Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: May 22, 1915
Naval technology progressed by leaps and bounds in the years before World War I. The British Royal Navy’s battleship HMS Dreadnought set a design standard in 1906: large, heavily armored, turbine-driven, with a main battery of large-caliber guns all the same size. All large battleships in the following years were referred to as “dreadnoughts.” Countries that wanted a modern navy had to build and launch these massive ships as the backbone of the fleet. The 7th and 8th ships in the United States efforts in this new sea-based arms race were the USS Wyoming and the USS Arkansas. The editors of Scientific American seemed well-pleased with the design:
“The ‘Wyoming,’ the flagship of Admiral Fletcher, of 26,000 tons, completed in 1912, carries, like her sister the ‘Arkansas,’ twelve 50-caliber 12-inch guns in six two-gun turrets and twenty-one 5-inch. These are, to our thinking, the most shapely dreadnoughts afloat , the long straight sheer of the main deck giving them an appearance of length greater than they actually possess.”
As pleased as the editors were with this ship, they had a stark warning about the U.S. Navy overall:
“But the proper point of view ... is to judge [the U.S. Navy] in comparison with the fleets of other nations, and particularly of those which are now engaged in the great European conflict. If this be done, we shall have the alarming fact brought home to our minds that, in point of strength, our Navy is to be considered as in the third class and utterly unable to engage with any hope of success the fleets of the two principal naval powers engaged in the present war, namely, those of Great Britain and Germany.”
In the naval arms race, dreadnoughts were the gold standard, but their quantity and modernity were vitally important. Great Britain was reckoned to have 38 dreadnoughts and Germany had 20 afloat:
“The United States has eight only, or, if we stretch the point to include the comparatively small and slow ‘Michigan’ and ‘South Carolina’ we have ten. It is our patriotic duty to draw attention to these facts.”
Even before the Wyoming and Arkansas were launched, other ships were being designed and built that were stronger, faster, better armoured and armed. The American dreadnoughts were by no means obsolete, but by the outbreak of World War I in Europe two years after they were launched, the most modern dreadnoughts were armed with 14-inch guns that fired a much larger shell (70 percent heavier).
The Wyoming spent World War I patrolling the North Sea and was converted to a gunnery training ship by World War II. The ship was scrapped in 1947. The Arkansas also spent World War I patrolling. In World War II the 12-inch guns were used extensively for shore bombardment in operations in Normandy and later the Pacific. The ship was sunk during the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946 and still rests on the seabed.
Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on battleships, naval weapons and warfare. It is available for purchase at www.scientificamerican.com/products/world-war-i/