Admiral Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher – known to generations of naval historians as “Jacky” Fisher – was one of the most consequential men of a consequential era.
Fisher served in one of the most technologically transformational eras in history. He started his service in the Royal Navy during the Crimean War, on a sail-driven wooden ship of the line armed with muzzle-loading cannon. Over the next 40 years, he led in the tactical and technical developments that turned the British (and, by extension, American) navies from wind-driven wooden fleets to steam-powered steel ones.
He helped develop the torpedo for use in Royal Navy ships:
In 1906, he was instrumental in the construction of the first modern battleship, HMS Dreadnought, which defined the basic outlines of the battleship from that day in 1906 until after the Gulf War.
And then, thinking that speed was more important than armor, he developed a new class of warship, the “Battlecruiser”, with the firepower of a battleship but the armor and speed of a (faster, much more lightly-armored) cruiser, intended to be faster than anything that could kill it and stronger than anything that could run with it.
Fisher, and the battlecruisers’ crews, discovered to their immense chagrin that while outrunning a battleship was one thing, it didn’t allow the battlecruiser to outrun the battleships’ shells. On one day in 1916, at the Battle of Jutland, three of Fisher’s battlecruisers exploded, victims partly of too-thin armor (an intentional part of the design, to keep the ships relatively light and fast) and unstable British cannon propellant (which was not intentional, and also led to the destruction of many other British ships during the war); the Invincible, Indefatigable and Queen Mary all blew up like fireworks, leaving about 30 survivors among combined crews of over 3,200 men.
And HMS Hood continued the streak; the greatest battle cruiser ever built, the epitome of Fisher’s theory and redesigned to reflect the lessons at Jutland, the Hood was in its day the fastest and most powerful battleship in the world, the very symbol of British naval might in the twenties and thirties:
And on 1941, as it chased and caught the German battleship Bismarck somewhere between Greenland and Iceland, the German ship’s gunfire blew up the Hood, killing all but three of its crew of 1,200.
However, the dozens of other fullly-armored battleships of both the British and German navies, the vast majority of which were descendants of Dreadnought, survived to serve as the templates for every battleship in the world built between 1906 and the end of World War 2.
But today? With the last of the battleships (The USS Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri and Wisconsin) retired and serving as museum ships, it may be that Jacky Fisher’s most well-known, if not most significant or enduring, contribution to the world may be that in 1917, in a letter to Winston Churchill, he was the first person ever recorded using the abbreviation “OMG” as a shortcut to writing “Oh, My God”.
The lesson? You never know what it is that you’ll be leaving to posterity.