In 1850, in an effort to demonstrate American advances in shipbuilding to the world, a group of New York yachtsmen formed a plan to send a yacht to England to race against British boats. The task of designing the boat was given to George Steers, one of New York’s leading naval architects and the designer of the port’s fastest pilot boats.
At that time, naval architects used various methods to plan the shape of a vessel’s hull. In America, it was common practice to build a scaled half-model as part of the design process. These builder’s half-models provided a physical representation of the proposed vessel’s hull shape and were used by shipwrights to plan the construction of the full-sized vessel. When Steers’s yacht, named America, beat some of the fastest boats in England in a race around the Isle of Wight, the traditional rules governing naval architecture were completely overturned and Steers’s model became revered as the symbol of this seminal event in maritime history.
In the years following the £100 Cup race, many copies of this builder’s half-model were constructed and given as gifts – one was even made for Queen Victoria – but there were tantalizingly few glimpses of the original model. In 1851, it was displayed in the annual exhibition of the American Institute of the City of New York.1 I also imagine it was displayed during one of the celebratory dinners that occurred after the race but I couldn’t find any evidence of it.2
Following George Steers’s untimely death in 1856, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper published a drawing of his model room. The image shows a port-side view of America mounted on a backing board with a rudder, something builder’s half-models would never have. Since the image also shows a half-model of Donald McKay’s famous clipper ship Flying Cloud it makes one wonder if artistic license came into play when the drawing was being created. Personally, I don’t believe the image can be trusted as a reliable source of what the model looked like,3 but it does show the model was still in the possession of the Steers family in 1856.
In 1882, a drawing of Henry Steers’s4 (George Steers’s nephew) model room was published by Harper’s Magazine but it only shows a few models, none of which are identified as America. However, several of the models shown provide evidence that the family retained at least part, if not all of George’s model collection.5
The rare sightings of the original builder’s model and the proliferation of copies dating to the same time period has caused a cloud of suspicion to be cast over every model claiming to be Steers’s original. Even the authenticity of the rough half-model of America owned by the Steers family has been doubted despite a seemingly unbroken chain of provenance.6 According to family lore, when Henry Coster Steers deposited 20 half-models and one vessel plan with The Mariners’ Museum in 1936, his brother, C. R. Coster Steers, retained the half-model of America and a silver cup presented to George in 1852. That model and cup descended through the family to the current generation, headed by Robertson Steers, but no one was willing to put their reputation on the line and categorically state the original model had finally been located (including me!).
In 2020, the Steers family formally donated the deposited collection of builder’s half-models to the Museum. At that time, a decision was made to appraise the America builder’s model for insurance purposes but establishing its true value required determining if the piece was truly George Steers’s original. Over the summer of 2021, appraiser R. Michael Wall embarked on a project to study and authenticate the model. Throughout the process he consulted with several experts about the builder’s model.
When initial surveys looked promising, two courses of action that might provide conclusive, or at least suggestive evidence, of whether or not the model was Steers’s original were recommended. First, x-raying the model to determine how it was held together, and second, making a new set of plans from the model’s lines and comparing them against plans created in 1851 and 1852 to see how well they matched up. In the case of the latter suggestion, an easier course of action – simply placing the model on enlargements of the three known original plans–was taken. How would x-raying the model be useful? Because seeing its internal structures would provide evidence of the model’s original intended use. To understand what evidence of use you might see requires a quick lesson on how builders constructed the models and how shipwrights used them.
Builder’s half-models are composed of thin horizontal layers of wood, called lifts, held together by wooden dowels or tapered pegs. When a builder completed a model, a series of parallel lines called station lines, were drawn on its back and top. The dowels or pegs were then removed, the lifts were separated, and measurements of the lengths, breadths, and depths at each station were taken and compiled into a table of offsets.7 Shipwrights use the offset measurements to lay out the shape of the vessel at the various stations in full scale. An x-ray would show whether dowels or pegs held the model together. Mere copies of the famous model would lack both station lines and dowels or pegs because those models didn’t need to facilitate the construction process.
In late June 2021, Wall consulted with Dr. Dipti Lenhart, a radiologist at the Lahey Hospital Medical Center in Peabody, Massachusetts, about x-raying the half-model. Dr. Lenhart suggested that a CT scan would provide better diagnostic results. While waiting for the testing to be organized and undertaken, comparisons of the model against the original plans were made.
Two of the plans, included in the 1851 edition of John W. Griffiths’ Treatise on Marine and Naval Architecture (plate 30) and another showing the vessel’s lines to the inside and outside of the boat’s planking made by Nelson Spratt (an associate of George Steers at William H. Brown’s shipyard), were probably drafted directly from the model.8 If the model and these two plans closely matched each other it suggested an interconnected relationship – i.e., one was used to create the other. The model matched the two plans nearly perfectly except for slight differences at the bow and stern where the model has suffered some minor repaired damages.
In the case of the third plan, which was created by the British Admiralty from measurements taken directly from America’s hull in 1851, there were minor differences that may have been introduced by changes made by the shipwrights as they built the vessel.
The CT scan was performed on July 30, 2021, under the direction of radiologist Dr. Christoph Wald. During the scanning process, curator Erik Ronnberg discussed the construction of the model and diagnostic features the researchers were looking for with the radiology team so they would know what to look for as they processed the data.
Evaluation of the scan data by Dr. Wald revealed the presence of a number of “tube-like chambers” within the model. These “tubes,” which run along the centerline of the hull exactly where you would expect Steers to have placed them, are evidence of the channels that contained the wooden dowels that held the model’s lifts together. Both Wall and Ronnberg believe the presence of these chambers confirms that the model is Steers’s original builder’s model for the yacht America.
The scan also revealed a plethora of metal hardware within the model. Permanently securing the lifts together with metal fasteners seems to have been a common practice once a model was no longer needed for construction purposes – especially in the case of famous vessels. Many of the half-models in the Museum’s Collection are fastened together in a similar manner, with nails driven into the lifts from the bottom up and screws holding down the upper lifts.
Although the researchers were pretty confident the builder’s model was Steers’s original, America’s Cup historian Steve Tsuchiya decided to make one final comparison of the half-model against the sheer and half-breadth plans in Griffiths’ book as well as the Spratt and Admiralty plans. He felt that transposing the plans over the model would provide an even clearer picture of how well everything matched up.
Following this final exercise, Tsuchiya concluded that the model could be that of America. He noted that the number of lifts and their locations on the model closely corresponded with the dashed lines shown on the plans in Griffiths. The various other researchers consulted felt the model’s close conformation with the three known 1851-1852 architectural plans and the presence of channels for dowels or pegs proved the object is the original builder’s model of the yacht America. With the importance of the model firmly established, the Steers family decided it needed to be in a publicly accessible collection where researchers could study it, and the general public could see it.
As the Steers family model collection was already housed with The Mariners’ Museum and Park, they felt the most appropriate course of action was to reunite the America model with the rest of the family’s collection. Thus, the model became a permanent and important part of the Steers family collection and the Museum’s renowned collection of items related to America and the history of the America’s Cup.
For our curators, the builder’s model’s role in telling the story of advancing technology that has always been a part of the America’s Cup is without question. Today, the America model takes its rightful place in the Museum’s groundbreaking exhibit Speed & Innovation in the America’s Cup. In the exhibit, we juxtaposed the America builder’s half-model against the massive AC72 foiling catamaran that won the America’s Cup in 2013. It is truly compelling to recognize that both vessels represented the height of innovation in their day.
We would love for you to send your thanks to the Steers family, whose generosity has revealed such a historically important object to the world. Just leave a comment below and we’ll make sure to pass along the praise!
NOTE: For those of you wondering why the name painted on the model isn’t evidence the model depicts America it’s because no one is sure when the name was applied. Steers family lore indicates the name was “darkened” at some point in the twentieth century but this wasn’t needed on any other models in the Steers collection. This suggests the name was either applied with an unstable material that required reapplication or the letters were only outlines and the “darkening” process was merely the outline being filled in. In any case, the letters are rather crudely applied and not of nineteenth century style so we believe the name was applied much later.
1 Steers was awarded a gold medal for the design.
2 Models of America are mentioned as being displayed, but they are never attributed as the original builder’s model.
3 Another factor that leads me to question the veracity of the drawing is that all of the plans created in 1851, which were most likely created from the model, show a starboard side view of the vessel.
4 Henry was also a shipbuilder and added several of his own models to George Steers’s collection.
5 At least two of the models and one plan visible in the image were deposited with the Museum in 1936.
6 When George Steers died in 1856, the ownership of his collection of half-models passed to his brother and business associate, James Rich Steers. Upon his death in 1896 the collection passed to Henry Steers (1832-1903). Henry was also a naval architect and added four or five of his own models to the collection. Another Henry Steers acquired the collection in 1903 and it descended to Henry Coster Steers (1890-1947) and C.R. Coster Steers (1896-1952) in 1928
7 The table of offsets lists the distance from the center of the vessel to the outline of the hull at each station and waterline.
8 Spratt could have also pulled the lines of the vessel from the mould loft floor where it had been laid out in full scale.