Games Learning Resources Visit the Museum
America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Henry William's 1877 feathering paddle-wheel patent model

Enlarge Image
Henry William's 1877 feathering paddle-wheel patent model
Smithsonian Institution, Photo by Richard Strauss, Negative #: 2006-9742


This object appears in the following sections:

Marine Patent Models — Complete Catalog: 1876-1880

Marine Patent Models — Moving Forward

Paddle wheel patent model
Catalog #: 325,944, Accession #: 249,602
Currently on display
From the Smithsonian Collection

Henry Williams of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, designed a new way to feather the floats of a paddle wheel, and he sent this model to Washington with his application for a patent on the device. Each blade in Williams's design rides on the end of a shaft. T-levers at the ends of the shafts carry rollers set into grooves cut into a central, immobile cam. As the wheel rotates, the blades turn as the grooves direct, presenting knife edges to the water when entering and rising, but offering resistance to the water when in the optimal position to push the vessel forward.

Physical Description

Williams's model is made of brass, steel, and wood. It measures 12" H x 10 5/8" L x 6 1/4" W.

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

The last generation of ocean paddle-wheel steamships emerged from European and American shipyards in the 1860s, but paddle wheels remained the favored means of propulsion for steamers on the shallower waters of rivers and bays until the mid-twentieth century. Consequently, inventors like Henry Williams continued to suggest improvements that might make paddle wheels more efficient. For most of each turn, a paddle wheel slices ineffectively through the air. Then, when it enters the waves, it wastes energy pressing down on the water. After a brief passage actually moving the vessel forward, the paddles waste more effort churning the surface as they rise into the air once more. Feathering paddle wheels reduce this waste and, at the same time, cut noise and vibration in the boat. They were never universally adopted, however. With many moving parts, feathering wheels are prone to damage and expensive to maintain.

Williams's design, although particularly elegant, is not known to have been used commercially.


Henry Williams, Feathering Paddle-Wheel, U.S. patent no. 189,164, Apr. 3, 1877.

National Museum of American History About This Site | Sponsors | E-mail Signup | Credits