When commissioned in 1895, Flagship Olympia possessed the most modern technologies available. Her engines were of the latest design, her electrical systems were revolutionary, and her refrigeration system was one of the first installed on a US ship. Even as Olympia aged, she was still a platform for new technologies. In 1902, she was one of the first ships to have a radio communications system installed and, in 1917, an early sonar system.
Olympia's design comes out of a period known as the New Steel Navy, an era in American ship design from the late 1880s through the early 1900s. This highly productive, worldwide naval renaissance using modern metallurgy brought the old navy of wooden sailing ships to an end. Designed only six years after the first American steel warship was launched, Olympia was a refinement of the experimental, sail-assisted steel warships known as the Squadron of Evolution. While still sporting an outmoded schooner sailing rig, Olympia employed top-of-the-line steam engines, new forms of armor, and a large rifled arsenal in a compact and efficient fighting package.
Olympia's two main engines are considered National Historic Engineering Landmarks due to their important history coupled with the famous ship, their sophisticated design, and their early date of manufacture. Olympia was one of the first ships to use steam for a multitude of tasks. Though the 250-ton main engines were the focal point, more than 60 other steam engines were incorporated into the ship's systems. Many were designed to replace manpower operations, such as using winches for hoisting boats, coal ash, and anchors, while other engines provided state-of-the-art functionality, including steam-powered refrigeration and dynamos for newly integrated electrical systems.
The original electrical installation aboard Olympia was contracted to General Electric Company, which had only recently been formed in April 1892. Among the cutting-edge electrical systems installed during Olympia's initial fitting out were electric lighting, blowers, ammunition hoists, automatic fire and flooding detection systems, and telephones loaned by the Bell Telephone Company. Throughout Olympia's service life, subsequent refits with the latest and greatest technologies kept the ship's equipment up-to-date. These developments included wireless radio communication and the installation of Reginald Fessenden's pioneering design of sonar oscillator. Today, many of the original brass fixtures, wooden conduits, and wiring are as they were a century ago and the oscillator is the only example of this type of sonar known to still exist.
Machine shop today