A cruiser (From Dutch Kruiser, "something that crosses") is a classification of large warship. Historically they were generally considered the smallest ships capable of independent operations-destroyers usually requiring outside support such as tenders-but in modern parlance this difference has disappeared. In modern warfare the cruiser has virtually disappeared, supplanted in all roles by the destroyer, but certain ships are still named cruisers for reasons of military function.
The Elswick cruiser was named after the Armstrong Whitworth shipyard in Elswick, UK. This shipyard had made themselves a name as cruiser constructors in 1885 when the Chilean cruiser Esmeralda was constructed. The Esmeralda was a ground-breaking ship. Its forecastle, poop deck and the wooden board deck had been removed, replaced with an armoured deck. Esmeralda's armament consisted of fore and aft 10-inch (25.4 cm) guns and 6-inch (15.2 cm) guns in the midships positions. It could reach a speed of 18 knots. It also had a displacement of less than 3,000 tons. During the two following decades, this cruiser type came to be the inspiration for combining heavy artillery, high speed and low displacement.
The Elswick cruiser was been designed by Sir Philip Watts, who later would go on and design the legendary battleship HMS Dreadnought. The standard Elswick cruiser carried two 6-inch guns, several smaller guns and had reasonable speed and sea-keeping ability. Elswick sold them to a wide array of countries, including Japan and Chile.
The torpedo cruiser was a smaller unarmoured cruiser, which emerged in the 1880s-1890s. These ships could reach speed up to 20 knots and were armed with medium to small calibre guns, as well as torpedoes. These ships were tasked with guard and reconnaissance duties, to repeat signals and all other duties of a fleet, which were suited for smaller vessels. These ships could also function as the flagship of a torpedo boat flottilla. After the 1900s, these ships were usually traded for faster ships with better sea going qualities.
Armoured and Protected Cruisers
In the beginning of the 20th century, cruisers were divided into three groups, depending on the availability of armour:
armoured cruisers, which had both side armour and armoured decks. armored deck cruisers, which lacked side armour, but were equipped with an armoured deck. protected cruisers, which had armoured spaces for their artilley, handling of propellant and command towers, but lacked armour otherwise. The first ironclads were, because of their single gun decks, still referred to as "frigates", even though they were more powerful than existing ships of the line. By the 1870s, the rapid evolution of ironclad design meant that ironclads were being designed specifically for fast, independent, raiding and patrol. These vessels came to adopt the term armoured cruiser, while their heavier cousins adopted the term battleship. Until the 1890s armoured cruisers were still built with masts for a full sailing rig, to enable them to operate far from friendly coaling stations.
From around 1880 until 1910 smaller ships with considerably less capability were built as protected cruisers. Their armour was distributed as a shaped deck inside the vessel, primarily covering engines and boilers, rather than covering the sides; with the ship's coal bunkers (forming part of the hull) giving additional protection against gunfire, 2 feet of coal being regarded as the equivalent of 1 inch of steel armour (Brown, DK "Warrior to Dreadnought" Chatham Press 1997).
Change occurred so rapidly during the late 19th century battleships only a few years old could be outperformed by cruisers of the next building run. The United States' Great White Fleet was rendered obsolete in this fashion only a few years after it sailed. During this period it was not uncommon for fleets to contain the very latest of an older generation as well as the latest designs, which were generally much larger.