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Photo of George W. Melville in uniform

George W. Melville

Rear Admiral George Wallace Melville, USN (Jan. 10, 1841 - March 17, 1912) was an engineer of the United States Navy. He served with distinction during the Civil War and eventually became chief of the Bureau of Steam Engineering. Melville is best known for his Arctic explorations and his mechanical and engineering talents.

Early Life and Career

Melville was born in New York City on Jan, 10, 1841. After graduating from Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute, he entered the U.S. Navy on July 29, 1861 and became an officer of the Engineer Corps, with the rank of Third Assistant Engineer. His first year afloat was spent on the Great Lakes' gunboat Michigan, during which time he was promoted to Second Assistant Engineer. Melville served in the sloops of war Dacotah and Wachusett from mid-1862 until late in 1864, taking part in the capture of CSS Florida in October 1864. He finished the Civil War in the Hampton Roads, Va., area working with torpedo boats and as an engineer on the gunboat Maumee.

In the years after the Civil War's conclusion, First Assistant Engineer Melville served aboard several ships, among them the experimental cruiser Chattanooga, gunboat Tacony, steam sloop Lancaster and Asiatic Squadron flagship Tennessee.

Melville's Arctic Explorations

In 1873, he volunteered for duty as Chief Engineer of Tigress for her rescue in Baffin Bay of 19 survivors of the Polaris expedition to the Arctic.

Side view of the USS Jennette

USS Jennette

In the summer of 1879, he was an eager and daring volunteer when an Arctic expedition under Lieutenant Commander George W. DeLong left San Francisco onboard the USS Jeannette on Aug. 7, 1879 to seek an ocean passage to the Atlantic by way of Siberia. Jeannette became icebound in September and, after two years of effort to save her, was crushed by ice floes in the Laptev Sea and sank June 12, 1881 - leaving the crew stranded on the ice floes in mid-ocean in three small boats and with scanty provisions.

Melville was the only boat commander to bring his crew to safety in Lena Delta, Siberia. Later, he set out in search of DeLong and his men, traveling over a thousand miles in the deadly cold of the Arctic winter only to find them dead. However, he was able to recover and bring back all the records of the expedition. The third boat, under the command of Charles W. Chipp, was never found and Chipp and seven other men were presumed dead.

The United States Congress rewarded Melville for his gallantry and resourcefulness by advancing him 15 numbers on the promotion list and awarding him the Congressional Gold Medal. The incredible hardships of the expedition are described in his book, In the Lena Delta, published in 1884.

Melville was promoted to the rank of Chief Engineer during his time onboard the Jeannette and again went to the Arctic onboard Thetis in 1884 for the Greely Relief Expedition.

Bureau of Steam Engineering

Admiral Melville sitting at his desk

Rear Admiral George W. Melville

Melville was an Inspector of Coal in 1884-1886, then performed his final seagoing duty in the new cruiser Atlanta. President Grover Cleveland appointed Melville Chief of the Bureau of Steam Engineering Aug. 9, 1887, with the relative rank of Commodore. During more than a decade and a half in that post, he was responsible for the Navy's propulsion systems during an era of remarkable force expansion, technological progress and institutional change. Melville superintended the design of 120 ships of the "New Navy". Among the major technical innovations that he helped introduce were the water-tube boiler, the triple-screw propulsion system, vertical engines, the floating repair ship, and the "distilling ship."

Photo of Melville in a suite

Melville, between 1890 and 1910

Promoted to Rear Admiral on March 3,1899, he was appointed Engineer in Chief of the Navy Dec. 6, 1900. Admiral Melville succeeded in completing an extensive reform of the entire U.S. Naval Engineering department, putting Navy engineers on a professional rather than an artisan footing.

View from the water of the Engineering Experiment Station

Engineering Experiment Station

The Annapolis laboratory was a brainchild of Melville. As Engineer-in-Chief of the Navy, he fought hard to get an appropriation of $400,000 for an experiment and testing laboratory to be located at Annapolis. In 1903, he finally was successful in obtaining the appropriation for the Engineering Experiment Station (EES).

His primary argument for the establishment of an experiment station was that it would increase the efficiency of the Navy. His idea was to establish a dependable means for testing - before installation - machinery and equipment designed for Navy ships. His secondary argument was that it could aid in training engineering officers, and therefore, it should be located in Annapolis near the Naval Academy. With characteristic modesty, Melville refused to have EES named in his honor.

Group portrait in front of the Fuel Oil Testing Plant

Fuel Oil Testing Plant

Prior to his retirement, Melville headed a committee tasked with studying how to use fuel oil in Navy boilers instead of coal. They strongly recommended that a testing plant be developed to test methods of burning fuel in Navy boilers. On Nov. 18, 1910, the Secretary of Navy authorized "... the construction and equipment, at an estimated cost of $10,000.00, of a structure simulating a naval fireroom, for the purpose of instigating the subject of fuel oil burning in connection with the design of proposed oil burning battleships" in an existing building (Building 47) at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. This facility, the Fuel Oil Testing Plant, eventually grew into the Naval Ship Systems Engineering Station (NAVSSES).

Melville left active duty on Jan. 10, 1903. He is recognized as one of the founders of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division (NSWCCD) laboratory, as well as being founder of the Naval Postgraduate School.

Rear Admiral Melville spent his last years in Philadelphia where he died on March 17, 1912.

Legacy

The U.S. Navy has named two ships in honor of George W. Melville: Melville (Destroyer Tender #2, later AD-2), 1915-1948; and the oceanographic research ship Melville (AGOR-14), 1969-present.

The Navy's George W. Melville Award recognizes outstanding engineering contributions in the applications of knowledge toward research and development of materials, devices, and systems or methods; including design, development, and integration of prototypes and new processes.

The Melville Medal is awarded periodically by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in honor of the best original paper from its transactions.

 


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