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NEWS | Oct. 8, 2021

NSWC Philadelphia Celebrates U.S. Navy’s 246th Birthday Reflecting on City’s Rich Naval History

By Gary Ell

As the U.S. Navy celebrates its 246th birthday on October 13, the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Philadelphia Division (NSWCPD) reflects on Philadelphia region’s rich naval history.

The central theme of this year’s birthday observance, "Resilient & Ready,” speaks to the Navy’s history of rising above the most challenging crises while still maintaining force lethality and preparedness. As the Continental Navy began in Philadelphia on Oct. 13, 1775, the Navy claims that date as its birthday.

The port of Philadelphia, because of its central location and protected inland harbor, became the largest center of commerce in the colonial period, and the origin of the Philadelphia shipyard coincided with the growth of the colonies.

“At NSWCPD we are proud of our longstanding naval heritage, having been located on the Navy Yard in Philadelphia for more than a century with our official founding on Nov. 18, 1910,” said NSWCPD Commanding Officer Capt. Dana Simon. “During our first 100 years our engineering expertise greatly contributed to the winning of World Wars I and II, as well as to the ending of the Cold War.”

According to “A Farewell of Arms: The Passing of the Philadelphia Navy Yard”, Don Wambold writes, “On Oct. 13, 1775, Congress appointed a John Adams-headed Naval Committee that purchased and re-outfitted four Philadelphia merchant ships to become frigates. These vessels – the Alfred, Columbus, Cabot, and Andrew Doria -- were altered under the direction of Joshua Humphreys, Jr., often referred to as the ‘Father of the American Navy.’ The site, known as the Humpreys-Wharton Yard, roughly between what is now Washington Avenue and Federal Street, would become the original location of the Philadelphia Navy Yard.”

The Library of Congress (LOC) states that “An act to provide a naval armament” was declared on December of 1775, where the Naval Committee authorized the construction of 13 light frigates with between 24 to 32 guns each, representing each of the thirteen colonies. Humphreys provided the designs while two of these frigates were built at that shipyard in Philadelphia.

Following the Revolutionary War a heavily indebted United States disbanded the Continental Navy. However, with commerce resuming, and many merchant ships lost during the war, the Philadelphia Shipyard boomed, continuing to produce merchant vessels until 1794 when the United States Congress called for the creation of a new Navy.

LOC concludes, “Officially established during the Naval Act of 1794, the Philadelphia Navy Yard is the oldest, continuously operated shipyard in the United States.”

According to “The Philadelphia Navy Yard: From the Birth of the U.S. Navy to the Nuclear Age,” Jeffery M. Dorwart writes, “When the U.S. Navy ports in the south fell to Confederate forces during the Civil War, the Philadelphia Navy Yard stood as the Union’s first line of naval defense. Moreover, the yard converted and outfitted more than 100 warships and ironclads during the war.”

By 1910, the use of oil-fired boilers changed ship design dramatically and contributed to the development of massive new battleships.

According to “100 Years of Engineering Contributions,” published in Surface Warfare magazine, NSWCPD’s Chief Technologist Dr. E. Michael Golda writes, “Naval Ship Systems Engineering Station (NAVSSES) at the Philadelphia Navy Yard had its beginnings as the U.S. Navy changed from coal to oil for fuel to fire its steam powered ships. Adm. George W. Melville, Chief of the Bureau of Steam Engineering and chief Engineer of the Navy, advocated for the establishment of Navy-operated laboratories and testing stations that would use rigorous methods to solve the numerous engineering challenges confronting naval ships.”

Golda summarized that Melville’s advocacy led to the establishment of a Fuel Oil Testing Plant (FOTP) that evolved into the Naval Boiler and Turbine Laboratory (NBTL), which developed a highly efficient thermal diffusion process to separate U235 isotopes for the Naval Research Laboratory.

“NBTL provided more than 5000 pounds of partially-enriched uranium for further refinement, some of which was incorporated into the U235 weapon, also known as ‘Little Boy,’ used to end the war with Japan,” Golda writes.

During WWII, the Philadelphia Navy Yard became a self-contained community, by far the yard’s most prolific period, when it built 53 new warships, and an additional 1218 were repaired.

In 1966, the facility became the Naval Ship Engineering Center, Philadelphia Division (NAVSEC Philadelphia) when the Navy was structured into Systems Commands. They divided the work into three broad categories: heat systems, engine systems and applied physics. The Chief of Naval Operations established NAVSSES in 1979.

The end of the Cold War meant less ambitious ship building programs and reductions and realignments in Navy personnel and facilities. The Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process led to closing the Philadelphia Ship Yard and Naval Station Philadelphia in 1991. The Secretary of the Navy approved the establishment of Naval Surface Warfare Centers the same year, with NAVSSES becoming part of the Carderock Division (NSWCCD), but retaining its status as a separate command.

However, in October 2015, NAVSSES became its own Warfare Center Division, being re-named the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Philadelphia Division (NSWCPD).

“Now that we are well into the 21st Century, NSWCPD remains a leader in research, development, test and evaluation, acquisition support, engineering, systems integration, in-service engineering and fleet support with cybersecurity the newest part of our mission as we continue to expand the advantage for the U.S. Navy,” Simon added.

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