History remembers Cornelius Vanderbilt as a businessman—the first to be compared to the medieval German robber barons, and a man popularly called the Commodore for ownership of a steamship fleet. But he deserved another title as well: engineer.
With almost no education, young Vanderbilt mastered steamboat design when steamboats were a new technology. As early as 1818, the 23-year-old studied with James P. Allaire, who had purchased the engine works of inventor Robert Fulton. When Vanderbilt began to build his own boats a decade later, he sought to combine speed and comfort with strength and fuel efficiency. Being a businessman, not a professional shipwright, he often defied conventional wisdom.
The Lexington, for example, won acclaim as the first of “an entirely new class of steam vessels” when launched in 1835. “Her shape was very peculiar,” Vanderbilt noted. He made it unusually long and narrow for the era: 205 feet by 22, making it fast and efficient. To address the tendency to “hog,” or bend lengthwise, he designed an arched deck, adapted from a “patent for bridges,” he explained. This small but startling fact suggests that he read a wide array of technical literature as he perfected his designs.
In the 1850s, Vanderbilt built oceangoing steamships for his own lines. Like most contemporary naval architects, he used side paddlewheels, not propellers, but he broke with custom by retaining the overhead walking-beam engine seen in riverboats. For the first ocean steamers, engineers had developed the side-lever engine. Entirely below decks, it was protected from the elements and maintained a low center of gravity. But this involved more moving parts than the walking-beam engine, making it less efficient; it had narrower tolerances, too, requiring more precise machining of parts and a reinforced engine compartment. The results were lower speeds, heavier and more expensive ships and greater fuel consumption. Vanderbilt proved that the simpler, older design could succeed at sea and built some of the fastest and most fuel-efficient ships of the antebellum era.
During the Civil War, Vanderbilt gave the Union navy his largest and fastest ship, the Vanderbilt. He personally supervised its conversion into a warship intended to sink the Confederate ironclad Virginia (or Merrimack). “Her steam machinery has been protected by rails in the most ingenious way,” the London Times reported, “and also by cotton bales and hay. Her prow has been armed with a formidable nose [of steel], with the intention to poke right into the side of the Merrimac [sic].” To enable the ship to survive the ramming of the ironclad, the interior was reinforced, “so as to be little else for many feet (say 50) from the prow than a mass of solid timber,” wrote Salmon P. Chase after an inspection. The Confederates declined to risk their ironclad against it.
In the 1860s and ’70s, as Vanderbilt concentrated on railroads, he stepped back from technical details while serving as a kind of chief systems engineer for his lines. The New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, his main company, ran the width of New York state, and it had two tracks for simultaneous movement in both directions.
Even so, Vanderbilt said, “We have to run freight trains so rapidly to get them out of the way of the passenger trains that . . . it uses up the rolling stock, knocking the cars to pieces without really carrying the freight any faster.” His engineer’s mind had a solution. If he built dedicated freight and passenger tracks in each direction—making an unprecedented four-track railroad—he calculated that he would save much more than the interest on bonds issued to pay for construction. Vanderbilt overrode his own advisers to do it and was proved right again. It gave his railroad an advantage that allowed it to thrive even in the depression that followed the Panic of 1873.
Cornelius Vanderbilt has often been underestimated. In 1853, a credit reporter dismissed him as “illiterate” (not to mention “boorish” and “offensive”). True, he lacked education, but that makes his technical prowess all the more remarkable. He was one of the finest engineers of his day, as self-made in that respect as he was in business.