Science in the Civil War: The Permanent Commission of the Navy Department

Usage Conditions Apply
The Smithsonian Institution Archives welcomes personal and educational use of its collections unless otherwise noted. For commercial uses, please contact

Narrow Your Results


Filter Your Results

Smithsonian Secretaries Information

Close Browse records and papers of the Smithsonian Secretaries, from 1846 until today. Pre-set filters help narrow searches by individuals who have held that office.

Expeditions Information

Close Browse records and papers documenting scientific and collecting expeditions either affiliated with the Smithsonian, or with which Smithsonian researchers participated. Pre-set filters help narrow searches by geographic regions predominantly represented in expedition records.

Professional Societies Information

Close Browse records of professional societies closely associated with the Smithsonian, that focus on areas of scientific research and museum studies. Pre-set filters help narrow searches by major topics and disciplines.


  • This article discusses the work of the the Permanent Commission of the Navy Department, which was established in February 1863 to review proposals for inventions to assist the war effort. Because there were no industrial producers of military hardware, the government relied on what the author calls "the chance, unreliable labors of inventors and amateurs of science," and "inventors literally besieged official Washington after the outbreak of war (308)." In an effort to keep up and to identify inventions that might be useful, the Navy established the three member Permanent Commission and appointed Charles Henry Davis, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, Alexander Dallas Bache, Superintendent of the Coast Survey, and Joseph Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian. Bache's assistant and a General with the Army Corps of Engineers were soon added.
  • Because all three of the Commission's original members were also involved with the establishment of the National Academy of Sciences in March 1863, the author explains that a somewhat awkward relationship developed between the organizations, with the Permanent Commission sometimes referring questions to a committee of the Academy on which the same persons served. (Bache was also President of the National Academy). The author goes on to discuss some of the specific inventions reviewed by the Commission, providing the work of baking soda inventor Eben Horsford as an example.


  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Bache, A. D (Alexander Dallas) 1806-1867
  • Davis, Charles Henry 1807-1877
  • United States Dept. of the Navy
  • National Academy of Sciences (U.S.)
  • Permanent Commission of the Navy


Smithsonian History Bibliography


The author, who was with the National Archives when this article was written, later edited volumes 1 through 5 of The Papers of Joseph Henry.

Contained within

Isis Vol. 49, No. 3 (Journal)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,


  • 1958
  • Civil War, 1861-1865


  • Boats and boating
  • Inventors
  • Inventions
  • History
  • Ships


United States

Physical description

Number of pages: 12; Page numbers: 307-318

Full Record

View Full Record