Divers recover pioneer plumbing from Monitor Below-surface toilet found in Civil War wreck is historical rarity

August 06, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - First, divers brought back the giant propeller that made the Monitor go.

Now, they've got the revolutionary toilet where the historic vessel's officers went - whenever nature called.

Scholars say only one other ship might have boasted a below-the-waterline "water closet" before the Civil War ironclad, and it, too, was designed by ingenious Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson.

That makes the flush toilet recovered from the North Carolina wreck a historical rarity and a major milestone in naval warfare.

It also made the pioneering piece of indoor plumbing a complicated challenge for some of its users. At least one of the Monitor's officers - not to mention members of the crew - found himself perched atop a column of pressurized water when he failed to operate the unfamiliar device according to the inventor's directions.

'A lot of adjustments'

"The Monitor was the first vessel where people were forced to live below the waterline for 24 hours a day - and that meant a lot of adjustments," said historian Jeff Johnston of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary in Newport News. "He opened the wrong valve at the wrong time and found himself airborne."

Although Ericsson designed and constructed the Monitor in fewer than 150 days, his 173-foot-long iron warship incorporated no less than 40 patentable inventions.

Like his famous revolving gun turret, the flush toilets aboard the ship reflected a new kind of naval warfare - one in which armor plate and a low, above-water silhouette combined to create as small a target as possible, Johnston says.

Ericsson's innovative forced-air ventilation system represented another important element in his attempt to design and build an "impregnable floating battery." But his motives went far beyond finding new ways to tweak the military capabilities of his revolutionary design.

"Ericsson was very interested in new technology - and he was very interested in the comfort of the crew that manned the ship," said Monitor education coordinator Dina Hill.

"He outfitted the crew's quarters at his own expense, and he gave a lot of attention to features that someone else might have overlooked. The toilets are another example of that effort."

Off-the-shelf parts

Like much of the ship, the bronze and cast-iron toilet was constructed with off-the-shelf parts to speed up the hurried building process.

It originally included an attached water supply, a pressure-sealed lid, an adjacent air pump and a release valve, all of which had to be operated in the proper sequence in order to expel waste material through the vessel's hull.

Divers from the Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the federally protected wreck, spotted the encrusted remains of the elbow-shaped assembly during their June expedition, said sanctuary manager John D. Broadwater.

Private divers from the Florida-based Cambrian Foundation, which conducts research on historic shipwrecks around the world, recovered the 150-pound artifact recently after fabricating special lifting cradle.

They also recovered a brass rifle butt from a Navy carbine - a small but potentially exciting find that may lead archaeologists to the location of the ship's armory.

"It's in an area that's never been uncovered before," Johnston said.

"There could be a lot of other good stuff there if we can get to it."

The toilet and rifle butt must undergo a lengthy conservation process before going on exhibit. The iron parts of the toilet may require treatment for years.

When the procedure is completed, the artifacts will join the recently recovered propeller and drive shaft as well as numerous other small objects in a new show at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News.

Museum Director Claudia Pennington said exhibit designers already are developing ways to incorporate the pieces in a naval power gallery scheduled to open in July.

Although visitors can see many of the artifacts in a conservation tank now, the planned display will focus on how the Monitor changed naval shipbuilding strategies and the lives of the crew aboard ironclad ships.

A similar exhibit at the Navy Museum in Washington, where Pennington was once director, re-creates the toilet facilities aboard a modern submarine.

'People love it'

"People love it. It's one of the most popular attractions at the museum," she said. "It's something that everybody can relate to when you're trying to explain the changes in naval technology."

Plans call for most of the growing collection of Monitor artifacts to move to a proposed Monitor research, conservation and education centerat the Mariners' Museum. They also call for additional expeditions to the site of the wreck.

Encouraged by the success of this summer's dives, Broadwater said it may be possible for NOAA, the Cambrian Foundation and the Navy to recover the historic turret and other artifacts more quickly and cheaply than predicted in a $20 million proposal released this year.

They also might be able to stabilize the rest of the deteriorating wreck sooner than expected - if they can get the Navy's help.

"I think we've shown that - with a little break from the weather - we can go down and conduct significant research," said Broadwater, referring to several expeditions that have been thwarted by unpredictable weather.

"We've certainly have the information now we need to go ahead with the project - possibly at a much lower cost than originally estimated. But the assistance from the Navy is critical."

Pub Date: 8/06/98

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