25 February 1933, the United State's first purpose built aircraft carrier, USS Ranger (CV-4), is launched from the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia, United States of America. Prior to Ranger, American aircraft carriers had been converted from existing vessels. The first and only ship of her class, and the sixth of her name, the Ranger would provide valuable lessons in carrier architecture and go on to serve with distinction in World War II.
USS Ranger (CV-4), underway at sea in the late 1930s.
Arguably, aircraft carriers have existed since the American Civil War, when the USS George Washington Parke Custis was converted to launch manned reconnaissance balloons. These early balloon carriers, however, are not considered aircraft carriers in the modern sense.
An artists rendering of the Union Army Balloon Washington and the Navy barge George Washington Parke Custis.
After the invention of the seaplane in March of 1910 by French engineer Henri Fabre, the French navy would commission the Foudre, the first ship in history designed to carry aircraft (though only aircraft equipped with floats). Seaplanes were stored in hangers under the main deck and were lowered into the water by a crane. The Foudre (and later ships like her) are classified as seaplane tenders, rather than as aircraft carriers.
The seaplane tender Foudre can be seen to the right in this photo, along with a Canard Voisin seaplane.
In 1909, French inventor Clément Ader published his book L'Aviation Militaire (French: Military Aviation), in which he precisely described what we would consider to be a modern aircraft carrier (including a full length flight deck, offset control tower, elevators, catapults, and arrestor lines). The book would inspire the United States Navy to begin experiments in launching and landing aircraft from ships. In 1910, American test pilot Eugene Ely was the first to pilot to launch from a stationary ship. In 1911, he would become the first to successfully land on one. The first successful take of and landing from a moving warship was performed by Commander Charles Rumney Samson of the Royal Navy in 1912.
Eugene Ely takes off from the USS Birmingham, the first successful launch from a warship.
HMS Ark Royal, which served with distinction during the Gallipoli campaign of World War I, was arguably the first active aircraft carrier. Converted from a merchant hull, HMS Ark Royal was the first vessel to have a permanent launch platform for aircraft, but could still only recover seaplanes and only by means of a crane. HMS Furious, a converted Courageous-class battlecruiser, was the first ship to have all of the basic features of a modern carrier, with a flight deck for both launching and recovering wheeled aircraft. HMS Argus, converted from an ocean liner, was the first vessel to feature a full length flat deck.
HMS Argus in 1918.
In 1918, the Royal Navy would lay down the keel for the first purpose-designed aircraft carrier in history, the HMS Hermes. Hermes featured the two most distinctive features of modern carriers, the full length flat deck and offset starboard-side control tower. She was also the first to feature a hurricane bow, which is a bow sealed all the way up to the flight deck. Though she was designed and laid down first, she was not the first purpose built carrier to be commissioned into service. That honor belongs to the Imperial Japanese ship Hōshō, launched in 1922, two years before the Hermes would be launched in 1924.
HMS Hermes, 1924
The Imperial Japanese Navy's Hōshō, 1922
As for the USS Ranger, design began in 1925 on what would become the US Navy's fourth aircraft carrier and first vessel designed for that purpose. She was originally designed as a flush-decker, with nothing extending above the flight deck. This complicated the arrangement of this ship's machinery. Smoke from the boilers had to be vented from six small stacks, in two groups of three, positioned on either side of the aft hanger. The stacks were hinged so that they could be rotated parallel to the deck during flight operations. Concern over smoke and exhaust gasses would lead to limitation in the size of Ranger's power plant, limiting her speed and maneuverability. The ship architects of the U.S. Naval War College would eventually modify the Ranger's design to include an island control tower, which could have allowed for the exhaust to be directed through stacks on the tower itself and eliminated the problem. Unfortunately, the ship was too far into construction and modifications to the exhaust system would have proven too costly.
Ranger Launching, 25 February 1933, still without her control tower.
USS Ranger would be the only ship of her class, immediately succeeded by the Yorktown-class carriers whose design was influenced by lessons learned from the Ranger and from observation of the HMS Hermes. Still she remained in commissioned service from 1934 to 1946 and served with distinction in the Atlantic during World War II, earning battle stars for her participation in Operations Torch and Leader. After the war she would serve for a time as a training carrier before being sold for scrap in 1947.
Insignia of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CV-4)