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A Hard Life: The Impact of New Technology, and the Expansion of the American Empire

Coaling Ship, Bandsmen

Life at sea has always been hard. Sailors throughout the ages have struggled against the hardships of weather and the ocean, cramped quarters on board ship, accidents resulting from complex shipboard equipment, and of course, war. Men of the New Steel Navy endured new dangers and hardships, resulting from rapid advances in technology, and American overseas expansion. The photo above shows bandsmen on board the battleship USS Kansas, after coaling ship. Their filthy appearance and stern gazes convey a sense of the hardship of the period.

Naval warships underwent an astounding modernization during this era, including the full adoption of coal power, marked improvements in gunnery, and the construction of steel ships. While this new technology revolutionized naval warfare, it had some negative effects on the lives of sailors. Coal was dirty, and labor intensive. Advances in machinery and weapons happened so quickly, that horrific accidents were not uncommon.

As members of a military force, sailors of the New Steel Navy lived with the constant possibility of war. Combat at sea was rare, but combat ashore was no stranger to the bluejackets of the Steel Navy. American expansion in the Pacific, and political posturing in the Americas, led to frequent skirmishes for the Navy of the period.

While life in the period was often difficult, reforms led to improvements in pay, discipline, food, and promotion. These sweeping changes were in many ways just as impressive as the technological transformations of the period.

This section of the website will examine the unique hardships endured by men of the New Steel Navy, using photographs and original documents. It will look at the opposite extremes of daily hardships, and the terrible dangers of war. Clicking on photographs will open a high resolution version of the image. Clicking on captions below the photograph will open up an informational page with key facts about the image.

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