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A steamship (often referred to as a steamer) is an ocean faring seaworthy vessel that is propelled by one or more steam engines that typically drive (turn) propellers or paddlewheels. The first steamships came into practical usage during the early 1800s, however there were isolated cases to the exception that came before. Steamships usually use the prefix designation SS, S.S. or S/S.

Development of the steamboat[edit]

Charlotte Dundas, the first practical steamboat, built by William Symington.

Mechanical ship propulsion began with the steamship. The first ships of this type were invented in the late 18th century by William Symington, John Fitch and Robert Fulton.[1] William Symington's ship the Charlotte Dundas, built to tow cargo along the Forth and Clyde Canal to Glasgow starting in 1803, is regarded as the world's "first practical steamboat".

Paddlewheels as the main motive source became standard on these early vessels (see Paddle steamer). It was an effective means of propulsion under ideal conditions but otherwise had serious drawbacks. The paddle-wheel performed best when it operated at a certain depth, however when the depth of the ship changed from added weight it further submerged the paddle wheel causing a substantial decrease in performance.[2]

Within a few decades of the development of the river and canal steamboat, the first steamships began to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The first sea-going steamboat was Richard Wright's first steamboat "Experiment", an ex-French lugger; she steamed from Leeds to Yarmouth on July 1813.[3]

The Margery launched in Dunbarton in 1814 was the first steamboat to be seen on the River Thames in January 1815 much to the amazement of Londoners, and operated a London to Gravesend river service until 1816 when she was bought by the French and became the first steamboat to cross the Channel, reaching Paris and inaugurating a Seine steamboat service under her new name Elise.[4]

The steamboat Rob Roy commenced regular mail and passenger service from Dover to Calais on 15 June 1821, and was so successful that it was soon followed by other steamboats [4]

The first iron steamship to go to sea was the 116 ton Aaron Manby, built in 1821 by Aaron Manby at the Horseley Ironworks, and became the first iron built vessel ever to put to sea when she crossed the Channel in 1822 arriving in Paris on 22 June.[5]

Screw-propeller steamers[edit]

Francis Pettit Smith 1836 patent for his propeller design originally fitted to the Archimedes.

The key innovation that made ocean-going steamers viable was the change from the paddle-wheel to the screw-propeller as the mechanism of propulsion. These steamships quickly became more popular, because the propeller's efficiency was consistent regardless of the depth at which it operated. Being smaller in size and mass and being completely submerged it was also far less prone to damage.

James Watt of Scotland is widely given credit for applying the first screw propeller to an engine at his Birmingham works, an early steam engine, beginning the use of an hydrodynamic screw for propulsion. The first successful steamship[6] to be driven by a screw propeller was the SS Archimedes, built in Britain in 1839 by British engineer Francis Pettit Smith.

First ocean-going steamships[edit]

The first steamship credited with crossing the Atlantic Ocean between North America and Europe was the American ship SS Savannah, though she was actually a hybrid between a steamship and a sailing ship, with the first half of the journey making use of the steam engine. The SS Savannah left the port of Savannah, Georgia, on May 22, 1819, arriving in Liverpool, England, on June 20, 1819; her steam engine having been in use for part of the time on 18 days (estimates vary from 8 to 80 hours).[7] A claimant to the title of the first ship to make the transatlantic trip substantially under steam power is the British-built Dutch-owned Curaçao, a wooden 438 ton vessel built in Dover and powered by two 50 hp engines, which crossed from Hellevoetsluis, near Rotterdam on 26 April 1827 to Paramaribo, Surinam on 24 May, spending 11 days under steam on the way out and more on the return. Another claimant is the Canadian ship SS Royal William in 1833.[8]

SS Great Western, the first purpose-built transatlantic steamship, on its maiden voyage in 1838.

The British side-wheel paddle steamer SS Great Western was the first steamship purpose-built for regularly scheduled trans-Atlantic crossings, starting in 1838. In 1836, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and a group of Bristol investors formed the Great Western Steamship Company to build a line of steamships for the Bristol-New York route.[9] The idea of regular scheduled transatlantic service was under discussion by several groups and the rival British and American Steam Navigation Company was established at the same time.[10] Great Western's design sparked controversy from critics that contended that she was too big.[9] The principle that Brunel understood was that the carrying capacity of a ship increases as the cube of its dimensions, whilst the water resistance only increases as the square of its dimensions. This meant that large ships were more fuel efficient, something very important for long voyages across the Atlantic.[11]

Great Western was an iron-strapped, wooden, side-wheel paddle steamer, with four masts to hoist the auxiliary sails. The sails were not just to provide auxiliary propulsion, but also were used in rough seas to keep the ship on an even keel and ensure that both paddle wheels remained in the water, driving the ship in a straight line. The hull was built of oak by traditional methods. She was the largest steamship for one year, until the British and American's British Queen went into service. Built at the shipyard of Patterson & Mercer in Bristol, Great Western was launched on 19 July 1837 and then sailed to London, where she was fitted with two side-lever steam engines from the firm of Maudslay, Sons & Field, producing 750 indicated horsepower between them.[9] The ship proved satisfactory in service and initiated the transatlantic route, acting as a model for all following Atlantic paddle-steamers.

The Cunard Line's RMS Britannia began its first regular passenger and cargo service by a steamship in 1840, sailing from Liverpool to Boston.[12]

In 1847, the revolutionary SS Great Britain, also built by Brunel, became the first iron-hulled screw-driven ship to cross the Atlantic.[13] The SS Great Britain was the first ship to combine these two innovations. After the initial success of its first liner, SS Great Western of 1838, the Great Western Steamship Company assembled the same engineering team that had collaborated so successfully before. This time however, Brunel, whose reputation was at its height, came to assert overall control over design of the ship—a state of affairs that would have far-reaching consequences for the company. Construction was carried out in a specially adapted dry dock in Bristol, England.[14]

Great Britain in the Cumberland Basin, April 1844. This historic photograph by William Talbot is believed to be the first ever taken of a ship.

Brunel was given a chance to inspect John Laird's 213-foot (65 m) (English) channel packet ship Rainbow—the largest iron-hulled ship then in service— in 1838, and was soon converted to iron-hulled technology. He scrapped his plans to build a wooden ship and persuaded the company directors to build an iron-hulled ship.[15] Iron's advantages included being much cheaper than wood, not being subject to dry rot or woodworm, and its much greater structural strength. The practical limit on the length of a wooden-hulled ship is about 300 feet, after which hogging—the flexing of the hull as waves pass beneath it—become too great. Iron hulls are far less subject to hogging, so that the potential size of an iron-hulled ship is much greater.[16]

In the spring of 1840, Brunel also had the opportunity to inspect the SS Archimedes, the first screw-propelled steamship, completed only a few months before by F. P. Smith's Propeller Steamship Company. Brunel had been looking into methods of improving the performance of Great Britain's paddlewheels, and took an immediate interest in the new technology, and Smith, sensing a prestigious new customer for his own company, agreed to lend Archimedes to Brunel for extended tests.[15] Over several months, Smith and Brunel tested a number of different propellers on Archimedes in order to find the most efficient design, a four-bladed model submitted by Smith.[15] When launched in 1843, Great Britain was by far the largest vessel afloat.

Brunel's last major project, the SS Great Eastern, was built in 1854–57 with the intent of linking Great Britain with India, via the Cape of Good Hope, without any coaling stops. This ship was arguably more revolutionary than it's predecessors. It was one of the first ships to be built with a double hull with watertight compartments and was the first liner to have four funnels. It was the biggest liner throughout the rest of the 19th century with a gross tonnage of almost 20,000 tons and had a passenger-carrying capacity of thousands. The ship was ahead of its time and went through a turbulent history, never being put to its intended use. The first transatlantic steamer built of steel was SS Buenos Ayrean, built by Allan Line Royal Mail Steamers and entering service in 1879.[citation needed]

The first regular steamship service from the East Coast to the West Coast of the United States began on February 28, 1849, with the arrival of the SS California in San Francisco Bay. The California left New York Harbor on October 6, 1848, rounded Cape Horn at the tip of South America, and arrived at San Francisco, California, after a four-month and 21-day journey. The first steamship to operate on the Pacific Ocean was the paddle steamer Beaver, launched in 1836 to service Hudson's Bay Company trading posts between Puget Sound Washington and Alaska.[17]

Era of the ocean liner[edit]

RMS Oceanic, an important turning point in ocean liner design.

By 1870, a number of inventions, such as the screw propeller, the compound engine,[18] and the triple-expansion engine made trans-oceanic shipping on a large scale economically viable. In 1870, the White Star Line’s RMS Oceanic set a new standard for ocean travel by having its first-class cabins amidships, with the added amenity of large portholes, electricity and running water.[19] The size of ocean liners increased from 1880 to meet the needs of immigration to the United States and Australia.

RMS Umbria[20] and her sister ship RMS Etruria were the last two Cunard liners of the period to be fitted with auxiliary sails. Both ships were built by John Elder & Co. of Glasgow, Scotland, in 1884. They were record breakers by the standards of the time, and were the largest liners then in service, plying the Liverpool to New York route.

RMS Titanic was the largest steamship in the world when she sank in 1912; a subsequent major sinking of a steamer was that of the RMS Lusitania, as an act of World War I.

RMS Titanic was the largest steamship in the world in 1912

Launched in 1938, RMS Queen Elizabeth was the largest passenger steamship ever built. Launched in 1969, RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) was the last passenger steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean on a scheduled liner voyage before she was converted to diesels in 1986. The last major passenger ship built with steam engines was the Fairsky, launched in 1984[citation needed], later Atlantic Star, reportedly sold to Turkish shipbreakers in 2013.

Most luxury yachts at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries were steam driven (see luxury yacht; also Cox & King yachts). Thomas Assheton Smith was an English aristocrat who forwarded the design of the steam yacht in conjunction with the Scottish marine engineer Robert Napier.[21]


RMS Mauretania,built in 1906 was one of the first ocean liners to convert to the steam turbine and was soon followed by all subsequent liners.

After the demonstration by British engineer Charles Parsons of his steam turbine-driven yacht, Turbinia, in 1897, the use of steam turbines for propulsion quickly spread. The Cunard RMS Mauretania, built in 1906 was one of the first ocean liners to convert to the steam turbine and was soon followed by all subsequent liners.[22]

Most capital ships of the major navies were propelled by steam turbines in both World Wars and nuclear marine propulsion systems aboard warships, submarines, and such vessels as the NS Savannah relied on turbines as well.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Thurston, 1891 pp.1-5
  2. ^ Carlton, 2012 p.23
  3. ^ Malster, R (1971), Wherries & Waterways, Lavenham, p. 61 .
  4. ^ a b
  5. ^
  6. ^ The emphasis here is on ship. There were a number of successful propeller-driven vessels prior to Archimedes, including Smith's own Francis Smith and Ericsson's Francis B. Ogden and Robert F. Stockton. However, these vessels were boats—designed for service on inland waterways—as opposed to ships, built for seagoing service.
  7. ^ Thurston, 1891 pp.168-169
  8. ^ Croil, James (1898). Steam Navigation: And Its Relation to the Commerce of Canada and the United. p. 54. 
  9. ^ a b c Corlett, Ewan (1975). The Iron Ship: the Story of Brunel's SS Great Britain. Conway. 
  10. ^ American Heritage (1991). The Annihilation of Time and Space. 
  11. ^ Gibbs, Charles Robert Vernon (1957). Passenger Liners of the Western Ocean: A Record of Atlantic Steam and Motor Passenger Vessels from 1838 to the Present Day. John De Graff. pp. 41–45. 
  12. ^ "Ship History". The Cunarders. 
  13. ^ "A Brief History". Brunel’s SS Great Britain. 
  14. ^ "SS Great Britain". Brunel 200. Retrieved 2008-12-31. 
  15. ^ a b c Fox, Stephen (2003). Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships. HarperCollins. p. p.147–148. ISBN 978-0-06-019595-3. 
  16. ^ Fox, Stephen (2003). Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships. HarperCollins. p. 144. ISBN 978-0-06-019595-3. 
  17. ^ "Beaver". Vancouver Maritime Museum. Retrieved 2007-11-26. 
  18. ^ Dawson, Charles (November 1999), "S.S. Thetis, a Daring Experiment", The Mariner’s Mirror 85 (4): 458–62 .
  19. ^ "THE WHITE STAR LINE". The Red Duster. 
  20. ^ "Umbria". Chris' Cunard Page. 
  21. ^ Dawson, Journal, 2006, p.331ff
  22. ^ Maxtone-Graham, John (1972). The Only Way to Cross. New York: Collier Books. p. 15. 


Further reading[edit]