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John Willis Griffiths 1809~1882
Designer – Rainbow and Sea Witch

The first true tea clipper was Rainbow, designed by John Willis. Griffiths and launched in 1845. She made the journey from New York to Canton in 102 days - taking more than 2 weeks off the previous record for that trip.  Their development was given another boost by the discovery of gold in California in 1848 and in Australia in 1851 - people rushing to seek their fortunes wanted ships that would transport them as fast as possible.

The Scottish Maid, a schooner of 1839, built by Alaexander Hall & Co  was the first to have the forward curving Aberdeen bow. This improved speed and sailing performance.  This ship continued sailing until 1941.

In 1841, John W. Griffiths, of New York, proposed several improvements in marine architecture, which were embodied in the model of a clipper ship exhibited at the American Institute, in February of that year. Later he delivered a series of lectures on the science of shipbuilding, which were the first discourses upon this subject in the United States. Mr. Griffiths advocated carrying the stem forward in a curved line, thereby lengthening the bow above water; he also introduced long, hollow water-lines and a general drawing out and sharpening of the forward body, bringing the greatest breadth further aft. Another improvement which he proposed was to fine out the after body by rounding up the ends of the main transom, thus relieving the quarters and making the stern much lighter and handsomer above the water-line."  This proposed departure from old methods naturally met with much opposition, but in 1843 the firm of Howland & Aspinwall commissioned Smith & Dimon, of New York, in whose employ Mr. Griffiths had spent several years as draughtsman, to embody these experimental ideas in a ship of 750 tons named the Rainbow. This vessel, the 1st extreme clipper ship ever built, was therefore, the direct result of Mr. Griffiths' efforts for improvement

The hull of the Rainbow differed from the hull of any vessel previously constructed. Its greatest breadth was in the midship section instead of forward, and the concave lines of the long narrow bow enabled the vessel to cleave the water with a minimum amount of resistance. Many shipbuilding experts jeered at Griffiths' revolutionary work and predicted that the Rainbow would never return from her 1st voyage. Their jeers gave place to admiration when the new clipper made a voyage between Canton and New York in 3 months; less time than the distance had ever before been covered. Griffiths' ideas were at once adopted by shipbuilders in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere, and in a short time a large number of Clipper ships were constructed. British shipowners gladly bought vessels of the new type. The discovery of gold in California gave the operators of clipper ships an opportunity to show what their vessels could do.

John Willis Griffiths was considered a genius as a naval architect, although somewhat eccentric in his zeal to improve American naval architecture. Besides leading the clipper ship era, 1st with Rainbow and then with Sea Witch, he also designed many successful steam ships and war vessels. He had many patents to his name as he experimented with shipbuilding procedures, and he wrote of his theories with great exuberance. He was proud of Sea Witch and confessed "It will be entirely proper to add, that the model of the Sea Witch had more influence upon the subsequent configuration of fast vessels, than any other ship ever  built in the United States" while writing in The Monthly Nautical Magazine for August 1850.

On March 17, 1848, Sea Witch arrived in New York, "having set the all-time record from Canton to the US, 77 days."  That same day, Rainbow sailed from New York on her 5th voyage, bound for Valparaiso and China, under Captain Hayes.   The ship was never heard from again, and "it was assumed that she foundered off Cape Horn."

The Sea Witch launched 1846 was 192 feet in length, had a 43-foot beam, and was of 908 tons burden.  She was designed and built by the shipbuilding firm of Smith & Dimon in New York City as a purpose-built vessel for the speedy movement of high-value freight, such as porcelain and tea, from China to the United States East Coast. To this end, she was very heavily sparred and built with especially tall masts for a vessel of her size. Her 140-foot mainmast carried 5 tiers of sails, as did the shorter foremast and mizzenmast. She was briefly the tallest ship afloat, and is credited with being one of the first American Clipper ships.  The figurehead was a Chinese Dragon with an open mouth and a partly coiled tail. The hull was painted black with a contrasting sheerline strip at deck level and the spars were all bright work.  1856 March 28 - Wrecked on a reef 12 miles off Havana.

Smith and Dimon, builders of the Sea Witch, penned a letter 2 years after her construction. "Having known Mr. John W. Griffiths for many years, a number of which has been in our employ, during which time he has obtained celebrity for honesty and industry. It affords us pleasure to testify to his ability and moral worth. We have no hesitation recommending him as a "Marine and Naval Architect" of the first order. A gentleman who has reached an eminence in the line of his profession rarely attained, and whose skill in this branch of Mechanism we believe to be unsurpassed."

His colleague and shipbuilding rival wrote from East Boston in 1859: "In this testimonial I am happy to state what I believe all the Commercial World knows, that you are a Master of your profession, have no Superior in it - a Scientific and practical Shipbuilder - and an illustrious Citizen..." It was signed by Donald McKay.

Built during the 1850s at the Philadelphia Navy Yard by John W. Griffiths, the U.S.S. Pawnee was designed with a set of twin screw propellers and 9-inch Dahlgren guns which added considerable weight to the ship. To meet the requirement of having a draft of 10 feet or less, Griffiths modified the hull proportions, making the Pawnee considerably longer and broader than other vessels of its class. The heavy guns and shallow draft of the Pawnee proved useful during the Civil War.


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Last modified: 01/09/2013