial Revolution in 1848 on Rhode Island, Nathanael Greene Herreshoff lived in the ideal era for marine innovation. As one of seven brothers, the young Herreshoff became a natural competitor and gained entry to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in just its second year of establishment (1870). After three years at MIT, Herreshoff graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and quickly moved his attention to the potential of steam-powered boating.

One of Nathanael Greene Herreshoff’s many coveted patents at the MIT museum.

Nathanael Greene Herreshoff worked around steam-powered engines for the next few years before moving back to his home town of Bristol where he and his brother, John B., started the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company. The duo was effective in their craft, with John B. managing business and public relations while Nathanael Greene focused solely on manufacturing the quickest, most effective steam-powered boats.

The Herreshoff brothers found success and it seemed their insistence on steam-powered boats as the future of boating would pave the way for their career. However, a fatal accident that left one of their employees dead resulted in the rescinding of Nathanael Greene Herreshoff’s steam engineer licence. Partly due to this accident and partly due to the demand of the market, Nathanael Greene Herreshoff turned his attention to crafting supreme luxury yachts for the rich and famous of America.

Work

Word quickly spread of Nathaniel Greene Herreshoff’s boatmaking excellence and soon prominent businessmen such as Jay Gould and John Pierpont Morgan began to take a keen financial interest in the company’s products. The aristocratic Vanderbilts also helped to fund the creative potential of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company.

With the economic support of America’s finest, Herreshoff could employ the country’s best craftsmen to use the most innovative power tools to create the swiftest yachts. Soon Nathanael Greene Herreshoff became a household name among yachting aficionados. But what would truly cement the man’s legacy was his involvement with the America’s Cup, proving that not only were his boats the most gorgeous, they were also the fastest. From 1893-1934, a Herreshoff-built boat won every single America’s Cup. Some of these boats included:

Vigilant (1893)

Defender (1895)

Columbia (1899)

Reliance (1903)

Resolute (1920)

Herreshoff’s Universal Rule & J-Class

Until 1903, Herreshoff dominated the America’s Cup designing yachts by expertly exploiting the Seawanhaka rule, a formula for design based on a yacht’s upright waterline length and sail area. Eventually, Herreshoff himself devised a new rule for measuring boat length, taking into account displacement, that closed the loophole he’d exploited. The first boat said to be built under the universal rule was Herreshoff’s own Doris built in 1905. Boats built according to this rule reached their peak with the large and extremely beautiful J-class yachts. Herreshoff Manufacturing Company built a number of stunning J-Class yachts including Rainbow in 1934. Rainbow’s replica (pictured below) was built by Holland Jachtbouw and launched in 2012 – it’s currently for sale for €8.75 million.

J Class Rainbow

Legacy

Nathanael Greene Herreshoff died at the ripe old age of 90, having lived a successful and fulfilling life of yachting craftsmanship. His achievements are numerous and varied. Herreshoff designed over 2000 yachts and left behind over 18,000 drawings and sketches. As a steam-powered enthusiast, Herreshoff designed and manufactured the first U.S. torpedo boats – crafts that would lay the foundation for American marine warfare for generations to come.

Herreshoff’s yachts are all strikingly modern in appearance and thanks to his ingenuity, luxury yacht making is the industry it is today.  A few more of Nathanael Greene Herreshoff’s achievement include:

  • The invention of streamlined bulbs and fins.
  • Developing long overhangs on racing yachts which resulted in greater speed during races.
  • Inventing the crosscut sail, with panels running at right angles to the leech, reducing the canvas’ tendency to distort under heavy load.
  • Developing the Isherwood System – an innovative method of web frame design.
  • Inventing the first folding propeller.
  • Reliance housing the first below-deck winch.
  • Inventing the modern turnbuckle and modern winch.
  • Receiving the first U.S. patent for catamaran construction.

Nathanael Greene Herreshoff’s consistent efforts to streamline, lighten, and modernise his boats has resulted in the current yacht market we have today. It’s a market that can’t be entered unless the maker prioritises innovation and excellence. This is a precedent set by the old master – Nathanael Greene Herreshoff.

The MIT Museum holds an exhibition about the extraordinary Herreshoff legacy.

For the master of architectural design, read ‘History’s Finest: The Legacy Of Mies van der Rohe.’

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Jay is a writer and content producer for The Versatile Gent.

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