Joseph Francis Biography (1801-1893)


In 1890 the United States Congress conveyed a gold medal, the largest medal ever granted by Congress, to Joseph Francis, an eighty-nine year old hero. Through his work with lifeboats, Francis had saved hundreds of lives around theworld.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Francis grew up hearing about the frequent shipwrecks in Boston Harbor and other seaports of the northeastern United States. With the increase in ship travel during the nineteenth century, the occurrence of shipwrecks had also multiplied. Francis observed that the most dangerous part of an ocean crossing was the reaching the dock because the ship's navigator had to negotiate an unfamiliar and often unmarked harbor. Tragically,during heavy weather, rescue vessels were as likely to fall victim to rocks and waves as the floundering ship. The heavy wood lifeboats in use at the timecould easily capsize or be smashed against the shore.

Once Francis reached adulthood, he began experimenting with different boat designs, trying to devise a lifeboat for the circumstances. He came up with theidea of using corrugated iron to give his boats a lighter but stronger hull.The ribbing of corrugated sheet iron gave it the rigidity needed to survivethe elements. Although metal had been corrugated by hand hammering for thousands of years, Francis had to figure out how to mass produce ribbed sheet metal in the shape of boat hulls to make his boat feasible. He designed a hydraulic press to do this in 1847. The press, which stood more than twice the height of a man, consisted of a fixed upper die and a movable lower die which pressed iron sheets into the desired corrugated hull shape. Though iron is heavier than wood, the corrugated hulls were actually stronger and lighter than their wooden counterparts.

Francis opened the Metallic Life-Boat Factory at the Novelty Iron Works, to mass produce the corrugated iron hulls. His invention was recognized as highlyvaluable in saving lives, and he received financial support from Congress, the New York Board of Underwriters, and the Humane Society to install his boats at coastal stations along the Atlantic seaboard. Francis' first corrugatedboats were open surfboats which rode high on the waves. He later invented a series of lifecars, which were enclosed lifeboats that were pulled ashore witha lifeline. The line was shot by cannon to the distressed ship, where they were attached to the lifecars carried by the vessel. The most renowned rescueinvolving the lifecars occurred in January of 1850. The Ayrshire was wrecked in a terrible snow storm off the New Jersey coast; two hundred peoplewere safely brought ashore on the lifecars.

The life-saving vessels were also distributed around the coasts of Europe. Their noble duty earned awards for Francis from several European nations. He was also commissioned by the Russian government to build a fleet of light-weight steamers for the inland Aral Sea. Because of their corrugated hulls, they were easily transported across the mountains.

After his success with the lifeboats, Francis went on to invent a military vessel called an amphibious duck. Francis' lifeboats and lifecars remained in use into the late 1800s, being phased out as newer boats were invented.At the end of his career, he was awarded the Congressional gold medal in recognition of a half century of saving lives.

Besides this Congressional honor, Francis also received medals from The Franklin Institute; Ferdinand III, King of the Two Sicilies; and the European Lifesaving Society. He was also knighted by Napoleon III of France and given theknighthood of St. Stanislaus of Russia. Internationally known and recognizedat home as the father of the United States Lifesaving Service, Francis is a shining example of a man using his mechanical talents for the good of mankind.Because of him, countless lives were saved, and during one short four-year period (1850-1854), more than 2,100 passengers were rescued by his invention.

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