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William Hovgaard papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MC-0185

Scope and Contents

Collection consists of reports, mostly written between 1900 and 1930, on research in design and construction of ships, submarines, and airships for the United States Navy. Topics include dry docks, gun turret stresses, riveted joints, radiodynamic torpedos, safety at sea, ship disasters, including the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania, stability of vessels, and information about an elastic bulkhead patent. Also included are several examinations given by Hovgaard at MIT, and a proposal for an experimental ship model tank at the Institute.


  • 1888 - 1944
  • Majority of material found within 1901 - 1930


Language of Materials

Collection is predominantly in English. Some early material is in Danish.

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open.

Conditions Governing Use

Access to collections in the Department of Distinctive Collections is not authorization to publish. Please see the MIT Libraries Permissions Policy for permission information. Copyright of some items in this collection may be held by respective creators, not by the donor of the collection or MIT.

Biographical Note

William Hovgaard (1857-1950) graduated from the Naval Academy at Copenhagen in 1879 and from the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, England, in 1887. He joined the staff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1901 and was professor of naval design and construction until his retirement in 1933. He was a consulting naval architect to many private companies and to several bureaus of the United States Department of the Navy. He also served as an expert witness in the investigations of the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania.

William Hovgaard was born in Aarhus, Jutland, Denmark, on November 28, 1857. He graduated from the Naval Academy in Copenhagen in 1879, at age 21, and was commissioned as sub-lieutenant in the Danish Navy. In 1881 he was promoted to full lieutenant. In 1882 Hovgaard was a crew member of the Danish Transit of Venus Expedition to St. Croix.

In 1883 Hovgaard entered the School of Naval Architecture at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, England. After graduating in 1887, he moved back to Denmark. He was placed on technical duty in the Royal Dockyard at Copenhagen, where he served until 1895 as an instructor at the dockyard’s School of Naval Architects and Engineers. In 1895, he was appointed yard manager of the Danish shipyard of Burweister & Wain. In 1897 he attained the rank of commander in the Danish navy, and in the following two years he took special courses in gunnery and torpedoes and made cruises in war vessels. During this time, he prepared a complete design of a submarine. Hovgaard later resigned his Danish naval commission in 1905.

In 1901 Hovgaard was appointed aide-de-camp to the Danish Minister of Marine, and was sent to the United States to study the newly relevant issue of submarines. Later that year, Hovgaard joined the nascent MIT Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering (Course XIII-A) as director and professor of naval design. This was a graduate-level course, founded by Cecil H. Peabody, which was intended mainly (though not exclusively) for naval cadets. The courses Hovgaard most frequently taught were Warship Design, Theory of Warship Design, and History of Modern Warship Construction.

Hovgaard spent his early years at MIT helping to strengthen the Course in Naval Architecture. He designed many of the exams given to undergraduate and doctoral students of naval architecture. He also worked closely with several faculty members of Course XIII, including Cecil Peabody, Henry H. W. Keith, James R. Jack, and Carl H. Clark. Hovgaard’s work reinforced the connection between the Institute and the United States Navy, and many of his students went on to careers in naval architecture and design. Among his students were Jerome C. Hunsaker and future Rear Admiral Edward Ellsberg.

In 1915 Hovgaard was called to serve as an expert witness on behalf of the White Star Lines during the inquiry that followed the sinking of the HMS Titanic. He was awarded a gold medal by the British Institution of Naval Architects for his work on the “Buoyancy and Stability of Submarines.” When World War I enveloped the US in 1917, Hovgaard took a leave of absence from the Institute and began technical duty at the War Department’s Bureau of Construction and Repair, where he served until the end of the war in 1918, and with which he maintained close ties throughout his career. In 1918 he served as witness and offered testimony in the Navy’s inquest following the torpedoing of the SS Lusitania.

Hovgaard was naturalized as a US citizen in 1919. In addition to his naval specializiation, he was by this time specializing in dirigibles and airship construction. In 1922 he was appointed by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics as a member of the special committee on the designs of the airships RS-1 and Shenandoah.

In 1924 he was appointed chair of a newly formed exchange program between American and Scandinavian universities. In 1925 he was commissioned by the Naval Court of Inquiry to study the aftermath of the crash of the airship Shenandoah, and he designed and constructed a replica keel of the airship in the MIT workshops, with MIT students.

In the years that followed, Hovgaard was as active outside the Institute as within it. In 1926 he was elected vice-president of the American Scandinavian Foundation, of which he had been a trustee since 1912. In an article published in 1927 in the New York Times, Hovgaard proposed a barge-like “seadrome,” or anchored, floating relay platform for airplanes. That same year, he was made a Knight Commander of Dennebroge by King Christian X of Denmark.

1929 was a particularly active year for Hovgaard. He was appointed to the Department of Commerce’s Committee on Ship Construction. The Polyteknisk Laeranstalt in Copenhagen awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Engineering. Later in 1929 he became a full member of the National Academy of Sciences. In 1930 he wrote the program notes for an exhibit at the MIT Nautical Museum entitled “A Model of the Christianus Quintus: First Three-Decker in the Danish Navy.” In 1932 he was made a life member of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers.

In 1933, at age 76, Hovgaard retired from his position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and was appointed professor emeritus. Henry E. Rossell succeeded him as head of Course XIII-A. Hovgaard moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he was a consulting naval architect to the Bureau of Yards and Docks at the Navy Department, and to other private concerns, including the consulting firm of Gibbs & Cox. He continued to be active as a scientist and naval authority for many years. In 1934 he addressed the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston regarding “Fundamentals of the Theory of Relativity,” and later that year the Stevens Institute awarded him the title of Doctor of Engineering. In 1935 he was selected to analyze and make recommendations to the Secretary of the Navy regarding the future design and construction of airships.

In 1937 Hovgaard was honored at a luncheon at the Astor Hotel, under sponsorship of the American Society of Danish Engineers, the Danish Officers’ Club, and the Danish Luncheon Club. A letter read at the luncheon from a US naval official noted that 85 percent of the officers in the Navy’s construction corps were Hovgaard’s former students, and that every one of the Navy’s ships currently docked at New York Harbor was constructed under the supervision of his former pupils. Later in 1937 Hovgaard was appointed to the Navy’s advisory board on plans for two new battleships. Hovgaard’s health was declining by the beginning of World War II, but he was still able to write a pamphlet called “The United World,” whose main premise was that the fundamental causes of war are of innate biological origin. Karl T. Compton, MIT’s president, wrote the foreword to the work.

Hovgaard died in January 1950, in Summit, New Jersey.


4.5 Cubic Feet (10 manuscript boxes, 1 legal manuscript box, 1 cassette box)


This collection documents the career of William Hovgaard (1857-1950). Hovgaard was professor of naval design and construction at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1901 to 1933. His work as a consultant to private companies and several bureaus of the United States Department of the Navy is documented in reports on research in design and construction of ships, submarines, and airships. Correspondence and prepared testimony in the collection document his part as an expert witness in the investigations of the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania.

Physical Location

Materials are stored off-site. Advance notice is required for use.

Source of Acquisiton

Folders 1 through 281 were a gift of William Hovgaard in 1947. Folders 282 through 313 were added in 2006 from the MIT Libraries collection.

Appraisal note

Needs review.

Related Materials

Jerome C. Hunsaker Papers, 1898-1926 (MC 272). MIT Department of Distinctive Collections

Baker, William A. A History of the First 75 Years. Cambridge: MIT Dept. of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, 1969. MIT Libraries

XIII-A, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: One Hundred Years. Cambridge : MIT Department of Ocean Engineering, 2000. MIT Libraries

Guide to the Papers of William Hovgaard
Ready For Review
Michael Thompson
Copyright 2006
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Revision Statements

  • 2021 July 7: Edited by Lana Mason to remove aggrandizing terms in the biographical note description.

Repository Details

Part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Libraries. Department of Distinctive Collections Repository

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries
Building 14N-118
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Cambridge MA 02139-4307 US