Birth of Steamboats

After several experiments with fitting steam engines in boats, the first steamboats appeared between 1800 and 1815. Driven by paddlewheels, they were used for towing barges on rivers and canals, and also as harbor tugs.

The first Atlantic crossing by a sailing ship fitted with a small steam engine was made (mostly under sail) by Savannah in 1819. It took until 1838 before Sirius made the first steam Atlantic crossing without the aid of sail. Unhampered by side paddles, fast sailing ships known as “clippers” kept the trade on most sea routes until the late 1850s. By the 1860s bigger, faster steamers, driven by the far more efficient stern screw, were threatening the wail clippers even on the long China tea and Australian wool routes. The opening of the Suez Nanal in 1869 ended the need for fast voyages around Africa.

Steamship development was delayed by the long struggle between paddlewheel and screw. The first screw-driven iron steamer to cross the Atlantic was I.K. Brunel’s Great Britain in 1845, but she still carried a full sail rig. So did what was then the world’s biggest ship, Brunel’s 27,400-ton Great Eastern (1858). Driven by side paddles and a stern screw, Great eastern also carried six masts.

During these years of mounting competition, sail clippers like the lovely Cutty Sark reached their peak of excellence. But they could only sail faster than steamships with the right wind. By the 1880s, steamers offered ont only much bigger cargoes than the slim clippers could carry, but far more regularity of service in all weathers. Clippers were simply unable to compete.