George W. Melville

George W. Melville
George W. Melville (cropped).jpg
Melville in 1904
Chief of the Bureau of Steam Engineering
In office
August 9, 1887 – August 8, 1903 (1887-08-09 – 1903-08-08)
Preceded byCharles Harding Loring
Succeeded byCharles Whiteside Rae
Personal details
George Wallace Melville

(1841-01-10)January 10, 1841
New York City, New York, U.S.
DiedMarch 17, 1912(1912-03-17) (aged 71)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Resting placeLaurel Hill Cemetery
EducationBrooklyn Polytechnic Institute
Notable worksIn the Lena Delta (1884)
Military service
AllegianceUnited States of America
Branch United States Navy
Service years1861–1903
RankRear admiral
WarsAmerican Civil War
ExpeditionsJeannette expedition
AwardsGold Jeannette Medal (1890)

George Wallace Melville (January 10, 1841 – March 17, 1912) was an American engineer, Arctic explorer, and author. As chief of the Bureau of Steam Engineering, he headed a time of great expansion, technological progress and change, often in defiance of the conservative element of the Navy hierarchy. He superintended the design of 120 ships and introduced the water-tube boiler, the triple-screw propulsion system, vertical engines, the floating repair ship, and the "distilling ship." Appointed engineer in chief of the Navy, Melville reformed the service entirely, putting Navy engineers on a professional rather than an artisan footing.

Melville also established an engineering experiment station near the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. As engineer-in-chief of the Navy, he fought hard to get an appropriation of $400,000 for an experiment and testing laboratory to be located at Annapolis. He argued that such a facility would be a dependable means for testing machinery and equipment before its installation in Navy ships and aid training engineering officers. Both, he surmised, would increase the efficiency of the Navy.

He made his first trip to the Arctic in 1873, when he volunteered to help rescue 19 survivors of the Polaris expedition. Six years later, he volunteered to accompany Lieutenant Commander George W. De Long on his Jeannette expedition, an arctic expedition on board USS Jeannette to the Bering Strait in search of a quick way to the North Pole. Jeannette became icebound and was eventually crushed; Melville, the 10 others in his small boat, and two from De Long's boat, were the only survivors.

Despite the extreme length and hardships of the trip, he returned in search of De Long and others who might possibly still be alive. He found none but retrieved all records of the expedition. Congress awarded Melville the Congressional Gold Jeannette Medal for his gallantry and resourcefulness; the Navy advanced him 15 numbers on the promotion list. He wrote of the De Long expedition in his book, In the Lena Delta, published in 1884.

Early life

Melville was born in New York City on January 10, 1841, the son of Alexander Melville, a chemist, and Sarah Wallace.[1] He was educated at the School of the Christian Brothers, a religious academy, where he studied mathematics, and at the Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute.[2]

Naval career

American Civil War

He entered the U.S. Navy on July 29, 1861, and became an officer of the engineer corps, with the rank of third assistant engineer. His first year afloat was spent on the Great Lakes' gunboat Michigan, during which time he was promoted to second assistant engineer. Melville served in the sloops of war Dacotah and Wachusett from mid-1862 until late in 1864, taking part in the capture of CSS Florida in October 1864.

He finished the Civil War in the Hampton Roads, Virginia, area working with torpedo boats and as an engineer on the gunboat Maumee. After the war was over, First Assistant Engineer Melville served aboard several ships, among them the experimental cruiser Chattanooga, gunboat Tacony, steam sloop Lancaster and Asiatic Squadron flagship Tennessee. For the remainder of his life, Melville belonged to the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, serving as national commander-in-chief of the Loyal Legion from 1911 to 1912.

In 1867, Melville married Henrietta Beatty Waldron of Buffalo. The couple had three children.[3]

Arctic exploration

In 1873, he volunteered for duty as chief engineer of USS Tigress for her rescue in Baffin Bay of 19 survivors of the Polaris expedition to the Arctic.

In the summer of 1879, he was an eager and daring volunteer when an Arctic expedition under Lieutenant Commander George W. De Long left San Francisco aboard USS Jeannette on August 7, 1879, to try to find a quick way to the North Pole via the Bering Strait. Jeannette became icebound in September and after two years of effort to save her, was crushed by ice floes in the Laptev Sea and sank June 12, 1881 – leaving the crew stranded on the ice floes in mid-ocean in three small boats and with scant provisions.

Melville was the only boat commander to bring his crew to safety in the Lena Delta in Siberia. Later, he set out in search of De Long and his men, traveling over a thousand miles in the deadly cold of the Arctic winter only to find them dead. However, he was able to recover and bring back all the records of the expedition. The third boat, under the command of Charles W. Chipp, was never found and Chipp and seven other men were presumed dead.

The United States Congress rewarded Melville for his gallantry and resourcefulness by advancing him 15 numbers on the promotion list and awarding him the Jeannette Medal. The incredible hardships of the expedition are described in his book, In the Lena Delta, published in 1884.[4]

Melville was promoted to the rank of chief engineer during his time in Jeannette and again went to the Arctic in USS Thetis in 1884, for the Greely Relief expedition in search of the survivors of an Arctic expedition commanded by Army Lieutenant Adolphus Greely.

Steam engineering

Melville between 1890 and 1910

Melville was an Inspector of Coal in 1884–1886, then performed his final seagoing duty in the new cruiser Atlanta. President Grover Cleveland appointed Melville Chief of the Bureau of Steam Engineering August 9, 1887, with the relative rank of commodore.

During more than a decade and a half in that post, he was responsible for the Navy's propulsion systems during an era of remarkable force expansion, technological progress and institutional change. Melville superintended the design of 120 ships of the "New Navy". Among the major technical innovations that he helped introduce, often in defiance of the conservative opinion within the naval establishment, were the water-tube boiler, the triple-screw propulsion system, vertical engines, the floating repair ship, and the distilling ship.

Promoted to rear admiral March 3, 1899, he was appointed engineer in chief of the Navy December 6, 1900. Melville entirely reformed the service, putting Navy engineers on a professional rather than an artisan footing.

The Annapolis laboratory was a brainchild of Melville. As engineer-in-chief of the Navy, he fought hard to get an appropriation of $400,000 for an experiment and testing laboratory to be located at Annapolis. In 1903, he finally was successful in obtaining the appropriation for the engineering experiment station.

His primary argument for the establishment of an experiment station was that it would increase the efficiency of the Navy. His idea was to establish a dependable means for testing—before installation—machinery and equipment designed for Navy ships. His secondary argument was that it could aid in training engineering officers and accordingly should be located in Annapolis near the Naval Academy.

Prior to his retirement, Melville headed a committee tasked with studying how to use fuel oil in Navy boilers instead of coal. They strongly recommended that a testing plant be developed to test methods of burning fuel in Navy boilers. On November 18, 1910, the Secretary of Navy authorized "... the construction and equipment, at an estimated cost of $10,000.00, of a structure simulating a naval fireroom, for the purpose of instigating the subject of fuel oil burning in connection with the design of proposed oil burning battleships" in an existing building at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.


Retiring from active duty on January 10, 1903, Melville spent his final years in Philadelphia, where he continued to be engaged in matters relating to his profession. His first wife having died in 1882, Melville married Estella Smith Polis in 1907. She died two years later. There was no issue from their marriage.

Melville was the recipient of many honors during his lifetime, both in the United States and internationally. He was one of the 33 founding members of the National Geographic Society.[5] He died in Philadelphia on March 17, 1912, and was interred at Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Melville was a companion of the District of Columbia Commandery of the Naval Order of the United States – a military society of naval officers and their descendants. In 1886, he became a companion of the Pennsylvania Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States and served as its commander from 1908 to 1909 and also served as national commander-in-chief of the Order from 1911 to 1912. He was a member of the Grand Army of the Republic and an honorary member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and served as its 18th president.


Admiral George W. Melville by Samuel Murray 1923

The U.S. Navy has named two ships in his honor: the destroyer tender USS Melville, 1915–1948; and the oceanographic research ship USNS Melville, 1969–2016. The fuel depot at the Newport Naval Station in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, was named Melville Point. A nearby elementary school is named Melville School. Also bearing his name is Melville, Montana.

The Navy's George W. Melville Award recognizes outstanding engineering contributions in the applications of knowledge toward research and development of materials, devices, and systems or methods; including design, development, and integration of prototypes and new processes. The Melville Medal is awarded periodically by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in honor of the best original paper from its transactions.

Melville Hall, built in 1937 on the campus of the United States Naval Academy, was used as classroom and laboratory space for the steam and electrical engineering departments. Melville's name lives on as the new hall's Melville Entrance.[6] There is a statue of Admiral Melville in Navy Park at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

The Melville Glacier in Northwest Greenland was named after him by Robert Peary.



  1. ^ Compton, Samuel Willard. "Melville, George Wallace". American National Biography Online. Retrieved August 30, 2015.
  2. ^ "MOLLUS--Commander-in-Chief Rear Admiral George Wallace Melville".
  3. ^ "Obituary: George Wallace Melville". The Stevens Indicator. 29: 162–7. 1912.
  4. ^ Melville, G. W. (1892). In the Lena Delta. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company.
  5. ^ Hunter, Cathy. "George Melville: A Survivor, A Rescuer, A National Geographic Founder". National Geographic Society. Retrieved August 30, 2015.
  6. ^ Arbuthnot, Nancy (October 11, 2012). Guiding Lights: Monuments and Memorials at the U.S. Naval Academy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 9781612512426. Retrieved May 31, 2014.


  • Cathcart, W. L. (February 1912). "George Wallace Melville". Journal of the American Society for Naval Engineers. 24 (1): 477–511. doi:10.1111/j.1559-3584.1912.tb04617.x.
  • Ellsberg, E. (1938). Hell on Ice: the sage of the "Jeannette". New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company. OCLC 753237311.
  • Melville, G. (1884). In the Lena Delta. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Co. OCLC 867979975.
  • Sachs, A. (2007). The Humboldt Current. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199215195.
  • Sides, H. (2014). In the Kingdom of Ice. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 9780385535373.

External links

Media files used on this page

Flag of the United States.svg
Author/Creator: unknown, Licence: PD
George W. Melville - Brady-Handy.jpg
George W. Melville. Library of Congress description: "Melville, Adm., Artic Explorer; Engineer of the JEANETTE in 1880s; photographed c. 1910".
Admiral George W. Melville by Samuel Murray 1923.jpg
"Chief Engineer George W. Melville, USN, Statue in Navy Park, Philadelphia Naval Base, Pennsylvania." Statue by Samuel Murray (1923).