Historicist: Frederick Knapp's Roller Boat

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Historicist: Frederick Knapp’s Roller Boat

A Canadian lawyer thought he had invented a ship that would slash ocean crossing times, end seasickness, and make him a millionaire. Ultimately, his unorthodox machine ended up abandoned in the Toronto Harbour.

toronto roller boat

Frederick Knapp’s Roller Boat at Polson Iron Works. After a promising trials in the Toronto Harbour, the unorthodox vessel suffered a series of setbacks. Photo from City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 251.

The atmosphere on the Toronto waterfront was electric on September 8, 1897. A large crowd had gathered on the industrial wharves and docks near the bottom of Sherbourne Street to witness the hotly anticipated launch of an extremely unusual vessel.

As the restless group waited, the conversation among them focused on whether or not the ship would sink or float. “Some thought she would sink as soon as she was put in the water,” the Globe reported. “Others who believed she would float could not understand how she could be steered, or how, if she does go, that she can be regulated.”

As the early evening light faded to dusk, the cylindrical vessel finally emerged from the shelter of Polson Iron Works. It looked nothing like a normal lake-going vessel—more like a boiler or large tank. It was a little under 34 metres long, 7 metres in diameter, and 22 metres around, with paddles riveted to the outside.

Safely deposited on the water to cheers from the crowd, the cigar-shaped roller boat floated well. Minus its engines, just 60 centimentres of the iron hull sat beneath the surface of the water. The ship’s inventor, Frederick A. Knapp, expected to take the first exploratory trips around the harbour within two weeks.

By his calculations, a scaled-up version of the design could be capable of almost 100 km/h. “In other words, [it] will allow a passenger in fine weather to get his breakfast in Canada one day and his supper in England the next,” the Globe gleefully imagined.

“Many ideas were changed, and it may safely be said that Mr. Knapp has many converts to the feasibility of his idea,” wrote the Globe.

toronto roller boat

French inventor Ernest Bazin tested a similar rolling concept in 1897. Drawing from La Nature, Vingt-cinquième année, premier semestre : no. 1227 à 1252. p. 244.

Knapp, a barrister by training, first conceived the idea of a roller boat while on an Atlantic crossing in 1892. Instead of inefficiently ploughing through the water, he thought, it would be better if boats could roll along the surface, generating less drag. He likened the idea to a floating log, which is easily rotated in water.

The concept wasn’t entirely original. Ernest Bazin, a French inventor, successfully tested a roller steamer on the Seine in France around the same time. His design, however, resembled a six-wheeled automobile with buoyant paddles instead of rubber tires.

Despite early promise, Bazin’s ship failed because the weight of the water on the paddles as they rose out of the water generated a braking effect.

Back in his native Prescott, Ontario, Knapp assembled a clockwork concept model he presented to naval architects and engineers in the shipbuilding centre of Glasgow, Scotland. Most agreed the idea had merit but were reluctant to fund a full-scale working model.

Defeated, Knapp returned home to Canada to resume his legal practice. Around this time he “accidentally” met George Goodwin, a wealthy and well-known contractor who was involved in the construction of the Soulanges Canal near Montreal.

Goodwin agreed to put $10,000 into Knapp’s idea, believing it had the potential to revolutionize shipping. “If this thing succeeds it means millions,” he said. “Besides, it will be a good advertisement for Canada.”

The Boston Evening Transcript reported that postmaster general William Mulock also financially contributed to the ship’s development.

toronto roller boat

The original patent drawings submitted by Knapp in 1895 show how the inventor hoped to travel along the surface of the water. Drawing from United States Patent and Trademark Office.

“Be it known that I, Frederick Augustus Knapp, of the town of Prescott, in the county of Grenville, in the province of Ontario, Canada, have invented certain new and useful improvements in marine vessels,” begins the U.S. patent application, dated February 26, 1895.

“The object of my invention is to devise a vessel capable of attaining a high rate of speed with absolute safety and great economy of power,” he wrote. “It consists, essentially, of a rotatable double outer hull within which are suspended stationary hulls or compartments containing the freight or passengers.”

Basically, Knapp’s Roller Boat was a giant paddle inside which passengers or cargo could be transported. The steel outer shell of the giant cylinder would turn, dragging the ship through the water while the inside compartment remained still. The ends would be open to allow exhaust from the engines to escape.

The patent for the design was issued on April 13, 1897, and within a month, construction was underway at Polson Iron Works on the Toronto Esplanade at Frederick Street.

By September, the shell of the boat was ready to be deposited into the water and the coal-fired steam engines were first stoked to life on September 17. The Globe and Toronto Evening Star followed construction closely and there were frequent reports of progress in both newspapers.

One such report claimed Knapp had turned down an offer of £100,000 for the English rights to the design.

By October 1897, Polson Iron Works was still readying the Roller Boat for its maiden voyage. Despite running behind schedule, public interest in the project remained high. On October 19, a crowd again gathered on the waterfront in response to a flurry of activity around the vessel.

Frederick Knapp, his wife and son, William Polson, and representatives from the Star and Globe boarded, but the ship remained at in the Polson slip, much to the disappointment of those gathered on the shore.

toronto roller boat

The Rollet Boat in the slip at Polson Iron Works. Public interest in the project was high from the outset. Photo from Harper’s Weekly, November 6, 1897, Hathi Trust Digital Library.

It would take another two days before the Roller Boat finally proved its worth. In the early afternoon of October 21, 1897, the engineers at Polson Iron Works brought the vessel’s twin steam engines to full power and formally handed ownership to George Goodwin.

Freed from its moorings, the bright red, $25,000 Roller Boat paddled slowly onto the calm water of the Toronto Harbour followed closely by a flotilla of other small vessels and the steam yacht Cruiser, which carried Knapp’s wife and other important onlookers.

Thousands of people lined the shore, eager to see whether Knapp’s design could really deliver on its promise.

Slowly the 100-tonne boat rumbled and pounded to life, first heading towards the western entrance to the harbour near the bottom of Bathurst Street, and then in loops between the Island and the mainland. With no functional steering, Gardner Boyd, the man at the helm, was content to let the currents and eddies in the water dictate the direction.

According to the Globe, the Roller Boat’s outer shell made about six revolutions a minute—practically crawling speed—but Knapp still pronounced the experiment a success after about an hour of testing.

“I am delighted with the trial trip,” he told the paper. “If it makes this speed with six revolutions, how fast will it go when it makes from sixty to seventy, which we expect it will be able to do?”

People on the shore christened it the “Flying Scotsman” and the “Roll Britannia.”

“Knapp’s roller boat has rolled all right,” the Globe breathlessly declared the next morning.

toronto roller boat

The Roller Boat during its early trials on the Toronto Harbour, 1897. Wheels attached to the platforms at either end of the vessel ensured they remained stationary. Photo from Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3217824.

Knapp made a second public test of his tubular invention on October 27, this time with more paddles attached to the revolving outer shell and special chimney markings at either end to differentiate the port and starboard sides.

Boyd was able to reach a higher speed than in the first test, setting an unofficial record for roller boats. At the conclusion of the afternoon, during which the boat briefly became stuck on a mud bank, Knapp announced he intended to push ahead with the construction of a much larger, commercially viable craft based on his successful design.

The principal change, Knapp said, would be to discard the twin engines mounted at either end of the boat in favour of a single, centrally located power unit.

The second roller boat would be almost 76 metres long, roughly double the size of the prototype. “While it will be so much larger, it will not be any heavier than this boat, as lighter steel will be used,” Knapp said.

toronto roller boat

The success of the Roller Boat turned Frederick Knapp into a celebrity. He and his backers believed the invention would become the pride of Canada. Photo from Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3258213.

The Roller Boat was stored at Polson Iron Works during the winter of 1897. In 1898, Knapp met with officials in the U.S. to discuss the possibility of developing a roller troop carrier, and the future appeared bright for the inventor and his famous creation.

However, by 1899 there had been few tangible developments, and the prototype remained in storage on the Toronto waterfront. It was around this time things started to go wrong.

In June, Knapp announced he would be bringing the Roller Boat to Prescott to make alterations that would ultimately improve the top speed. Financiers from Chicago were also interested in building a second craft at Prescott, the Globe reported, but no more mention was made of the original backer, George Goodwin.

En route to Prescott, the Roller Boat suffered engine trouble in bad weather and broke down on Lake Ontario. The crew repaired the problem without returning to shore, but the coal supply ran out a short time later and they drifted uncontrollably 27 kilometres in the direction of Port Bowmanville.

The boat made it a little farther with a small amount of fresh fuel procured from the town, but again supplies soon ran low and the crew anchored for the night as the weather continued to deteriorate. In high wind and rough water, the anchor cable snapped and the Roller Boat ran aground on the rocky shore at Roby Head, a little west of Port Bowmanville, where it remained for approximately a month.

In July, Knapp arranged for a salvage company to deliver the vessel to Prescott where it would be shortened from 34 to 24 metres and the engine shifted to the centre. Knapp also scaled back his once boisterous speed projections. He told the Globe he expected the revised design to max out at 25 km/h.

Trouble was, the boat’s iron skeleton made it extremely heavy for its size. The open ends allowed water to slosh inside during rough weather, soaking the coal-fired engines, and the broad frontage allowed even a slight headwind to slow the boat to a complete stop.

“In a dead calm the boat worked up a speed of 7 m.p.h. but any sea kept her rolling hard to stand still,” the Globe said.

toronto roller boat

Knapp wasn’t the only inventor to experiment with rolling propulsion. These patents were also issued in the United States around the same time. Drawing from United States Patent and Trademark Office.

R. E. Watts, an employee of the agriculture department in Ottawa, patented a rival to Knapp’s vessel in 1898. His design, he claimed, was superior to Knapp’s because the rolling paddles traveled endwise, like a the caterpillar track on a military tank, pulling the boat through the water in a more streamlined fashion.

Though nothing appeared to come from Watts’ design, others patented or built off on the tubular concept Knapp pioneered. Several inventors in the U.S. used the idea of rolling through the water to design “continuous paddles.”

Another Canadian challenger to Knapp’s Roller Boat was built in Ottawa by postal worker F. G. Moon, according to newspaper reports. His design employed four large rolling cylinders with a small deck perched on top.

Moon tested a working model in 1899 and a revised version, described as “a shed on four wheels,” floated on the Rideau Canal in 1901. Despite a lack of success, Knapp’s was the only roller boat of the era that succeeded in capturing the public imagination.

toronto roller boat

Knapp received a second patent for a cargo version of his Roller Boat in 1904. Though it eschewed passengers facilities, the rolling propulsion concept remained. Drawing from United States Patent and Trademark Office.

In Prescott, the promised Chicago money failed to materialize and Knapp converted the boat into a passenger ferry for the run across the St. Lawrence River to Ogdensburg, New York. On its maiden trip, the crew of the Roller Boat became disorientated in a snowstorm and ran aground on the muddy American shore. It was abandoned on a sandbar soon after.

The story was far from finished, however, and bad things continued to happen.

After four years of inactivity, Knapp had his creation shipped back to Polson Iron Works in Toronto for it to be converted into a coal carrier. The rolling mechanism would remain intact, but the engine would be shifted to one end. Inside, Knapp added a conveyor belt to allow the easy loading and unloading of material via the end openings. He received a patent for this revised design in 1902.

Work appeared to stall very quickly and the metal hull remained half submerged on the Toronto waterfront until 1907, when Polson again attempted to turn it into a coal barge for the Eastern Coal Company of Halifax, Nova Scotia. In this configuration, the rolling mechanism would be disabled, steel covers would seal the open ends, and a hole would be cut in the top for a deck and pilot house.

While this work was being carried out, the Roller Boat again broke free from its moorings in a gale and drifted into the side of the steamer Turbinia, which was tied up a short distance away.

“How the immense weight of steel and iron crashing against the Turbina did so little damage is strange,” the Globe wondered the next day. “All the damage sustained by the Turbinia was the tearing away of about an inch of the casting.” A window was caved in, but not broken.

Still, the owners of the damaged ship were furious. They took Knapp and Polson to court and a judge awarded them $250 in damages and $241 in costs. With no one apparently willing to pay, the judge ordered the sale of the hull to scrap metal merchants National Lead Works and Antipiksky Metal Company for $600.

toronto roller boat

The deteriorating hull of the Roller Boat sat wedged in the mud on the Toronto waterfront for decades. Polson Iron Works disabled the rolling propulsion system, sealed the ends, and added the rooftop deck. Photo from City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 257.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, neither company claimed the vessel, and it remained embedded deep in the mud near Polson Iron Works for years. In 1914, a new derrick freshly launched by the boat manufacturer collided with the decrepit wreck, further damaging it. But still the iron hull remained in place, a haunting landmark and a potentially dangerous hazard to shipping.

The incorrigible Frederick Knapp remained committed to the idea of roller boats. In 1922, the Globe reported he was planning a fleet of new boats and an electric car capable of travelling longer distances. Nothing came of either scheme, but Knapp remained a wealthy barrister in Prescott.

The Roller Boat finally vanished in 1933 when it was buried near Frederick Street by infill used to create the Union Station railway viaduct. According to recent archaeological surveys, the skeleton is likely still down there, waiting to be rediscovered.

“It has been the cause of more speculation, litigation, curiosity and caustic humour than any other vessel afloat on the Great Lakes,” eulogized the Globe in 1922.

“It was to advertise Canada throughout the world. It succeeded in advertising Toronto for a few days.”

toronto roller boat

Photo from Toronto Public Library, 979-50-6 Cab.

Additional material from April 5, June 9, June 15, August 11, August 9, September 9, October 12, October 18, October 19, October 22, October 25, October 28, November 4, November 5, 1897, March 31, April 23, May 9, September 27, 1898, June 6, July 14, November 10, November 13, November 14, 1899, October 2, 1901; August 11, 1904, July 4, September 30, 1907, July 16, September 24, October 5, October 26, October 29, November 26, 1908, November 4, 1911; July 11, July 20, 1914, October 24, October 30, 1922, March 10, 1923, June 16, 1933 editions of the Globe; November 26, 1955, September 9, 2006 editions of the Globe and Mail; September 9, 1897 edition of the Boston Evening Telegram; November 11, 1897 edition of Harper’s Weekly; Letter Patent No. 580,780, April 13, 1897 and Letter Patent No. 713,454, November 11, 1902, United States Patent and Trademark Office; and the January 22, 1898, June 16, 1899, November 26, 1901 editions of The New York Times.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.


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