Table of Contents




J. D. J. KELLEY, U. S. N.










Slow Growth of the Idea of Steam Propulsion—Models Shown at the Liverpool Exhibition in 1886—Claims of Precedence in the Invention of Steamboats—What Fulton Accomplished—The Clermont—The Voyage of the Savannah in 1819—The First War Steamer—The Atlantic Crossed by the Sirius and Great Western in 1838—Founding of the Cunard Company—Invention of the Screw Propeller—Its Application to the Archimedes and the Great Britain—Early Fleet of the Cunard Company—American Enterprises—The Screw Steamer Princeton—Establishment of the Pacific Mail—The Collins Line—Its Success and Ultimate Failure—The Great Eastern—Beginning of Great Rivalry in Speed—Triple Expansion Engines—Important Changes in Design.





The Viking’s Craft and the Modern “Greyhound”—Problems of Inertia and Resistance—Primary Condition for High Speed—What is Meant by “Coefficient of Fineness” and “Indicated Horse-Power”—Advance in Economical Engines—What the Compound Engine Effected—A Comparison of Fast Steamers from 1836 to 1890—Prejudice Against Propellers and High Pressures—Advantages of more than One Screw Propeller—Attempts at Propulsion by Turbine Wheels, Ejections, and Pumps—The Introduction of Siemens-Martin Steel in 1875 the Chief Factor in the Success of Modern Fast Steamers—Decrease in Coal Consumption—Importance of Forced Draughts—The Problem of Mechanical Stoking—Possibilities of Liquid Fuel—Is the Present Speed Likely to be Increased?





The Cost of an Ocean Racer—Intricate “Financing” of Such an Undertaking—The Contract with the Ship-builders—The Uncertain Element in Designing—Great Ship Yards along the Clyde—The Plans of a Steamer on Paper—Enlargement of Plans in the “Mould Loft”—What is Meant by “Fairing the Ship”—The “Scrive Board”—Laying down the Keel—Making the Huge Ribs—When a Ship is “in Frame”—Shaping and Trimming the Plates—Riveting and Caulking—Ready for Launching—The Great “Plant” which is Necessary for the Building of a Ship—Description of a Typical Yard—Works Covering Seventy-four Acres—Where the Shaft is Forged—The Lathes at Work—The Adjustment of Parts—Seven Thousand Workmen.





The First Ocean Race—Passenger Traffic in the Old Clipper Days—State-rooms and Table Fare in Early Days—The First Ocean Mail Contract—Discomforts Fifty Years Ago—American Transatlantic Lines—Government Subsidies—Novelties on the Collins Line—When Steerage Passengers were Allowed on Ocean Steamships—Important Changes in the Comfort of Passengers Wrought by the Oceanic in 1870—The Present Era of Twin-screw Ships—Their Advantages—The Fastest Voyages East and West—Records of the Great Racers—Modern Conveniences and Luxuries—The Increase in the Number of Cabin Passengers from 1881 to 1890—How the Larder is Supplied—Electric Lights, Libraries, and Music-rooms—Customs Peculiar to the French, German, and British Lines—Life in the Steerage—Immigration Statistics—Government Regulations.





Has Steam Ruined the Genuine Sailors of Story and Song?—Hauling a Liner out of the Liverpool Docks—The Traits of Master-mariners—Education of Junior Officers—A Fire Drill—Stowing the Cargo—Down the Channel in a Fog—The Routine Life at Sea—The Trials of Keeping Watch—A Bo’s’n’s Right to Bluster—Steering by Steam—Scrubbing the Decks in the Middle Watches—Formalities of Inspection—The Magic Domain of the Engine-room—Picturesqueness of the Stoke-hole—Messes of the Crew—The Noon Observation—Life among the Cabin Passengers—Boat Drill—Pleasures toward the End of the Voyage—The Concert—Scenes in the Smoking-room—Wagers on the Pilot-boat Number—Fire Island Light, and the End of the Voyage.





The Dangers of the Sea—Precautions in a Fog—Anxieties of the Captain—Creeping up the Channel—“Ashore at South Stack”—Narrow Escape of the Baltic—Some Notable Shipwrecks—Statistics since 1838—The Region of Icebergs—When They Are most Frequent—Calamities from Ice—Safety Promoted by Speed—Modern Protection from Incoming Seas—Bulkheads and Double Bottoms—Water tight Compartments—The Special Advantage of the Longitudinal Bulkhead—The Value of Twin Screws—Dangers from a Broken Shaft—Improvements in the Mariner’s Compass, the Patent Log, and Sounding Machine—Manganese Bronze for Propellers—Lights, Buoys, and Fog Signals—The Remarkable Record of 1890.





Revenue of the Ship’s Cargo—Amount of Freight Carried by Express Steamships—Gross Tonnage of Important Lines Running from New York—The Merchant Marine of the United States—The “Atlantic Limited”—The Sea Post-office—In the Specie Room—Enormous Refrigerators—The New Class of “Freighters”—Large Cargoes and Small Coal Consumption—The Ocean “Tramp”—Advantages of the “Whaleback”—Vessels for Carrying Grain—Floating Elevators—The Fruit Steamship—Tank Steamships for Carrying Oil—Peculiarities of their Construction—The Molasses Ship—Scenes on the Piers when Steamships are Loading—Steam Hoisting Apparatus—How the Freight is Stowed—Coaling—The Loading of Cattle Ships—“Cowboys of the Sea”—Ocean Traffic the Index of a Nation’s Prosperity.





Important Part Taken by the United States in Establishing Ocean Routes—Rivalry in Sailing Vessels with England—Effect of the Discovery of Gold in California—The Cape Horn Route—Australian Packet Lines—The Problem of a Short Route to India—Four Main Routes of Steamship Traffic—Characteristics of the Regular Service between Europe and the East—Port Said and the Suez Canal—Scenes at Aden and at Bombay—The Run to Colombo, Ceylon—Some of the By-ways of Travel from Singapore—The Pacific Mail—From Yokohama to San Francisco—Two Routes from Panama to New York—South American Ports—Magnificent Scenery of the Magellan Straits—Beauties of the Port of Rio—The Great Ocean Route from London to Australia.










Slow Growth of the Idea of Steam Propulsion—Models Shown at the Liverpool Exhibition in 1886—Claims of Precedence in the Invention of Steamboats—What Fulton Accomplished—The Clermont—The Voyage of the Savannah in 1819—The First War Steamer—The Atlantic Crossed by the Sirius and Great Western in 1838—Founding of the Cunard Company—Invention of the Screw Propeller—Its Application to the Archimedes and the Great Britain—Early Fleet of the Cunard Company—American Enterprises—The Screw Steamer Princeton—Establishment of the Pacific Mail—The Collins Line—Its Success and Ultimate Failure—The Great Eastern—Beginning of Great Rivalry in Speed—Triple Expansion Engines—Important Changes in Design.

IT is a wonderful fact in the swift expansion of mechanical knowledge and appliances of the last hundred years that while for unknown ages the wind was the only propelling force used for purposes of navigation, apart from the rude application of power through oars worked by men, the whole scheme of steam transport has grown, practically, to its present wonderful perfection within the lifetime of men yet living.

Of course, the idea, as is that of all great inventions, was one of slow growth. It cropped up at various stages through the eighteenth century, and there are faint evidences of gropings in this direction in the latter part of the seventeenth; but these latter were not much more definite than the embodiment of the idea of the telegraph in Puck’s girdle round the earth, and the evidence that men really thought of propelling boats by steam is very meagre until we come to the pamphlet written by Jonathan Hulls, in 1737, in which he gave utterance to a very clear and distinct idea in the matter. It struggled through a very backward infancy of fifty years and more, certain memorable names appearing now and then to help it along, as that of Watt (without whose improvements in the steam-engine it must still have remained in swaddling-clothes), Fitch, De Jouffroy, Rumsey, Symington, and finally Fulton, who, however much he may have learned from his predecessors, has unquestionably the credit of putting afloat the first commercially successful steamboat. He is thus worthy of all the honor accorded him; much of it came too late, as he died at the comparatively early age of fifty, after passing through the harassments which seem naturally to lie in the path of the innovator.

A graphic history of the wonderful changes wrought in this great factor of the world’s progress was set forth during the summer of 1886, at the International Exhibition at Liverpool, where, by model and drawing, the various steps were made more completely visible and tangible than, perhaps, ever before. True, the relics of the earlier phases of the steamship age, when its believers were but few and generally of small account, were sparse, but the exhibits of later models, from the date of the inception of transatlantic traffic, preparations for which were begun in earnest by laying down the steamship Great Western in 1836, were frequent enough, and the whole of the steps in the development of the means of ocean traffic from then till now were sufficiently well shown.

The exhibition, of course, did not confine itself to the steam era alone. It even had a model of an Egyptian vessel, which was exhibited by the Liverpool Library Society, as taken from Thebes, and estimated to date about 1,500 years B.C., and which Moses himself might thus have seen. It was a long stretch, however, to the next in date, as no others antedated 1700 A.D. There were many of the handsome and dignified eighteenth-century men-of-war, built at a time when men began to preserve a record of their work in the miniature ships which are now esteemed an essential addition to almost every vessel of importance put afloat. Firms now exist whose only business it is to make the various minute fittings—the ports, chains, anchors, blocks, etc.—of the Liliputian craft, so that every detail of the original is given with an exact verisimilitude in very often most beautiful and elaborate work.

It would have been very interesting had the early struggles of the steamboat been thus illustrated in extenso, but there is nothing of its concrete history earlier than a small model of the original Comet, built by Henry Bell, at Glasgow, in 1812, and so named because of the extraordinary comet of that year, and the engines of her successor, built in 1820. These recall, however, the vessel which was the first steamer engaged in passenger traffic in Europe, and are thus worthy of honor.

In looking over the beautiful array of models then exhibited, which thus represented almost every stage of progress in British steamship building, from the Comet onward, one could not help regretting that an effort had not been made by our government to bring together models, of which there must have been some, at least, available, illustrative of our earlier practice, particularly as there is much in it peculiar to us, and which would have been most interesting to the great public which visited the exhibition. Models of the Clermont; of the Stevens experimental screw boat; a later Mississippi steamer; the Savannah—the first vessel using steam which ever crossed the Atlantic; the Washington, the pioneer of regular transatlantic steam traffic under our flag; the Adriatic; the Hudson River and great Sound steamers of to-day, would, apart from any war-ship models of interest which could have been sent, have made a most interesting and attractive collection. The only things, however, which were visible were the drawings of a New York ferry-boat (the type of which, by the way, we owe to Fulton), so placed as to be scarcely discoverable. These boats are so typical, so different from anything found in Europe, and so interesting to any student of steam ferriage as a thorough adaptation of means to an end, that a complete model of the boat and its ferry slip would have been a most satisfactory addition.

It must be remembered that the steamboat had in its earlier days a much greater extension in America than elsewhere. Our great rivers were an especially attractive field for its use. The Mississippi had but lately come under our control, and the beginning of the great tide of Western emigration and exploration was almost coincident with the steamboat’s advent, so that through these favoring conditions it had a much more rapid growth among us than elsewhere.

The display, however, of British models was as complete as it could well be made. Private owners and builders, the Admiralty, and Lloyds’ Registry, united to make the collection a very complete and perfect one. Of continental European exhibits, that of the Italian Government, which sent a very splendid collection of models of its great war-ships, was the most important. Associated with it was the exhibit of the Fratelli Orlando of Leghorn, who have done much of both the public and private building of Italy. The only French exhibit was that of the Bureau Veritas, which followed the example of its English rival, Lloyds, in making a very striking and instructive show.

The only exhibits of modern war-ships were those of England and Italy, unless we except the numerous vessels built for foreign powers by English builders. The remainder of the display was chiefly connected with the strife of commerce, and in this it is likely to remain as complete and comprehensive as can be made in some time to come. It was one also in which Britain might well take pride, as, however great the United States were as pioneers or as more than equals in the beginning of the race, we have long since been distanced by our kinsmen, and we must refer, for some years at least, to Great Britain to study the principal changes in hull and machinery of the last half-century, though the great strides of the last six years, accomplished through our war-ship construction, bid fair to once more put us in our old and honorable place.

The Liverpool exhibition was the forerunner of a number of others of like character, which have culminated in the “Naval Exhibition” of 1891 in London, which, however, is more concerned with war than was its predecessor, and does not enter so fully into the details of early practice.


It is useless to draw comparisons between the value of claims of precedence in the history of steam navigation. The fact that Fulton’s efforts finally started the world to building steamboats for actual service is indisputable. All preceding cases were simply sporadic, and had none of the contagious power possessed by the experiments on the Hudson. Fulton himself had already built six steamboats before one was built elsewhere than in America. His boats, from the beginning, were of practical value, and not small experiments, the Clermont herself being 136 feet long, 18 feet broad, 7 feet deep, of 160 tons; and the diameter of her wheels was 15 feet.

In 1809 the first steamboat, the Accommodation, was seen on the St. Lawrence, and in 1811 the first (built at Pittsburgh) appeared on the Mississippi. A year after this the Comet, already alluded to, was put upon the Clyde by Henry Bell. She was only 40 feet long on the keel, and 1012 broad, with two small paddle-wheels on each side, driven by a gearing which geared into a wheel on the axle of each set of paddle-wheels. Her original engines are still in existence, and are deposited in the Museum at South Kensington, where they were set up by the same engineer (Mr. John Robertson) who placed them in the Comet.

Fulton also has the honor of being the first to design and build a war steamer, which for her time was a most remarkable production, and by far the largest steam vessel built before 1838. She was a fitting monument to the genius of the man who unfortunately did not live to see her completion and successful trials.

The Demologos, or Fulton the First, was laid down June 20, 1814, and launched October 29th of the same year. “Her dimensions were: length, 150 feet; breadth, 56 feet; depth, 20 feet; water-wheel, 16 feet diameter, length of bucket 14 feet, dip 4 feet; engine, 48-inch cylinder, 5 feet stroke; boiler length 22 feet, breadth 12 feet, and depth 8 feet; tonnage, 2,475.”

The commissioners appointed to examine her say in their report:

“She is a structure resting upon two boats, keels separated from end to end by a canal 15 feet wide and 66 feet long. One boat contains the caldrons of copper to prepare her steam. The vast cylinder of iron, with its piston, levers, and wheels, occupies a part of its fellow: the great water-wheel revolves in the space between them: the main or gun deck supporting her armament is protected by a bulwark four feet ten inches thick of solid timber. This is pierced by 30 port-holes, to enable as many 32-pounders to fire red-hot balls.

… She is rigged with 2 short masts, each of which supports a large lateen yard and sails. She has 2 bowsprits and jibs, and 4 rudders, 2 at each extremity of the boat, so that she can be steered with either end foremost. Her machinery is calculated for the addition of an engine which will discharge an immense column of water, which is intended to throw upon the decks and through the ports of an enemy.” She was also intended to carry four 100-pounders.

She made her first trial on June 1, 1815, and on the Fourth of July she steamed outside of Sandy Hook and back, a distance of 53 miles, in 8 hours and 20 minutes. She was then supposably light, as it is stated that she was again tried September 11, 1815, with 26 of her guns on board, and ammunition and stores to bring her down to nearly 11 feet draught. She steamed from 412 to 5 miles an hour, Fulton having only promised 3, and may certainly be considered to have been a success. She was never commissioned, but was used as a receiving ship at New York until June 4, 1829, when she accidentally blew up.

The general slowness with which men in the early part of the century received the idea of the mighty changes impending may be recognized when we look over the few publications connected with navigation then published. Mind seemed to move more slowly in those days; communication was tedious and difficult. Edinburgh was as far from London in length of time taken for the journey as is now New York from New Orleans; few papers were published; there were no scientific journals of value; no great associations of men given to meeting and discussing scientific questions excepting the few ponderous societies which dealt more in abstract questions than in the daily advances of the mechanical world. It was thus that the steam vessel came slowly to the front, and that it took more than a third of the whole time which has elapsed since Fulton’s successful effort to convince men that it might be possible to carry on traffic by steam across the Atlantic. Dr. Lardner is almost chiefly remembered by his famous unwillingness to grant the possibility of steaming directly from Liverpool to New York; and by his remark, “As to the project, however, which was announced in the newspapers, of making the voyage directly from New York to Liverpool, it was, he had no hesitation in saying, perfectly chimerical, and that they might as well talk of making a voyage from New York or Liverpool to the moon.”1 He strongly urged dividing the transit by using Ireland as one of the intermediate steps, and going thence to Newfoundland. He curiously limited the size of ships which might be used, and their coal-carrying powers. Though a philosopher, he did not seem to grasp that if the steamship had grown to what it was in 1835 from the small beginnings of 1807 it might grow even more, and its machinery be subject to development in later times as it had been in the earlier. Lardner seems to have typified the general state of mind when in 1836 the Great Western Steamship Company was formed, from which really dates transatlantic traffic.

A slight retrospect is necessary to enable us to understand the status of steam at the time. Little really had been done beyond the establishment of coast, river, and lake navigation in the United States and coastwise traffic in Great Britain; a few small vessels had been built for the British navy. In 1825 the Enterprise (122 feet length of keel and 27 feet beam) had gone to Calcutta from London in 113 days, 10 of which had been spent in stoppages; and steam mail communication with India was about being definitely established when the keel of the Great Western was laid.

Up to this time America had undergone much the greater development, both in number of steam vessels and tonnage.

In 1829 our enrolled tonnage was 54,037 tons, or rather more than twice that of the United Kingdom. Charleston and Savannah had regular steam communication with our northern ports. A few years later, in 1838, returns show that the former had 14 steamers, the largest being of 466 tons; Philadelphia had 11, the largest being of 563 tons; New York had 77, of which 39 were of a large class, exceeding generally 300 tons—the largest was the President, of 615 tons, built in 1829. Liverpool had at this date 41 steamers; the largest was of 559 tons, 4 others exceeded 200 tons, and all the others were much smaller. London had 169, of which the largest was the British Queen, just built, of 1,053 tons; the next largest was of 497 tons. Glasgow and Belfast had been in regular steam communication since 1818; Glasgow and Liverpool, London and Leith, since 1822. The first ferry-boat on the Mersey, it may be noted, the Etna, 63 feet long, with a paddle-wheel in the centre, began her trips in 1816.

In 1819 the Atlantic was first crossed by a ship using steam. This was the Savannah, of 380 tons, launched at Corlear’s Hook, New York, August 22, 1818.2

She was built to ply between New York and Savannah as a sailing-packet. She was, however, purchased by Savannah merchants and fitted with steam machinery, the paddle-wheels being constructed to fold up and be laid upon the deck when not in use, her shaft also having a joint for that purpose. She left Savannah on the 26th of May, and reached Liverpool in 25 days, using steam 18 days. The log-book, still preserved, notes several times taking the wheels in on deck in thirty minutes.

In August she left Liverpool for Cronstadt. An effort was made to sell her to Russia, which failed. She sailed for Savannah, touching at Copenhagen and Arendal, and arrived in 53 days. Her machinery later was taken out, and she resumed her original character as a sailing-packet, and ended her days by being wrecked on the south coast of Long Island.


But steam-power had by 1830 grown large enough to strike out more boldly. The Savannah’s effort was an attempt in which steam was only an auxiliary, and one, too, of a not very powerful kind. Our coastwise steamers, as well as those employed in Great Britain, as also the voyage of the Enterprise to Calcutta in 1825 (though she took 113 days in doing it), had settled the possibility of the use of steam at sea, and the question had now become whether a ship could be built to cross the Atlantic depending entirely on her steam power. It had become wholly a question of fuel consumption. The Savannah, it may be said, used pitch-pine on her outward voyage, and wood was for a very long time the chief fuel for steaming purposes in America. How very important this question was will be understood when it is known that Mr. McGregor Laird, the founder of the Birkenhead firm, in 1834, laid before the Committee of the House of Commons on Steam Navigation to India the following estimate of coal consumption:







per horse-power.










Or more than four times what is consumed to-day in moderately economical ships. In other words, to steam at her present rate across the Atlantic the City of New York, of 18,000 horse-power, would need to start with something like 7,500 tons of coal on board were her consumption per indicated horse-power equal to that of the best sea practice of that date, which could hardly have been under 6 pounds per indicated horse-power per hour.

This may be said to have been the status of affairs when, in 1836, under the influence of Brunei’s bold genius, the Great Western Steamship Company was founded as an off-shoot of the Great Western Railway, whose terminus was then Bristol. Brunel wished to know why the line should not extend itself to New York, and the result of his suggestion was the formation of the steamship company and the laying down at Bristol of their first ship, the Great Western.


Brunel’s large ideas were shown in this ship, though in comparatively a less degree, as well as in his later ones. She was of unprecedented size, determined on by Brunel as being necessary for the requisite power and coal-carrying capacity. The following were her principal dimensions: Length over all, 236 ft.; length between perpendiculars, 212 ft.; length of keel, 205 ft.; breadth, 35 ft. 4 in.; depth of hold, 23 ft. 2 in.; draught of water, 16 ft. 8 in.; length of engine-room, 72 ft.; tonnage by measurement, 1,340 tons; displacement at load-draught, 2,300 tons.


The Great Western, from an old painting.

Dimensions of engines: Diameter of cylinders, 7312 in.; length of stroke, 7 ft.; weight of engines, wheels, etc., 310 tons; number of boilers, 4; weight of boilers, 90 tons; weight of water in boilers, 80 tons; diameter of wheel, 28 ft. 9 in.; width of floats, 10 ft.

Her engines (side-lever) were built by the great firm of Maudslay & Field, who had been for some time one of the most notable marine-engine building firms of the period in Great Britain. They had, up to 1836, built 66 engines for steamers; the first being in 1815, when they built those of the Richmond, of 17 horse-power. The indicated power of the Great Western was 750; and a notable measure of the stride which steam has taken in the half-century since they undertook this contract is that they have since constructed twin-screw engines from which they have guaranteed to produce 19,500 horse-power. These drive a great armor-clad, which has six times the displacement of the Great Western and twice her ordinary speed.

The Great Western was launched on July 19, 1837, and was towed from Bristol to the Thames to receive her machinery, where she was the wonder of London. She left for Bristol on March 31, 1838; and arrived, after having had a serious fire on board, on April 2d.

In the meantime others had been struck with the possibility of steaming to New York; and a company, of which the moving spirit was Mr. J. Laird, of Birkenhead, purchased the Sirius, of 700 tons, employed between London and Cork, and prepared her for a voyage to New York. The completion of the Great Western was consequently hastened; and she left Bristol on Sunday, April 8, 1838, at 10 A.M. with 7 passengers on board, and reached New York on Monday, the 23d, the afternoon of the same day with the Sirius, which had left Cork Harbor (where she had touched en route from London) four days before the Great Western had left Bristol. The latter still had nearly 200 tons of coal, of the total of 800, on board on arrival; the Sirius had consumed her whole supply, and was barely able to make harbor.


Cross-section of the Great Western.

It is needless to speak of the reception of these two ships at New York. It was an event which stirred the whole country, and with reason; it had practically, at one stroke, reduced the breadth of the Atlantic by half, and brought the Old and New World by so much the nearer together. The Great Western started on her return voyage, May 7th, with 66 passengers. This was made in 14 days, though one was lost by a stoppage at sea. Her average daily run out was 202 miles, or about 812 knots per hour; in returning she made an average of close upon 9. Her coal consumption to New York was 655 tons, though in returning it was 392 tons—due no doubt to the aid from the westerly winds which generally prevail in the North Atlantic in the higher latitudes. She made in all, between 1838 and 1843, 64 voyages across the Atlantic, her average time from Bristol or Liverpool to New York, with an average distance of 3,06212 knots, being 15 days 12 hours, and from New York eastward, over an average distance of 3,105 knots, 13 days 6 hours. Her fastest westward passage was in 12 days 18 hours; her longest in 22 days 6 hours. Her fastest eastward was in 12 days 712 hours; and longest, in 15 days. The largest number of passengers carried was 152, and she averaged throughout 85. In 1847 she was sold to the West India Steam Packet Company, and in 1857, about the time that Mr. Brunel was launching his last and greatest ship, she was broken up at Vauxhall; and her final province no doubt was to feed the drawing-room fires of the West End of London, a fate to which many a worn-out wayfarer of the seas is yearly devoted.


The Great Britain.

Steam communication between England and America had thus been demonstrated as possible beyond a doubt, and others were not slow to make the venture. The Great Western Company themselves determined to lay down a second ship; and it having been quickly seen that the mails must be henceforth carried by steam, a gentleman from Halifax, Nova Scotia, appeared upon the scene, who was destined to connect his name indelibly with the history of steam upon the Atlantic. This was Mr. Samuel Cunard, who had nursed the idea of such a steam line for some years, and who now, with Mr. George Burns, of Glasgow, and Mr. David McIver, of Liverpool, founded the great company known by Mr. Cunard’s name. The establishment of this line and the building of the Great Britain by the Great Western Company are two most notable events in steam navigation the one putting the steam traffic between the two countries on a firm and secure basis; the other marking a notable step in the revolution in construction and means of applying the propelling power, destined before many years to be completely accepted to the exclusion of the wooden hull and the paddle-wheel. It is not fair to speak of the use of iron in the Great Britain for the hull, in a general way, as the beginning of the change; she was only the first large ship to be built of this material. The credit of the introduction of iron is largely to be awarded to Mr. John Laird, of Birkenhead, who in 1829 built a lighter 60 feet long, 13 feet 4 inches in breadth, and 6 feet depth of hold; and in 1833, a paddle-wheel steamer, the Lady Lansdowne, of 148 tons, 133 feet long, 17 feet broad and 9 feet 6 inches deep. “In the following year Mr. Laird constructed a second paddle-steamer, for G. B. Lamar, Esq., of Savannah, United States, called the John Randolph. This was the first iron vessel ever seen in American waters. She was shipped in pieces at Liverpool, and riveted together in the Savannah River, where for several years afterward she was used as a tug-boat.” Though Mr. Laird was the ablest upholder of iron as a material for ship-building, and was the largest builder in it, the idea existed before him—Richard Trevithick and Robert Stevenson so early as 1809 proposing iron vessels, “and even suggested ‘masts, yards, and spars to be constructed in plates, with telescope-joints or screwed together; and in 1815 Mr. Dickenson patented an invention for vessels, or rather boats, to be built of iron, with a hollow water-tight gunwale” (Lindsay, vol. iv., p. 85). But nothing came of these proposals, and the first iron vessel mentioned was built in 1818 by Thomas Wilson, near Glasgow—the first steam vessel being the Aaron Manby, “constructed in 1821 at Horsley” (Lindsay). “Up to 1834, Mr. Laird had constructed six iron vessels altogether;” the largest of these was the Garryowen, of 300 tons, for the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company. Others of considerable size by the same builder followed, and the material began to come into use elsewhere. In 1837 the Rainbow, of 600 tons, by far the largest iron steamer which had yet been built, was laid down at Birkenhead. It will thus be seen how bold was the step taken by Mr. Brunel when, in 1838, he advised the Great Western Company to use iron as the material for their new ship, which was to be of the startling size of 3,443 tons displacement. Nor were his innovations to stop with size and material. On his earnest recommendation to the company it was decided, in 1839, to change from the first design of the usual paddle-wheels to a screw.


Ericsson’s First Arrangement of Underwater Propeller (Oct. 10, 1834).


Ericsson’s Propeller (July 13, 1836).


Smith’s Amended Specification
(May 18, 1839).


Smith’s Specification (May 31, 1836).


Cammerow’s Specification (Dec. 10, 1828).

Specifications of Early Patents taken out in England.

Three years before (in 1836), a Swede, whose name was destined to become much more famous in our own land, had successfully shown the practicability of screw propulsion, in the Francis B. Ogden, on the Thames. “She was 45 feet long and 8 feet wide, drawing 2 feet 3 inches of water. In this vessel he fitted his engine and two propellers, each of 5 feet 3 inches diameter” (Lindsay). She made ten miles an hour, and showed her capabilities by towing a large packetship at good speed. There was no question of the success of this little vessel, which was witnessed on one occasion by several of the lords of the admiralty. Notwithstanding her unqualified success, Ericsson had no support in England. It happened, however, that Commodore Stockton, of our navy, was then in London; and witnessing a trial of the Ogden, ordered two small boats of him. One, the Robert F. Stockton, was built, in 1838, of iron, by Laird—63 feet 5 inches in length, 10 feet in breadth, and 7 feet in depth. She was taken—April, 1839—under sail, to the United States by a crew of a master and four men. This little vessel was the forerunner of the famous Princeton, built after the designs of Ericsson, who had been induced by Commodore Stockton to come to America as offering a more kindly field for his talents.

In the same year with Ericsson’s trial of the Ogden, Mr. Thomas Pettit Smith took out a patent for a screw; and it was by the company formed by Smith that the screw propeller was first tried on a large scale, in the Archimedes, of 237 tons, in 1839. Of course the names mentioned by no means exhaust the list of claimants to this great invention. Nor can it be said to have been invented by either of these two, but they were the first to score decisive successes and convince the world of its practicability.

In 1770, Watt wrote to Dr. Smalls (who, a Scot, was at one time a professor at William and Mary College, in Virginia, but returned to England in 1785) regarding the latter’s experiments in relation to canal navigation, asking him, “Have you ever considered a spiral oar for that purpose, or are you for two wheels?” In the letter is the sketch, a fac-simile of which is here shown:

spiral oar sketch

Dr. Smalls answers that, “I have tried models of spiral oars, and have found them all inferior to oars of either of the other forms” (Muirhead’s “Life of Watt,” p. 203).

Joseph Bramah, in 1785, took out a patent for propelling vessels by steam, wherein, after describing the method figured in his specification of using a wheel at the stern of a vessel, in which he places the rudder at the bow, he proceeds as follows:


“Instead of this wheel A may be introduced a wheel with inclined fans, or wings, similar to the fly of a smoke-jack, or the vertical sails of a wind-mill. This wheel, or fly, may be fixed on the spindle C alone, and may be wholly under water, when it would, by being turned round either way, cause the ship to be forced backward or forward, as the inclination of the fans, or wings, will act as oars with equal force both ways; and their power will be in proportion to the size and velocity of the wheel, allowing the fans to have a proper inclination. The steam-engine will also serve to clear the ship of water with singular expedition, which is a circumstance of much consequence.”

Bramah thus very clearly describes the screw, and in so doing must unquestionably be numbered as one of the many fathers of this system of propulsion. Fitch, as before stated, is recorded, on most trustworthy evidence, to have been another: and Mr. Stevens, of Hoboken, not only carried out successful experiments with the screw in 1804, at New York, but even experimented with twin screws. Charles Cummerow, “in the City of London, merchant,” patented, in 1828, “certain improvements in propelling vessels, communicated to me by a certain foreigner residing abroad,” in which the screw is set forth in a manner not to be questioned. Who the “certain foreigner” was, who communicated the invention to Mr. Cummerow, has not come down to us.

It had, however, like the steamboat as a whole, to wait for a certain preparedness in the human intellect. Invention knocked hard, and sometimes often, in the early years of the century, before the doors of the mind were opened to receive it; and too frequently then the reception was but a surly one, and attention deferred from visitor to visitor until one came, as did Fulton, or Ericsson, who would not be denied.

The transfer of Ericsson to America left an open field for Mr. Pettit Smith, and the experiments carried out by the Screw Propeller Company had the effect of permanently directing the attention in Great Britain of those interested in such subjects. The screw used in the Archimedes “consisted of two half-threads, of an 8 feet pitch, 5 feet 9 inches in diameter. Each was 4 feet in length, and they were placed diametrically opposite each other at an angle of about 45 degrees on the propeller-shaft” (Lindsay). She was tried in 1839, and in 1840 Mr. Brunel spent some time in investigating her performance. His mind, bold and original in all its own conceptions, was quick to appreciate the new method; and, although the engines of the Great Britain were already begun, designed for paddle-wheels, he brought the directors of the company, who had undertaken the building of their own machinery, to consent to a change. The following details of the ship are taken from the “Life of Brunel:” Total length, 322 ft.; length of keel, 289 ft.; beam, 51 ft.; depth, 32 ft. 6 in.; draught of water, 16 ft.; tonnage measurement, 3,443 tons; displacement, 2,984 tons; number of cylinders, 4; diameter of cylinder, 88 in.; length of stroke, 6 ft.; weight of engines, 340 tons; weight of boilers, 200 tons; weight of water in boilers, 200 tons; weight of screw-shaft, 38 tons; diameter of screw, 15 ft. 6 in.; pitch of screw, 25 ft.; weight of screw, 4 tons; diameter of main drum, 18 ft.; diameter of screw-shaft drum, 6 ft.; weight of coal, 1,200 tons.

“In the construction of the Great Britain, the same care which had been spent in securing longitudinal strength in the wooden hull of the Great Western was now given to the suitable distribution of the metal.”

A balanced rudder and bilge keels were parts of her original construction, and an unusual method of lapping the plates was used. “Apart from their size, the design of the engines of the Great Britain necessarily presented many peculiarities. The boilers, which were 6 in number, were placed touching each other, so as to form one large boiler about 33 feet square, divided by one transverse and two longitudinal partitions.

“It would seem that the boiler was worked with a pressure of about 8 pounds on the square inch.

“The main shaft of the engine had a crank at either end of it, and was made hollow; a stream of water being kept running through it, so as to prevent heating in the bearings. An important part in the design was the method by which motion was transmitted from the engine-shaft to the screw-shaft, for the screw was arranged to go three revolutions to each revolution of the engines. Where the engines do not drive the screw directly, this is now universally effected by means of toothed gearing; but when the engines of the Great Britain were made, it was thought that this arrangement would be too jarring and noisy. After much consideration, chains were used, working round different-sized drums, with notches in them, into which fitted projections on the chains.”

On July 10, 1843, this (for the time) great ship was floated out of dock; but it was not until January 23, 1845, that she left Bristol for London, making on her voyage an average of 1213 knots an hour. She left Liverpool for New York on August 26th, and arrived on September 10th, having made the passage out in 14 days and 21 hours; she returned in 1512 days. During the next winter, after one more voyage to New York, alterations were made, to give a better supply of steam, and a new screw was fitted. She made two voyages to New York in 1846; and on September 22d she left Liverpool on a third, but overran her reckoning and stranded in Dundrum Bay, on the northeast coast of Ireland, when it was supposed she was only rounding the Isle of Man. This unfortunate event completed the ruin of the company, already in financial straits through the competition of the Cunard line; and the ship after her rescue, effected August 27, 1847, almost a year after grounding, was “sold to Messrs. Gibbs, Bright & Co., of Liverpool, by whom she was repaired and fitted with auxiliary engines of 500 nominal horse-power. On a general survey being made it was found that she had not suffered any alteration of form, nor was she at all strained. She was taken out of dock in October, 1851, and since that time she has made regular voyages between Liverpool and Australia.”

These last few lines appear in the “Life of Brunel,” published in 1870. But she was later changed into a sailing-ship, and only in 1886 stranded again at the Falkland Islands. She was floated; but being badly injured, was sold to serve as a hulk, and there no doubt will be passed the last days of what may be regarded one of the famous ships of the world. She was, for the time, as bold a conception as was her great designer’s later venture, the Great Eastern.

The acceptance by the English Government of the Cunard company’s bid for the contract for carrying the mails to America resulted in putting afloat, in 1840, the Acadia, Britannia, Columbia, and Caledonia. The first vessels of the Cunard line were all wooden paddle-wheel steamers, with engines by Napier, of Glasgow, of the usual side-lever class; the return-flue boilers and jet-condensers were used, the latter holding their place for many years to come, though surface condensation had already appeared as an experiment. The company was to carry the mails fortnightly between Liverpool, Halifax, and Boston, regular sailings to be adhered to, and four vessels to be employed, for the sum of £81,000 ($400,000) per annum. The contract was made for seven years, but was continued from time to time for forty-six—no break occurring in this nearly half-century’s service, when the Umbria—November 4, 1886—was the first ship in the history of the company to leave Liverpool on the regular day of sailing for America without mails. This break, however, was but momentary, and the line almost at once resumed its ancient duty.

The Britannia was the first of the fleet to sail; and, strange to say (from the usual seaman’s point of view), Friday, July 4, 1840, was the day selected. She arrived at Boston in 14 days and 8 hours, a very successful passage for the time.

It must have required considerable moral courage in the projectors to inaugurate such an undertaking on a day of the week which has been so long on the black-list of sailor superstition, notwithstanding it had the advantage of being the anniversary of the Declaration of American Independence. The success of this line ought certainly to rehabilitate Friday to a position of equality among the more fortunate days, though it will be observed that none of the transatlantic lines have yet selected it as a day of sailing.

The Britannia, which was representative of the quartette, was of the following dimensions: Length of keel and fore rake, 207 ft.; breadth of beam, 34 ft. 2 in.; depth of hold, 22 ft. 4 in.; mean draught, 16 ft. 10 in.; displacement, 2,050 tons; diameter of cylinder, 7212 in.; length of stroke, 82 in.; number of boilers, 4; pressure carried, 9 lbs. per sq. in.; number of furnaces, 12; fire-grate area, 222 ft.; indicated horse-power, 740; coal consumption per indicated horse-power per hour, 5.1 lbs.; coal consumption per day, 38 tons; bunker capacity, 640 tons; cargo capacity, 225 tons; cabin passengers carried, 90; average speed, 8.5 knots.

It will thus be seen that these ships were not an advance upon the Great Western, but were even slightly smaller, with about the same coal consumption and with rather less speed.


Plan of the Hibernia and Cambria.

A, saloon; B, pantry; C, centre state-rooms; D, gentlemen’s cabin; E, ladies’ cabin; S, stairs; F, wine cellar; G, G, G, goods; K, stewards’ berths in centre; H, H, coal ho’d; P, P, fore-cabin; Q, steerage; L, forecastle; R, store-room; M, mail-room; O, sail-room; V, engineers and firemen.