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Patent model for F. E. Sickels's 1860 mode of steering vessels

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Patent model for F. E. Sickels's 1860 mode of steering vessels
Smithsonian Institution, Photo by Richard Strauss, Negative #: 2006-9720


This object appears in the following sections:

Marine Patent Models — Complete Catalog: 1851-1869

Marine Patent Models — Steering the Way

Prototype Sickels steam steering gear
Prototype Sickels steam steering gear

Steam steering gear patent model
Catalog #: 252,596, Accession #: 49,064
Currently on display
From the Smithsonian Collection

"The principle and character of my invention," Frederick Sickels wrote in 1860, "consist in bringing to the aid of the steersman the power of steam, so arranged as to alternately move and hold the rudder of the vessel in any required position, according to the action of the steersman." This is the model Sickels submitted to the Patent Office to demonstrate his steam steering gear.

Physical Description

Sickels's well-made wood model represents a ship's helm connected by crankshaft to a pair of steam cylinders. The small handle mounted on the front of the device controls the valves for admitting and venting steam from the cylinders. The traditional steering wheels are provided for control when the steam engine is disengaged. A foot-operated friction brake is mounted below the mechanism.

Date Made:
Transfer from the U.S. Patent Office

Ocean-going vessels grew heavier and larger in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the largest of them became increasingly difficult to steer by manpower alone. As the steam engine became more common at sea, many inventors thought to bring surplus steam to the helmsman's assistance. Mechanical engineer Frederick Sickels (1819-95), already famous in the 1840s for developing a valve that revolutionized the operation of steam engines, patented a steam steering engine in 1853. By 1860, when he submitted this model to the Patent Office, he had refined the form and details of his device, a process he continued into the 1880s. Although his apparatus was employed successfully in experiments on a few U.S. naval vessels, it failed to gain widespread acceptance.


Frederick E. Sickels, Mode of Steering Vessels, U.S. patent no. 29,200, July 17, 1860.

"Steering Ships by Steam," New York Evening Telegram, Oct. 18, 1881.

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