My understanding is that America, while still a small nation huddled upon the shores of the North Atlantic, it's attention focused towards the ocean, possessed a not unimpressive presence as a maritime power. True, it was dwarfed by the powers of Continental Europe, and positively microscopic compared to British maritime might, but before the Civil War, a sizable fleet of clipper ships, whaling ships, and sailing packets plied both the Atlantic and Pacific. But this fleet had been in steady decline up to and including the Gilded Age.
The usual causes listed for the decline are lack of government support, a shortage of private capital, and cheaper, subsidized foreign competition. My suspicion is that the nation's attention was turned towards the vast lands west of the Appalachians, that we were too busy securing a continental Empire to be too concerned with maritime matters. After all, throughout the 19th century, with protective tariffs and a large protective moat of two oceans to insulate us, we were more concerned with internal development than finding a place in the world. Certainly Europe thought very little of America, or Americans, backward, technologically primitive, and we Americans, as usual were playing the distinctly American game known as Catch Up.
Does it seem that I have an overly condescending view of America? Well, for an exceptionalist America, certainly.
You really have to wonder about a country that, coddled, isolated, gifted of a plenitude of unspoiled natural resources, promoted chattel slavery and thus was favored of a cheap labor force, still couldn't seem to break even with a Europe that had only a tenth the advantages. Why, look at Germany, for all practical purposes a medieval society well into the 1860s, still managed to economically, scientifically, and technologically outpace and outperform America in a mere twenty years. Socialist institutions, anyone? You could ask the ghost of the Iron Chancellor.
But medievalism does seem to be the watchword for the first half of 19th century America. This is not to say medievalism is wrong or backward, far from it! Any number of that mechanical inventions and improvements were prevalent. But America, gifted with vast forests and free land, where it was easier and more profitable to be a farmer than an artisan, really had no need to develop an economy of skilled laborers, let alone a specialized work force need for an industrial economy. True, at the Great Exhibition of 1851, American furniture and woodworking craftsmanship was considered unsurpassed, and the quantity of machines for the mass-manufacture of wood products second to none. But America, squandering its forests and talents, soon lost out to other nations.
But getting back to that maritime issue. The most advanced, most complex, most powerful machines on the planet, form the 1860s at least until the 1950s were the ocean liners. The amount of national prestige and pride that could be funded through government coffers made naval architecture the most advanced and most accelerated technological arena of the age. Any and all scientific advances were quickly incorporated into the designs of ocean liners - from steam turbines, to electricity, to radio, to computational physics (in the areas of hull and propellor design).
The latter half of the 19th century, and well into the early 20th saw an accelerated Darwinian arms race of ocean liner building... unless you happened to be America. British liners were top of the line, the Apollo program of the 19th century. It was only when British engineers, perhaps after the development of the Parsons steam turbine, conservatively rested upon their laurels, that they fell behind in the race.
Charles Parsons himself was bedeviled by the conservative mindset of the British Admiralty. More than happy with their clunky reciprocating piston powered engines, Parsons was continually denied an audience to demonstrate his steam turbine. He was forced into the role of cheeky bastard, crashing the 1897 Naval Review at Spithead, where, in his hundred-foot-long ship Turbinia, ran circles around the plodding battleships and cruisers. Queen Victoria herself took notice.
America did not have the technical know-how, but it did have the money. The asshole cocksucker bankster J.P. Morgan, in an attempt to crush all competitors in the trans-Atlantic trade, bought out the White Star Line in head-to-head competition with the well-established Cunard. Germany's HAPAG, not to be outdone, reneged on it's profit-sharing agreement with White Star. Kaiser Wilhelm II called it a "scheme by the American plutocracy to prostrate Germany, if not Europe itself".
All ocean faring nations promptly provided large government subsidies to promote their industry. Morgan meanwhile, had two ships built for White Star, the Olympic, and ... the Titanic.
J.P. Morgan, a morose and vilified man died in 1913. The last year of his life had seen not only the Titanic disaster, but the antitrust Pujo hearings in Washington. His downfall was certainly not worth the lives lost.
American naval architecture languished throughout this entire period, having to wait for the enlightened and progressive policies of - and substantial government subsidies funneled through - the US Navy.