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Nathanael Greene Herreshoff (March 18, 1848–June 2, 1938), born in Bristol, Rhode Island, was a naval architect-engineer. He revolutionized yacht design, and produced a succession of undefeated sailboats for the America's Cup Race between 1893–1920, now referred to as the "Herreshoff Period." The yachts he designed were the largest, most expensive and powerful ever created to defend yachting's supreme prize.


Herreshoff graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1870 with a 3 year degree in mechanical engineering, and took a position with the Corliss Steam Engine Company in Providence, Rhode Island. At the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he oversaw operation of the Corliss Stationary Engine, a 12 m tall, 1 MW (1400 horsepower) dynamo which supplied power for 53 haof the exhibition's machinery.

In 1888, tragedy struck when Herreshoff was supervising speed trials of a 42 m, 650 kW (875 horsepower) steamboat named Say When. A safety valve popped, and Herreshoff screwed it down to allow the boat to achieve an anticipated speed. A tube in the boiler exploded, fatally injuring a member of the crew. Consequently, Herreshoff lost his steam engineer license.

In the 1890s, Herreshoff favored designing sailing yachts. His brother, John Brown Herreshoff, had gone blind at 14, but nevertheless became chief executive of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company, a boat-building establishment in Bristol that he ran together with "Capt. Nat," as Nathanael would be known. The company created the first torpedo boats for the U.S. Navy, as well as launches and power boats. But they are best known for their sailing boats and yachts of exceeding grace, the hulls built upside-down, with a mold for every frame, and of the lightest possible materials available. The firm supplied vessels to the elite of its day, including Jay Gould, William Randolph Hearst, John Pierpont Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt III, Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, William Kissam Vanderbilt II, Harry Payne Whitney, Alexander Smith Cochran, and others.

Nathanael Herreshoff climbing aboard Defender in 1895

Herreshoff designed and built a wide range of craft, including the Doughdish or Bullseye class, a small sailboat to train children of yachtsmen, to the New York 30 class ("30" refers to waterline length), to the 143 foot (44 m) America's Cup behemoth, Reliance, with a sail area of 1600 m². The 123 foot (37 m) Defenderwas equally astounding, due to its radical construction; it featured steel-framing, bronze plating up to the waterline and aluminum topsides. As might be expected, when placed in the ocean's saline, the boat's galvanic corrosion was immediate. It won the race, then dissolved. It lasted only months.

Many of the over 2,000 designs by the "Wizard of Bristol" have fared better, and today are highly prized by connoisseurs of classic yachts. Herreshoff S-Class sailboats, designed in 1919 and built until 1941, are still actively racing in Narragansett Bay, Buzzards Bay and Western Long Island Sound (Larchmont, NY) Herreshoff S-Class of Western Long Island Sound.

The Herreshoff Manufacturing Company is now the Herreshoff Marine Museum.

Herreshoff America's Cup Designs


In 1903, Reliance defeated Sir Thomas Lipton's Shamrock III, designed by William Fife.

  • Vigilant, 1893 (of which Herreshoff was the helmsman) 

  • Defender, 1895 

  • Columbia, 1899 & 1901 

  • Reliance, 1903 

  • Resolute, 1920 

Herreshoff innovations


  • fin keels & bulb keels 

  • sail tracks and slides, replacing cumbersome hoops 

  • cross-cut sails 

  • light, hollow aluminum masts 

  • catamaran, (Amaryllis, 1876), U.S. patented

  • folding  propellers

  • "Herreshoff Rule," a yacht-racing rating system devised in 1902 for the New York Yacht Club

  • 2 Speed  Winches

Nathanael Herreshoff is acknowledged as one of the greatest yacht and marine designers and builders that America has ever produced. Captain Nat, as he was popularly known, was born on March 18, 1848. After graduating from MIT he worked for Corliss Steam Engine Company and went on to form the Herreshoff Manufacturing company which designed and built yachts and military boats. He brought grace, beauty, and speed to yachting and is credited with the introduction of more new devices in the design of boats than any other man. He literally was to yachting what Einstein was to science and what Picasso was to art. During his 72 year career he:

  • Designed and built five winning America's Cup yachts ( Vigilant - 1893, Defender - 1895, Columbia - 1899, Columbia - 1901, Reliance - 1903, Resolute - 1920. He sailed them as well, earning a reputation as a most proficient and skilled helmsman. Additionally, he built the winning cup yachts Enterprise - 1930, and Rainbow - 1934 (designed by Starling Burgess). In short, every winning America's Cup Yacht from 1893 to 1934 was built by Herreshoff! 

  • Designed well over 2000 craft and produced more than 18,000 drawings. Between 1890 and 1938, the number of yachts he designed that won the Astor Cup, Puritan Cup and Kings Cup outnumbered the winning yachts by all the other yacht designers combined. An almost unbelievable accomplishment! 

  • Built the first torpedo boats for the United States Navy. 

  • Designed the original table for giving the minutes and seconds that a larger yacht allows a smaller one making it possible for yachts of different size to race together. 

  • Designed the universal rule for the New York Yacht Club which became the accepted standard in yachting . 

  • Invented the streamline-shaped bulk and fin keels. 

  • Invented the sail track and slide in its present form along with many other patterns of marine hardware. 

  • Developed the overhangs on sailing yachts to allow longer lines and greater stability. 

  • Developed the first light steam engine and fast torpedo boats. 

  • Developed nearly all of the methods of constructing light wooden hulls. 

  • Introduced screw fastenings for planking to this country. 

  • Invented the crosscut sail with cloths running at right angles to the leech. 

  • Designed more types of steam engines than anyone else. 

  • Designed the web frame and longitudinal construction for metal hulls afterward patented and known as the Isherwood System. 

  • Developed light hollow steel spars combined with scientific rigging. 

  • Developed the flat stern form of steam yachts capable of being driven at high speed/length ratios. 

  • Designed the first folding propeller. 

  • Designed below deck winches - Reliance 1903. 

  • Developed the method of splicing rope to wire. 

  • Received the first U.S. Patent on catamaran sailboats. 

Because of his many accomplishments, he was one of the few people to ever have been made an honorary member of the New York Yacht Club, his name being listed immediately before His Majesty King George the Fifth and The Prince of Wales.

His fame spread around the world and the period of his greatest activity from 1890 to 1920 became known as the "Herreshoff Era" so greatly did his personality and the yachts he designed dominate the sport.

It is undisputed that Nat Herreshoff was a genius and a master which earned him the nickname "the Wizard of Bristol".

There is more to the creation of a quality yacht than vision and genius in design. The Herreshoff Manufacturing Company took yachts from the drawing board to the water with a quality of workmanship that was unsurpassed. The company was actually started by Nat's older brother, John Brown Herreshoff, or J.B. as he was called by most people. J.B. was also a genius. He became blind at the age of 14 and despite his blindness was able to build and run a successful boat building business. Nat and J.B. formed a partnership in 1878 and the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company was born in Bristol RI. J.B. had a great capacity for business and with his younger brother Nat taking over the design work for the company, J.B. became completely free to run the business end, at which he excelled. J.B. did the job costing for their boats, an extremely challenging job under any circumstances but an absolutely amazing feat and testament to his genius considering that he did all the math in his head. J.B. was the one to negotiate and close the deals for new boat orders and was also a good manager, keeping up the enthusiasm of his employees. Under the new partnership, the business soared from twenty or thirty employees to over 400 employees.

The Herreshoffs resolved to turn out only yachts of the highest quality. To retain skilled craftsmen they paid about the highest wage in the state. This did induce good men to come to the company but most of the workmen came because they wanted to be associated with the Herreshoff name which symbolized the highest standard in construction and skilled craftsmanship. The yachts that the Herreshoff plant put out were of such a high quality that the workmen could not help but feel pride in their workmanship. As a result a great many of those men made lifelong careers at the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company.


  • Herreshoff, L. Francis (1953). Capt. Nat Herreshoff, the wizard of Bristol. New York: Sheridan House. OCLC 3889511.

  • Herreshoff, Nathanael G. Recoillections and Other Writings (Bristol, RI:Herreshoff Marine Museum) 

  • Herreshoff, Nathanael G. and William Picard Stephens, annotated by John W. Streeter, Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, William Picard Stephens: Their Last Letters 1930-1938 (Bristol, RI: Herreshoff Marine Museum) 1998. 


See also

  • Lewis Francis Herreshoff, Son, naval architect 

  • Herreshoff Castle

  • Helianthus III, 1924 

External links

  • Herreshoff Marine Museum / America’s Cup Hall of Fame

  • A Herreshoff Triple Expansion Steam Engine

  • Bullseye Association

  • Herreshoff S-Class of Western Long Island Sound

  • New York 30 Association

  • The Yacht Photography of John S. Johnston

  • Herreshoff Designs, Inc


  • Simpson, Richard V. (2007). Bristol, Rhode Island's Herreshoff yachts. Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press. ISBN 9781596293069. OCLC 226055968.

  • Herreshoff, L. Francis (1996) [1953]. Capt. Nat Herreshoff: The Wizard of Bristol. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y: Sheridan House. ISBN 1-57409-004-6. OCLC 45990752.

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