Skip to main content
Select Source:

Steamships

Steamships. In his classic study, Sea Power in the Machine Age, Bernard Brodie observed that navies were relatively late in utilization of the technological advances of the machine age. Progress in steampower development was followed closely by the various admiralties—Great Britain, France, and the United States being most active. During the nineteenth century, the steam warship was by far the most important of the great naval revolutions, the most significant such innovation in warships since the fifteenth century. Steampower completely revised naval tactics and strategy; now ships could go anywhere, any time. During a transition period at midcentury, the largest warships retained masts and sails while adding steampower and either paddle wheels or screw propellers. Actually, the transition from the warfare of sailing ships to modern naval warfare involved multiple technological developments: steam propulsion, iron (later, steel) construction, armor plate, replacement of paddle wheels with screw propellers, advances in naval ordnance such as the shell gun and rifling, the development of torpedoes and mines, and even some experimentation with the ram. Former reliance on wind and weather for the sailing ships was superseded by dependence on fuel sources—first the burning of wood, then coal, and finally oil. Logistical supplies of these sources became decisive factors. Naval steampower used on a global basis made overseas bases essential.

The earliest steam‐powered engines, initially developed in Great Britain through the collaboration of James Watt and Matthew Bolton in the late eighteenth century, were crude, inefficient, and bulky. They were initially used to pump water to facilitate mining at deeper levels. Installation of increasingly efficient engines in vehicles for water transport took place in Great Britain, France, and the United States in the early nineteenth century. Key contributions were made by James Rumsey, John Fitch, Robert Fulton—all Americans—and a Swedish immigrant to America, John Ericsson. For the steam engine, reciprocation into rotary motion, compound pressurization, and separation of the condenser as a detached unit contributed to efficiency, portability, and use at sea.

Fulton's “North River Steamboat,” erroneously dubbed Clermont, was the first unqualified commercial success, operating on the Hudson River from New York to Albany beginning in 1807. Fulton also designed the first steam‐powered warship, “Fulton Steam Frigate,” to be used for harbor defense and as a blockade runner during the War of 1812. Fulton died in early 1815, and the steam warship was completed too late for use during the war. Its paddle wheel arrangement was centered amidships, a less vulnerable location. Fulton I, as it was later named, was diverted for use as a receiving ship in New York Harbor, where it accidentally blew up in 1829.

In the continuous naval competition between the British and French, invasion panics arose in Great Britain in the early 1840s when the French announced advances in steam warship design. In 1845, the British Admiralty sponsored a demonstration to determine which was superior, the paddle wheel or screw propeller; the latter clearly won. Steam warships proved their effectiveness and capability irrespective of wind and weather when used by the British and French during the Russian (Crimean) War, 1854–56. The French Gloire of 1859 was the first seagoing armored warship, built of wood with a covering of iron plate. The following year, the British response, HMS Warrior, contained an iron hull. Metal hulls facilitated larger size. In the next decade, the British entry, HMS Devastation, contained turrets and no sails. (HMS Warrior has been restored. Along with the ultimate sailing ship‐of‐the‐line, HMS Victory, Lord Nelson's flagship of 1805, it is on display at Portsmouth, England.)

For the U.S. Navy, the transition from the first steam warship to the modern battle fleet occurred between the 1840s and 1880s, led by Benjamin Franklin Isherwood, engineer‐in‐chief. The USS Princeton, designed and built by Ericsson, qualified as the first steam‐powered, screw propeller warship, but a fatal gun accident in 1844 caused delays in its development. The expedition of Adm. Matthew Perry to Japan in 1854 included steam warships. Meantime, the American gun developed by John Dahlgren in 1856 proved temporarily superior. More important, Ericsson designed and built the USS Monitor just in time to participate in the famous Battle of Hampton Roads, Virginia, in March 1862, against the Confederate navy's Virginia (formerly USS Merrimac), a converted ironclad steam vessel. Monitor contained the first turret gun arrangement. The battle was a draw but nevertheless revolutionized naval warfare. Monitor was unstable and later sank off North Carolina. The USS Michigan was the first iron‐hulled, paddle wheel steamship of the U.S. Navy, in service for eighty years. Another advance was Isherwood's USS Wampanoag, completed in the late 1860s, a steam and sail cruiser capable of 18 knots speed.

Further advances in steampower, metal boilers, ex pansion systems utilizing high pressures, reduction gears, and more efficient propeller designs followed. By the 1880s, the navy had converted entirely to steampower and the age of sail was over. Steam remains the basis of propulsion for sea transportation, generated today by petroleum or nuclear fuel.

Bibliography

Bernard Brodie , Sea Power in the Machine Age, 1941; 1969.
Edward W. Sloan , Benjamin Franklin Isherwood, Naval Engineer, 1965; 1980.
K. T. Rowland , Steam at Sea, 1970.
Wallace Hutcheon, Jr. , Robert Fulton, 1981.
Andrew Lambert, ed., Steam, Steel and Shellfire: The Steam Warship, 1815–1905, 1993.

Eugene L. Rasor

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Steamships." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Steamships." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/steamships

"Steamships." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved June 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/steamships

steamship

steamship, watercraft propelled by a steam engine or a steam turbine.

Early Steam-powered Ships

Marquis Claude de Jouffroy d'Abbans is generally credited with the first experimentally successful application of steam power to navigation; in 1783 his Pyroscaphe ran against the current of the Saone River for 15 min, although the boiler could not generate enough steam for extended operations. In 1787 a steamboat built by James Rumsey of Maryland was demonstrated on the Potomac River; propelled by a stream of water forced out of the stern by steam pressure, the vessel attained a speed of 4 mi (6.4 km) per hr. Rumsey received a grant to navigate the waters of New York, Maryland, and Virginia. In 1790, John Fitch, who had previously built several successful steamboats, one of which operated in 1787, built a vessel capable of 8 mi (12.9 km) per hr which plied the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Burlington, N.J. Other early American steamboat inventors were Samuel Morey, Nathan Read, and John Stevens. In 1807, Robert Fulton launched the Clermont, 150 ft (46 m) long and powered by a Boulton and Watt steam engine. It ran from New York City to Albany (150 mi/241 km) in 32 hr and made the return trip in 30 hr. On the other side of the Atlantic, the Scotsman Henry Bell launched the Comet in 1812.

Oceangoing Steamships

The first ocean crossing by a steam-propelled vessel was in 1819, when the Savannah voyaged from Savannah, Ga., to Liverpool in 29 days, 11 hr. It was a full-rigged sailing ship fitted with engines and side paddlewheels; during the crossing the engines were in use for about 85 hr. The first crossing under steam power alone was made in 1838, when two British steamship companies sent rival ships to New York within a few days of each other; the Great Western made the trip in 15 days, arriving a few hours after the Sirius, which had left England 4 days before her. The first seagoing vessel to be fitted with a screw propeller was the Archimedes (1840); the Great Britain (1845) was the first large iron steamship driven by a screw propeller to cross the Atlantic. By the late 1850s the screw propeller was conceded to be superior to paddlewheels, and the steamship began to supplant the sailing ship. In 1881 the Servia, a merchant steamer capable of crossing the Atlantic in 7 days, was the first vessel to be constructed of steel. Seven years later the Philadelphia, the first twin-screw steamship, was built at Glasgow.

Era of the Ocean Liners

Great liners propelled by engines of 28,000 or more horsepower began plying the Atlantic on regular schedules in the late 1800s. During the 1880s Sir Charles A. Parsons and C. G. P. de Laval developed the steam turbine, and the Turbinia, the first vessel to be driven by a turbine, was first seen in 1897. Within 10 years several turbine-driven liners were in the Atlantic service. Although multiple cylinders were added to reciprocating engines to take full advantage of the steam's expansion, within a decade the steam turbine virtually eliminated the older reciprocating steam engine on major vessels; the great transatlantic liners, such as the Queen Mary (launched 1934), the Queen Elizabeth (1938), and the United States (1951), were all turbine-powered. In 1955 the first nuclear-powered ship, in which the heat generated by nuclear fission is used to create the necessary steam, was launched. Nuclear-powered commercial vessels like the Savannah (launched in 1958 but since laid up) proved to be uneconomical because of the high cost of nuclear-power systems and environmental concerns; however, most large naval vessels are powered by nuclear steam plants.

The Demise of the Steamship

Despite such innovations as turbo-electric drive, which converts steam energy into rotational power for turning the propeller shafts, commercial steamships have today given way to diesel-powered ships, which constitute 95% of new ship construction. Diesel engines provide a fuel efficiency of more than 50%, with a reliability at least equal to steam turbines. The Queen Elizabeth 2 (1969) was originally steam-powered, but it later was refitted with turbocharged diesel engines, which supply electric power to the propeller motors. The ocean liner has been replaced by the airplane as a means of transportation; its successor at sea is the cruise ship, which travels more slowly and functions as a vacation resort afloat rather than as scheduled transportation.

Bibliography

See J. T. Flexner, Steamboats Come True (1944); J. H. Morrison, History of American Steam Navigation (1977); F. Talbot, Steamship Conquest of the World, 1812–1912 (1977); S. Fox, Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamship (2003).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"steamship." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"steamship." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/steamship

"steamship." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved June 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/steamship

steamer

steam·er / ˈstēmər/ • n. 1. a ship or boat powered by steam. ∎  inf. a steam locomotive. 2. a type of saucepan in which food can be steamed. ∎  a device used to direct a jet of hot steam onto a garment in order to remove creases. 3. (in full steamer clam) another term for soft-shell clam. 4. inf. a wetsuit.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"steamer." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"steamer." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/steamer-0

"steamer." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved June 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/steamer-0

steamship

steam·ship / ˈstēmˌship/ • n. a ship that is propelled by a steam engine.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"steamship." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"steamship." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/steamship

"steamship." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved June 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/steamship

steamer

steamerbeamer, blasphemer, Colima, creamer, dreamer, emphysema, femur, Iwo Jima, Kagoshima, lemur, Lima, oedema (US edema), ottava rima, Pima, reamer, redeemer, schema, schemer, screamer, seamer, Selima, steamer, streamer, terza rima, Tsushima •daydreamer •dimmer, glimmer, limber, limner, shimmer, simmer, skimmer, slimmer, strimmer, swimmer, trimmer, zimmer •enigma, sigma, stigma •Wilma, Wilmer •charisma • Gordimer • polymer •ulema • anima • enema •cinema, minima •maxima • Bessemer • eczema •dulcimer • Hiroshima •Fatima, Latimer •optima • Mortimer • anathema •climber, Jemima, mimer, old-timer, part-timer, primer, rhymer, timer •Oppenheimer • two-timer •bomber, comma, momma, prommer •dogma • dolma

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"steamer." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"steamer." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/steamer

"steamer." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved June 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/steamer