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 steamship

The steam engine and steamship were not invented by one man at one time but were the cumulative efforts of some dozen men over a period of time. The first prototypes emerged in the very early 1800s.[1] e.g. In 1786 John Fitch built the first steamboat which later operated in regular commercial service along the Delaware river between Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Burlington, New Jersey, carrying as many as 30 passengers.

The development of the steamship underwent constant improvement throughout its history, and every decade has seen the ships of its predecessor become obsolete.

Types of steamships

In terms of propulsion there were two basic types of steamships (often referred to as Steamers) in use in the 1800s and early 1900s: Those that used a paddle-wheel, either situated along the sides of the vessel or those that used a stern mounted paddle-wheel, and those that used the screw-propeller. Eventually the screw-propeller replaced the paddle-wheel on steamships overall.

Paddle-wheel steamers

Paddle-wheel steamers appeared on the scene well before steamers using the screw-propeller. It was an effective means of propulsion under ideal conditions but otherwise had serious drawbacks. The paddlewheel 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. e.g.Cargo ships were often greatly affected by this condition. Another factor that led to the demise of the paddle-wheel was that it was a massive and heavy structure which cost considerably more to produce, install and maintain than the screw-propeller.[2]

Screw-propeller steamers

Steamships that were propelled by the screw-propeller 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 in battle.

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. Mechanical ship propulsion began with the steamship. The first successful ship of this type is a matter of debate; candidate inventors of the 18th century include William Symington, the Marquis de Jouffroy, John Fitch and Robert Fulton, however William Symington's ship the Charlotte Dundas is regarded as the world's "first practical steamboat". Paddlewheels as the main motive source became standard on these early vessels (see Paddle steamer). Fulton had tested, and rejected, the screw propeller.However, the first operational steamship driven by propeller appears to have been the Civetta in 1829 designed by Josef Ressel of the Austrian Empire, which managed over 6 knots in the Trieste harbour before failing due to malfunction of the steam conduits. He had received a patent for his design in 1827 and is credited as the modern inventor of the functional ship's screw propeller.

Steamships in history

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).[3] 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.[4]

The British side-wheel paddle steamer SS Great Western was the first steamship purpose-built for regularly scheduled trans-Atlantic crossings, starting in 1838. 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. 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. She would know a turbulent history, and was never put to her intended use. The first transatlantic steamer built of steel was SS Buenos Ayrean, which entered service in 1879.

As early as the 1820s, side-wheel steamers plied the waters of Narragansett Bay, Buzzard's Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and Long Island Sound between the ports of southern New England and New York City. Eventually most of the steamship lines that traversed "The Sound" came under the control of J. P. Morgan who consolidated them into the New England Steamship Company, probably better known by the name of its most famous route, the Fall River Line, which transported Astors, Vanderbilts, and the elite of the Eastern Establishment between New York City, Boston, and their palatial summer 'cottages' at Newport, Rhode Island. The last of the great paddle steamer fleet was put out of business by a combination of competition from railroads and automobiles, labor troubles, and the Great Depression economy in 1937; however, service on "The Sound" between Providence and New York City continued with screw steamers, until brought to an end in early 1942 by the menace of World War II German U-boat attacks.

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.[5] The California Gold Rush, trade and US Mail contracts to the west coast of the United States brought the steamships of the U.S. Mail Steamship Company and other lines carrying passengers to the Isthmus of Panama crossing first by canoes and mules later by the Panama Railroad when it was finished in 1855. From Panama City the Pacific Mail Steamship Company steamers carried them and high value cargo to and from California.[6]

Steamships were used extensively throughout the American Civil War by both the Union and Confederate navies. The steamship underwent dramatic development in Britain during this time to address the need for outrunning Union ships on blockade patrol. Lightweight, long narrow ships with shallow drafts were developed allowing them to cut through the water at a greater speed.[7]

In the United States, Commodore Matthew Perry, considered the father of the steamship navy, used steamships (such as the USS Mississippi) to help force Japan to open its ports up to American trade in 1853. This was a contributing factor to the Meiji Restoration.[8]

By 1870, a number of inventions, such as the screw propeller, the compound engine,[9] and the triple-expansion engine made trans-oceanic shipping economically viable. Thus began the era of cheap and safe travel and trade around the world. In 1880, the passenger steamer Columbia became the first ship to utilize a dynamo and the electric light bulb (Columbia was also the first structure besides Thomas Edison's laboratory to use a light bulb).[10][11][12] Columbia sank in 1907 after colliding with the schooner San Pedro off Shelter Cove, California, killing 88 people.

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. 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, later Atlantic Star (cruise ship), reportedly sold to Turkish shipbreakers in 2013.

SS Explorer is the last remaining steam trawler in Britain. She was built in Aberdeen, including the last steam engine built there, and was launched in 1955 as a fishery research vessel. Accommodation was provided for researchers, including a computer cabin. Currently she is berthed at Edinburgh Dock, Leith, by Edinburgh, and is subject of a restoration project.

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.[13]

SS Delphine is a classic 1920s yacht commissioned by Horace Dodge, co-founder of Dodge Brothers of automobile fame. The yacht was launched on April 2, 1921, and spans 258 feet (79 m). The Delphine can reach 15 knots (28 km/h) under power from her two quadruple steam expansion engines, each of 1,500 hp (1,100 kW).[14] After a full restoration she now cruises the Mediterranean under charter.[15]

The turbine steamship Royal Yacht Britannia, now retired from service, is berthed nearby at Ocean Terminal, Leith.

After the demonstration by Charles Parsons of his steam turbine-driven yacht, Turbinia, in 1897, the use of steam turbines for propulsion quickly spread. 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.

See also



  • E'Book
  • Bennett, Frank M. (1897). The steam navy of the United States. Warren & Company Publishers Philadelphia. p. 502. ISBN 10:1176467921, Url2
  • Bradford, James C. (1986). Captains of the Old Steam Navy: Makers of the American Tradition, 1840-1880. Naval Institute Press, p. 356, Url
  • Canney, Donald L. (1998). Lincoln's Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization, 1861-65. Naval Institute Press. p. 232, Url
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  • Lambert, Andrew (1984). Battleships in Transition, the Creation of the Steam Battlefleet 1815-1860. Conway Maritime Press, . ISBN 0-85177-315-X
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Further reading

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