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John Gates's 1878 steering apparatus patent model

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John Gates's 1878 steering apparatus patent model
Smithsonian Institution, Photo by Richard Strauss, Negative #: 200-9726


This object appears in the following sections:

Marine Patent Models — Complete Catalog: 1876-1880

Marine Patent Models — Who's Inventing?

Marine Patent Models — Steering the Way

Patent drawing for Gates's steering apparatus
Patent drawing for Gates's steering apparatus

Ad for the Oregon Steam Navigation Company. Notice the steamer named John Gates.
Ad for the Oregon Steam Navigation Company. Notice the steamer named John Gates.

Steering apparatus patent model
Catalog #: 308,559, Accession #: 89,797
In collection
From the Smithsonian Collection

As ships became larger and heavier in the second half of the nineteenth century, they also grew more difficult to steer by manpower alone. Numerous inventors sought ways to assist steering through steam power, hydraulics, springs, and other means. This model demonstrates John Gates's 1878 invention of a steering apparatus employing either steam or high-pressure water.

Physical Description

Gates's wood and metal model represents two decks on a hypothetical vessel. On the upper deck sit a typical steering wheel and, just forward of it, a vertical metal rod to support a horizontal handle (now missing). The deck below contains an upright reservoir for the water or steam and two horizontal piston cylinders. Pipes connect the reservoir to the cylinders by way of a valve chest. Red tiller ropes enter one end of each cylinder; in operation, additional ropes would pass out the other end of the cylinders, too, on their way to the vessel's tiller and rudder. To use the mechanism, the helmsman would admit water or steam from the value chest to one or the other of the two cylinders using the metal handle on deck. Water pressure on the pistons in the cylinders would adjust the tiller ropes and reposition the rudder. The action of the pistons and the tiller ropes would also turn the wheel on deck, which would serve as a rudder-position indicator. To use the wheel normally, without hydraulic assistance, Gates provided a round handle on deck to operate a shut off valve. The model is 12" L x 10" H x 5 1/2" W.

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

John Gates, a native of Maine, was chief engineer of the Portland-based Oregon Steam Navigation Company, a regional steamboat operator.


John Gates, Steam or Hydraulic Steering Apparatus, U.S. patent no. 208,231, Sept. 24, 1878.

1880 United States Census, NARA film no. T9-1083, 285C.

Portland City Directory for 1878

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