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When the sailing ship became a viable means of long-distance transport by about 1450, shipbuilding assumed real economic and strategic importance. By developing technical innovations, shipbuilders enhanced the efficiency of water transport, and thus supported the growth of world trade. Moreover, they came to occupy a central place within commercial webs that fostered trading; builders forged links with input suppliers, merchants, ship owners, and insurance providers. Governments came to see shipbuilding as a strategic industry, not only because trade and overseas possessions had to be protected by navies, but also because an efficient merchant fleet enabled nations to import vital materials and pay their way in the world by exporting goods.

Indeed, a ship is essentially a vessel, or a self-propelled container. The builder's task is to construct a ship that represents a suitable compromise between speed, seaworthiness, and carrying capacity. For example, a sleek hull will increase speed, but it will afford less stability and cargo space. The builder must also take into account the depth of the harbors served and the types of goods the ship will convey. Thus, the shipbuilder balances engineering principles with variables affecting economic performance.


A revolution in European ship design occurred after 1450 (hitherto, Chinese ships were larger and technically superior) as shipbuilders moved from constructing simple ships to three-masted types with hulls of up to 300 feet in length. Portugal produced the caravel, a lanteen-rigged ship with a triangular sail, used on voyages of discovery. Square-rigged types built at this time included the car-rack, an early version of the Spanish galleon. Dutch builders developed the efficient fluit. All of these vessels had blunt bows and broad beams, which made them stable and slow but afforded large carrying capacity.

Shipbuilding was a labor-intensive assembly operation carried out on a seasonal basis. Different types of wood were used for specific parts of the ship. Oak was used in areas where strength was vital, and softwoods were used for decks and masts. Water tightness was achieved by caulking, that is, pounding fabric soaked in pitch into spaces between planks. Sails were made from linen and, later, canvas, and ropes were woven from hemp. Iron was used only for components such as anchors.

During the 1500s methods of ship design changed under England's Tudor monarchs, who adopted an expansive maritime policy. Master shipwrights who used plans based on empirical principles replaced the carpenter of earlier times, who built ships "by eye," These men codified vital shipbuilding knowledge; for example, a later English shipwright, Sir Anthony Deane (1638– 1721), wrote a classic study titled The Doctrine of Naval Architecture (1690). In 1741 France founded the School of Naval Construction, which provided a high standard of education.

During the seventeenth century France, Britain, Holland, Spain, and Baltic ports were major shipbuilding centers. The government naval dockyards founded by the English and French monarchs became large facilities employing hundreds of men. Merchant ship owners established yards in the many English and French ports. Bristol and London constructed what were, until the 1850s, the world's biggest ships—the 1,200- to 1,400-ton East Indiamen.

In the eighteenth century Britain's North American colonies produced large quantities of tonnage. The expanding coastal trades called for more maneuverable ships, and New England developed schooners and other specialized types such as whaling ships. After the American Revolution, the United States modified the French lugger to create the fast-sailing packet that metamorphosed into the clipper ship. Three Americans, William Webb (1816–1899), John Griffith (1809–1882), and Donald McKay (1818–1880), were famous clipper builders.

In the early nineteenth century Britain, its North American colonies, and the United States were the chief shipbuilding areas. Britain focused on large, high-quality vessels made from hardwoods, whereas yards in the northeast United States and British North America constructed less durable ships of softwoods. While Britain pursued protectionist trade policies, its colonial shipbuilders enjoyed important competitive advantages. In Nova Scotia and New Brunswick shipbuilding became a specialized occupation, rather than one conducted by merchant ship owners who had diversified businesses. Independent colonial builders formed networks with local suppliers and imported manufactured inputs from Britain. Colonial yards included some specialized facilities, including sail lofts, saw pits, forges, and joiner's shops, but they carried on a "protoindustrial" activity that involved little mechanization in comparison with the yards that soon produced steam vessels made from iron and steel.


By 1890 the steel ship powered by a triple-cylinder engine triumphed over the sailing ship as the most efficient ocean carrier. The United Kingdom emerged as the world's foremost shipbuilder as the result of a conjunction of favorable supply and demand conditions. On the supply side, its advantages stemmed from its lead in coal, engineering, and metal production, which provided cheap inputs and the means for shipbuilding to industrialize. Production was still labor intensive (and wages were low), but machinery was used extensively to increase efficiency. Steam-powered equipment bent plates, punched holes, and sheared metal, and ever-larger cranes lifted heavy components. Highly sophisticated machinery was used in engine works that were usually included within shipbuilding yards. Economies of specialization arose from the rise of dedicated component makers within the main shipbuilding regions. All of these developments enabled U.K. builders to become the most efficient in the world.

On the demand side, tariff repeal, an expanding empire, and industrialization called for vast amounts of new tonnage. Britain's emergence as the center of global trade and finance fostered the growth of extensive networks that provided information and capital to its maritime industries. Between 1870 and 1914 the value of the United Kingdom's trade grew by 150 percent and its fleet doubled to 11.7 million grt (gross register tons). This rapidly growing market enabled companies and entire regions to specialize and generate further efficiency. Firms on the Clyde and in Northern Ireland focused on passenger liners and warships, whereas yards in the northeast concentrated on tramps and cargo liners.

In 1913 U.K. yards produced 58 percent of world output. Germany ranked next, accounting for 14 percent; it built very large vessels and developed the revolutionary diesel engine in 1914. The United States lost the comparative advantage it enjoyed during the heyday of sail, and henceforth its marine industries were reliant on government aid. In 1913 U.S. yards constructed just over 8 percent of world production. Holland, France, Japan, Norway, and Italy were minor producers. Strategic and economic concerns impelled most of these countries to subsidize their marine industries to maintain them in the face of the United Kingdom's formidable comparative and competitive advantages.

The interwar years were a troubled time for global shipbuilding. Trade shrank, and a vast amount of tonnage built during World War I overhung the market for years. The United Kingdom remained the world's biggest producer, but Norway, Holland, and especially Japan made important gains. This period saw the wider application of diesel propulsion, the spread of welding, and the beginnings of prefabrication. During World War II an American shipbuilder, Henry Kaiser (1882–1967), demonstrated the efficiency that could be won by standardization and mass-production techniques.


After 1945, international trade increased at an unprecedented rate, causing the world's fleet to double in size to over 160 million grt by 1965. Such growth supported the introduction of new specialized ships, including car carriers, container vessels, and bulk carriers. The size of ships increased dramatically, beginning with tankers during the Suez Crisis of 1956.

A major shift in the location of shipbuilding unfolded after 1945. U.K. output recovered to 57 percent of world production in 1947, then fell to 8.2 percent in 1967, and virtually collapsed in the 1980s. The reasons for this phenomenon have been debated; labor conflict, spiraling costs, underinvestment in new technology, and the erosion of supporting commercial networks all played some part. After being a major source of tonnage during the war, the commercial shipbuilding industry of the United States also declined, although warship construction remained strong. Germany, Spain, and Norway gained market shares but remained small producers. With government assistance, yards in the Soviet bloc launched large quantities of tonnage. Sweden became the world's second-largest producer in the 1970s. However, it was the Japanese industry that made the most breathtaking progress, surpassing Britain in 1956 and accounting for 47.5 percent of world output in 1967. A rapidly expanding national fleet, highly productive low-cost labor, improved construction methods, and state policy supported this growth. Japan's expanding conglomerates (keiretsu) offered financial and commercial support to shipbuilders.

In 2001 Japan was the still the world's largest shipbuilder, with a market share of 33 percent. Korea ranked number two with 30 percent, followed by Europe at 13 percent, and China with 10 percent. One year later, Korea displaced Japan by securing a 45 percent share, and China's two main state-controlled yards made gains. Korean shipbuilding has benefited from having close connections with Daewoo, Samsung, and Hyundai conglomerates, and from massive state support. Such government aid has attracted complaints to the World Trade Organization from European producers.

China, Korea, and Japan produce relatively unsophisticated ships, including bulk carriers and tankers, although all are moving into higher-value sectors; Japan is now building cruise liners, and Korea has secured a large percentage of recent liquefied natural gas (LNG) carrier orders. These developments threaten European yards, which focus on the most advanced types, including ferries, cruise ships, drilling rigs, specialized tankers, and container carriers. As this occurs, the pressure on French and German firms to merge and rationalize within the European Union framework will intensify. Norway's Aker Group is the largest and most stable European producer; the Swedish industry collapsed in the 1980s, and firms in Bulgaria and Poland have filed for bankruptcy. These trends suggest that future production will be even more highly concentrated in Asia, especially as China increases its trade. Tensions will increase between countries that follow market-based policies and those where state involvement is extensive, confirming the continued economic and strategic importance of the shipbuilding industry.

SEE ALSO Canada; Cargoes, Freight; Cargoes, Passenger; Containerization; Germany; Gujarat;Hanseatic League (Hansa or Hanse);Hong Kong; India;Indian Ocean; Japan; Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry (METI); Korea;Mediterranean;Mitsubishi;Petroleum;Shipping, Aids to;Shipping, Coastal;Shipping, Inland Waterways, Europe;Shipping, Inland Waterways, North America;Shipping Lanes;Shipping, Merchant;Shipping, Technological Change;Ships and Shipping;Ship Types;South China Sea;Russia;Sweden;Taiwan;Tung Chee-Hwa;United Kingdom;United States.


Boyce, Gordon H. Information, Mediation, and Institutional Development: The Rise of Large-scale Enterprise in British Shipping, 1870–1919. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1995.

Childa, Tomokei, and Davies, Peter N. The Japanese Shipping and Shipbuilding Industries: A History of their Modern Growth. London: Athlone Press, 1990.

Gibson, Andrew, and Donovan, Arthur. The Abandoned Ocean: A History of United States Maritime Policy. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.

Hass, J. M. A Management Odyssey: The Royal Dockyards, 1714–1914. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000.

Japan Ship Exporters' Association. Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering in Japan. Tokyo: Author, 1980, 1990, and 1999.

Lobley, Douglas. Ships through the Ages. New York: Octopus Books, 1972.

Moss, Michael, and Hume, John. Shipbuilders to the World: 125 Years of Harland and Wolff, Belfast, 1861–1986. Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1986.

Pollard, Sydney, and Robertson, Paul. The British Shipbuilding Industry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Sager, Eric W., and Panting, Gerald E. Maritime Capital: The Shipping Industry of Atlantic Canada, 1820–1914. Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990.

Gordon Boyce


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The Industry . While the steamboat was the most dramatic maritime innovation of the period, most commerce continued to be carried by sailing ships. Americans had become the worlds best builders of boats and ships, and the rise of British maritime power was made possible by American shipwrights, who had delivered to England an average of fifty ships each year before the Revolution. In 1769 shipyards in the American colonies, mainly in New England, but also in New York and the Chesapeake, produced 389 vessels. After the war, with British markets for American ships shut off and merchants excluded from English ports, the industry declined. In 1789 the new U.S. government put a higher tariff on ships built or owned by foreigners which entered American ports, hoping to stimulate the shipbuilding industry. It succeeded, with the total tonnage of American-built ships owned by Americans more than doubling by 1790, from 123, 000 tons to 364, 000 tons. Because laws also forbade foreigners to buy American-built ships, more of these ships were owned by Americans, greatly increasing the United States share of the worlds carrying trade.

American Advantages . Americans had several advantages in building ships, most notably in their access to good timber. Shipyards tended to follow the forests, moving up the coast of Maine in the 1790s. Boston and New York shipbuilders invested in canals to help bring timber to their shipyards. Even with the forests closest to New York and Boston depleted, the country still had vast timber reserves, making the cost of construction much lower. An American ship, built of New England oak, would cost twenty-four dollars per ton; a similar ship built of fir along the Baltic coast would cost thirty-five dollars per ton. An American vessel made of more expensive live oak and cedar would cost thirty-six dollars to thirty-eight dollars per ton, while a similar vessel made of oak in England, France, or Holland would cost fifty-five dollars to sixty dollars per ton.


The resurgence of foreign trade after the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 allowed for the American ship industry to reestablish itself. Shipping became one of the most significant parts of the American economy. From 1790 to 1807 American shippers more than doubled their carrying capacity. In 1790 American ships carried 40.5 percent of the value of goods carried in the nations foreign trade; by 1807 they were carrying 92 percent. Shipbuilding naturally became a vibrant part of the American economy, helped by abundant timber and naval stores and a skilled workforce. Tenche Coxe described these advantages in 1794:

Ship-building is an art for which the United States are peculiarly qualified by their skill in the construction, and by the materials, with which this country abounds: and they are strongly tempted to pursue it by their commercial spirit, by the capital fisheries in their bays and on their coasts, and by the productions of a great and rapidly increasing agriculture. They build their oak vessels on lower terms than the cheapest European vessels of fir, pine, and larch. The cost of an oak ship in New England is about twenty-four Mexican dollars per ton fitted for sea: a fir vessel costs in the ports of the Baltic, thirty-five Mexican dollars: and the American ship will be much the most durable. The cost of a vessel of the American live-oak and cedar, which will last (if salted in her timbers) thirty years, is only thirty-six to thirty-eight dollars in our different ports; and an oak ship in the cheapest part of England, Holland, or France, fitted in the same manner will cost 55 to 60 dollars. In such a country, the fisheries and commerce, with due care and attention on the part of government, must be profitable.

Source: Tenche Coxe, A View of the United States of America (Philadelphia: William Hall, Wrigley & Berriman, 1794), pp. 99100,

Live Oak . More important than the quantity of timber was its quality. The live oak found in Georgia and South Carolina will not rot quickly. Under normal use a ship with a live-oak frame would last thirty years, three times as long as a ship made of inferior wood. Live oak is also somewhat denser than regular oak or other kinds of wood, making the ship much stronger. In fact, the U.S.

frigate Constitution, built in Boston in 1797, has such a strong frame that British cannonballs bounced off her hull in 1812, earning the ship the nickname Old Ironsides. Merchant ships made of live oak would not be expected to repel cannonballs but would resist rot and other enemies of wooden ships such as the teredo worm. In 1797 Congress appropriated $200, 000 to preserve groves of live oak in the nation.

Wages and Exports . Another advantage to American shipbuilding was a well-trained labor force. International trade became so important to businesses that sailors wages rose from eight dollars per month in the 1790s to thirty dollars a month by 1815, and the demand for good ships expanded so much that buyers would pay cash in advance to shipbuilders, who thus were able to pay their workers in hard currency. Shipwrights would earn about a dollar a day, more than farm laborers, and about the same wage as sailors or skilled carpenters. With the value of American exports growing from $23 million in 1790 to $52 million in 1815, good ships were in great demand. While shipbuilders did not become wealthy, they did earn good livings: in 1815 one New York shipbuilder earned $30, 000. American shipbuilders earned a reputation for producing the worlds best ships in this period.

Speed and Size. In addition to needing more ships, American businesses needed faster ones. Remarkable as the steamboat was, sailing technology made astonishing advances in this period. Merchants sought two different qualities in a ship: speed and size. The two could not be easily reconciled; a large ship which could carry bulky cargo could not sail as fast as a narrow ship which could quickly cut through the water. Boston shipbuilder John Peck experimented with long, narrow ships, which could both carry large cargoes and sail quickly. Elias Derby built a ship which sailed from Salem to Ireland in just eleven days; another of Derbys ships sailed to France and back in five weeks, the time it took some sailing ships to make one crossing. Massachusetts builders favored smaller vessels. In 1795 E. H. Derbys second Grand Turk, built at his Salem shipyard, had to be sold in New York because it was too large for Salems harbor and for Derbys preferred method of trade. New York merchants preferred larger ships while New England merchants favored smaller, faster ones. With this greater speed, American ships were able to make two, three, or four trading voyages each year, while English ships typically made only one trip each year.

Algiers . The high quality of materials and the skills of the labor force made American ships the envy of the world. The Dey of Algiers in 1795 asked the American consul to send him some American shipbuilders. Send them poor, he told the consul, and they would return home rich. After making a treaty with the United States, the Dey contracted to have two merchant vessels built for his commercial fleet. The United States also built a frigate, the Crescent, as a special gift for the Dey. When this small fleet arrived in Algiers in 1798, it impressed all with the skills of American builders. No one, the American consul reported, had ever seen such beautiful ships, and the Dey, who had been threatening to attack American merchant ships, became convinced that the United States would be a dangerous enemy.

Freedom of the Seas . The U.S. merchants did a tremendous business during the wars between England and France (17931815). The United States followed a policy of neutrality and argued that neutral ships should be allowed to trade freely on the worlds seas. U.S. merchants grew wealthy at the expense of England and France while they supplied each side with American grain and took up much of the carrying trade merchants from those nations had formerly enjoyed. The French were first to object to this, and in 1797 they began capturing American merchant ships in the West Indies and Europe. The Adams administration responded with the use of the new navy, begun in 1793 to fight Algiers. In a series of naval battles the United States defeated the French all but once. In 1800 the two sides agreed to peace. One year later Tripoli announced that it would begin seizing American merchant vessels. The United States responded by sending its navy to blockade and bombard Tripoli. Arguing again for freedom of the seas, the United States declared war on England in 1812, and while the war at home went very badly, with the city of Washington burned and coastal New England blockaded, the navy, on the ocean and the Great Lakes, proved superior to the British. American sailors, trained in the merchant fleets, and shipbuilders, challenged to build sturdy, fast-sailing ships, defeated the British in many naval engagements. Free international commerce was vital to the survival of the American nation; the U.S. government would go to war to protect this principle. Thanks to the tremendous skill of American shipbuilders and sailors, the United States was able to maintain this principle. The frigate U.S.S. Constitution, completed in October 1797, remains in commission to this day, demonstrating the technological skill of American shipbuilders.


Samuel Eliot Morison, The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 17831860 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961);

Curtis P. Nettels, The Emergence of a National Economy, 17751815 (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1962).


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SHIPBUILDING. Shipbuilding in the United States began out of necessity, flourished as maritime trade expanded, declined when industrialization attracted its investors, then revived in World War II. Shipyards grew from barren eighteenth-century establishments with a few workers using hand tools even for "large" ships (200 tons) to huge twentieth-century organizations where thousands of employees use ever-changing technology to build aircraft carriers of 70,000 tons. Today the United States no longer leads the world in ship production, but it is still a major force in marine technology and engineering.

American shipbuilding began when Spanish sailors constructed replacements for ships wrecked on the North Carolina coast in the 1520s. Other Europeans launched small vessels for exploration and trade. In the 1640s the trading ventures of Massachusetts built vessels that established New England as a shipbuilding region. By the 1720s, however, New England shipyards faced competition from Pennsylvania and later from other colonies with growing merchant communities, such as Virginia, where slave labor boosted production.

The typical eighteenth-century urban shipyard was a small waterfront lot with few if any permanent structures. Rural yards, where land was cheap and theft less of a problem, often had covered sawpits, storage sheds, and wharfs. The labor force consisted of about half a dozen men, sawyers and shipbuilders as well as apprentices, servants, or slaves. Work was sporadic, and accidents, sometimes fatal, were common. Yet from such facilities came 40 percent of Great Britain's oceangoing tonnage on the eve of the Revolution. After Independence, shipbuilding stagnated until European wars in the 1790s enabled American shipyards to launch neutral vessels for their countrymen and merchant ships or privateers for French and British buyers.

During the Golden Age of American shipbuilding, from the mid-1790s through the mid-1850s, shipping reached its highest proportional levels, the navy expanded, and the clipper ship became a symbol of national pride. New technology entered the shipyard: the steam engine supplied supplementary power for some sailing vessels and the sole power for others; iron first reinforced and then replaced some wooden hulls. Many shipowners, attracted to the promised economy of size, ordered larger ships that required more labor, raw materials, and technology. Meanwhile, a transportation revolution compelled coastal vessels to connect with and compete with canal

barges, inland river trade, and railroads. At this time, many New England merchants turned to manufacturing for higher and steadier returns.

By the late 1850s, the glory days had begun to fade. Maine and Massachusetts shipyards launched more tonnage than anyone else, but they did not construct steam-ships, while builders outside New England recognized that the future belonged to steam, not sail. The Civil War promoted naval construction, with both sides making remarkable innovations, but the war devastated commercial shipbuilding. Confederate raids on Union ships convinced some Yankee merchants to sell their ships to foreign owners. By 1865, American tonnage in foreign trade was half that of the late 1850s; at the end of the decade it was down to a third.

In 1880, Pennsylvania shipyards launched almost half of what the top ten states constructed. Iron, not steam, now represented the future; most shipyards could not afford the transition from wood to iron. Massachusetts build-ers held on by mass-producing small boats for offshore fishing schooners. Capital investments per yard many times greater than those of other states allowed Pennsylvania and Delaware yards to succeed. With yards in six of the ten states producing at a rate of less than two vessels per year, many establishments did not survive the introduction of iron.

Two successful shipyards of the period, William Cramp and Sons in Philadelphia and Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company of Virginia, embraced the new technology and benefited from the naval modernization program of the 1890s. Naval contracts proved vital to these builders' success, and the strength of the navy depended upon such shipyards.

When the United States entered World War I, it undertook an unprecedented shipbuilding program. After the war, builders watched maritime trade decline through

the 1920s as the coastal trade gave way to trains and trucks and quotas restricted the once profitable immigrant trade. The Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company survived by performing non-maritime work such as building traffic lights. Relief did not come until the 1930s, when the U.S. government began ordering aircraft carriers to serve the dual purpose of strengthening the navy and providing jobs for the unemployed.

At the outbreak of World War II, Great Britain asked the United States to mass-produce an outdated English freighter design that had many deficiencies but possessed the all-important virtue of simplicity. Thanks to new welding techniques and modular construction, the "Liberty" ship became the most copied vessel in history. More than 2,700 were built—many completed in less than two months, some in a few weeks. This remarkable feat, accomplished by a hastily trained workforce using parts produced across the nation, was directed by Henry Kaiser, who had never before built a vessel. American shipyards also produced 800 Victory ships (a faster, more economical freighter), more than 300 tankers, and hundreds of other warships. American shipbuilding, a key factor in the Allied victory, increased 1,000 percent by war's end, making the United States the world's undisputed maritime power.

Following World War II, America abandoned maritime interests and focused on highways, factories, and planes. During the 1950s, Japanese, European, and Latin American shipbuilders outperformed American shipyards, while American Atlantic passenger liners succumbed to passenger jets. A nuclear-powered freighter, Savannah, proved both a commercial and public relations failure. While Americans pioneered development of the very economical container ship, it was quickly adopted by foreign competitors. Despite technical advances, shipbuilding continued to decline in the face of waning public and private support.

Today, Japan, Korea, and China build over 90 percent of the world's commercial tonnage; the U.S. share is only 0.2 percent. Since 1992, U.S. shipyards have averaged fewer than nine new commercial ships per year of 1,000 tons or more. Submarines and aircraft carriers are still under construction, although in reduced numbers; guided-missile destroyers and support vessels are on the rise. Modern maritime technology requires significant resources and expertise. Unlike the colonial years, when every seaport, however small, had a few shipyards, today the nation has just half a dozen major shipyards in total. The United States still enjoys an abundance of materials, skilled labor, and engineering ingenuity. It requires only large-scale public and private support to reignite interest in this once flourishing industry.


Chapelle, Howard I. The National Watercraft Collection. Washington, D.C.: United States National Museum, 1960. 2d ed., Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976.

Goldenberg, Joseph A. Shipbuilding in Colonial America. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1976.

Hutchins, John G. B. The American Maritime Industries and Public Policy, 1789–1914. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1941.

Pedraja, René de la. The Rise and Decline of U.S. Merchant Shipping in the Twentieth Century. New York: Macmillan, 1992.


See alsoArmored Ships ; Clipper Ships ; Packets, Sailing ; Savannah ; Steamboats .


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In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries wooden sailing ships were built at various locations around the coast of Ireland, including Belfast Lough. Belfast's first significant shipbuilding firm was established in 1791 by William Ritchie, a shipbuilder from Saltcoats on the west coast of Scotland. After 1850, product and process innovation, with the development of iron and later steel steamships together with scale economies, led to larger establishments and firms and to regional concentration in the shipbuilding industry throughout the United Kingdom. By the late nineteenth century most U.K. merchant tonnage was launched on the River Clyde in Scotland, the northeast coast of England, and the River Lagan in Belfast. The industry in Belfast consisted of two firms: Harland and Wolff and Workman, Clark and Company. In the years from 1906 to1914 they produced 10 percent of the United Kingdom's output and 6 percent of the world's output.

Harland and Wolff was formed in 1861 by Edward Harland, an engineer and shipbuilder from the northeast of England, and Gustav Wolff, an English-trained engineer from Hamburg. The partnership acquired a small yard on Queen's Island, which Harland had started to manage for Robert Hickson in 1854 and then purchased four years later. The Belfast Harbour Commissioners played an important role in the creation of this yard and in the subsequent development of shipbuilding on the River Lagan. Workman, Clark, and Company was formed in 1880 by Frank Workman and George Clark. Both men had served as apprentices with Harland and Wolff. The new company's yards were located mainly on the northern shore of the Lagan.

As with other U.K. firms, close links with shipping-line customers allowed the Belfast firms to maintain a high level of output and hence capacity utilization and also to develop product specialization, thereby enabling them to sustain unit-cost advantages over competitors. Under the leadership of William Pirrie, Harland and Wolff was one of a small number of yards equipped to construct the largest vessels, including the luxury liners Olympic (1911), and Titanic (1912). Workman Clark specialized in medium-sized cargo boats and combined cargo and passenger vessels; the firm pioneered the development of the Parsons turbine engine and the construction of refrigerated meat- and fruit-carrying vessels.

Employment at Harland and Wolff increased from 500 in 1861 to 2,200 in 1871, and from 9,000 in 1900 to 14,000 in 1914. Altogether 20,000 were employed in shipbuilding in Belfast in 1914, and an all-time peak of nearly 30,000 held such jobs in 1919. Belfast did not have a large reserve of skilled labor. Skilled workers from Scotland and England were attracted and retained by offering them a premium on regional rates of pay: markets for skilled labor were interregional. These premiums did not apply to unskilled labor, which was in plentiful local supply. Because of their relative scarcity the skilled shipyard workers had considerable bargaining power and, as in Great Britain, were able to exercise a traditional right to select apprentices for their crafts. This informal labor market meant that recruitment frequently came from within the established local communities, often from within family groups. These employment practices continued into the twentieth century and help to explain the religious mix of the shipyard labor force. Serious sectarian incidents occurred in the shipyards in 1886, when there was a sharp downturn in shipbuilding output and employment, and in 1920, at the beginning of another major downturn for the Belfast yards. Each of these episodes took place at a time of heightened political tension over the national question: In 1886 and 1920 riots occurred during the first Home Rule crisis and as the Anglo-Irish War edged into the north, respectively.

In the 1920s and 1930s U.K. shipbuilders confronted the problems of slow growth in demand for shipping services, excess capacity, and increased foreign competition. Both Belfast firms experienced severe financial difficulties. Harland and Wolff responded by entering the market for oil tankers in the 1920s and diversified in 1936 by entering into partnership with Short Brothers to produce aircraft. Workman Clark did not survive the world depression that began in 1929 and launched its last ship in 1934.

The outbreak of World War II, like the previous world war, caused a boom in output; Harland and Wolff's contribution made the shipyard a target for German bombs in 1941. The long postwar boom saw an increase in demand for oil tankers and bulk carriers. Despite a decline in the U.K. shipbuilding industry's share of world output, tonnage launched by Harland and Wolff reached a historical high in the 1970s. However, the firm was in receipt of government financial support from 1966, and in 1975 the Northern Ireland government became the sole shareholder in the company.

In 1989 Harland and Wolff was returned to the private sector as Harland and Wolff Holdings after a management and employee buyout in partnership with companies associated with the Norwegian shipowner Fred Olsen. Following privatization, the company diversified its product mix to include not just oil tankers and bulk carriers but also offshore production vessels for the oil and gas industry. After further restructuring in the late 1990s the dominant shareholder in the twenty-first century is Fred Olsen Energy. Diversification continues: Recalling the glory days at the start of the twentieth century the company is developing a research and tourism area on Queen's Island called Titanic Quarter. However, its shipbuilding days may have come to an end with the launch on 17 January 2003 of Anvil Point, a roll-on, roll-off ferry built for service with the U.K. Ministry of Defence.

SEE ALSO Belfast; Industrialization; Industry since 1920; Transport—Road, Canal, Rail


Geary, F., and W. Johnson. "Shipbuilding in Belfast, 1861–1986." Irish Economic and Social History 16 (1989): 42–64.

Moss, Michael, and John R. Hume. Shipbuilders to the World: 125 Years of Harland and Wolff, Belfast, 1861–1986. 1986.

Frank Geary and Walford Johnson


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shipbuilding was a widely scattered industry before the 18th cent., ships normally varying between 50 and 100 tons. For four centuries the Thames and Medway were the principal shipbuilding rivers for large ships and the location of the main naval dockyards. Technical innovations threw the advantage to the Tyne, Wear and Tees, Mersey, and Clyde with relatively deep water, cheap coal and iron, and expertise in building marine engines.

The Clyde was a latecomer as a major shipbuilding river. The main hull-builders were downriver at Greenock and Port Glasgow. Deepening the river served both commerce and industry, for Glasgow's engine-builders came to dominate British shipbuilding. Labour costs in the new shipyards were lower than on the Thames, and technical innovations gave the Clyde major advantages. In 1813–14 this region produced only 4.5 per cent of the British tonnage, and this market share remained relatively constant until the 1840s. In the production of iron river steamers the Clyde falteringly led the way in the early 19th cent. but between 1840 and 1870 produced two-thirds of British steam tonnage. Early marine engines used fuel prodigally; Glasgow engineers solved this problem and also improved boilers and methods of construction and propulsion: the screw propeller replaced the paddle in the 1840s; compound engines were installed from 1853, dramatically cutting coal consumption; iron hulls increased the scale of shipping, reducing freight costs and encouraging the growth of international trade. Glasgow became the home base for many shipping lines, including Cunard, and their orders tended to go to Clyde yards.

Steam and iron eclipsed wood and sail in the 1850s. Steam tonnage, which in 1850 represented under 7 per cent of British output, accounted for 70 per cent by 1870. About 24,000 of 47,500 men working in shipbuilding in 1871 were resident in Scotland, all but a few employed in the Clyde yards. They produced at least one-third of British tonnage—mostly specialist vessels—every year from 1870 to 1914. The Wear initially challenged the Clyde, producing about one-third of Britain's merchant tonnage in the 1830s, but the north-east increasingly specialized in lower-cost tramp shipping. Belfast was essentially an extension of Clyde capacity, and by 1914 one firm, Harland and Wolff, dominated its shipbuilding just as Cammell Laird on the Mersey and Vickers-Armstrong at Barrow controlled regional output.

The integration of iron, steel, coal, and shipbuilding as major exporting industries explains why the economy which made shipbuilding regions prosperous before 1914 should be a source of economic weakness after 1920. The long decline of shipbuilding had a downward multiplier effect on these regional economies which became the depressed areas of inter-war Britain.

Demand for capital goods declined rapidly after 1920, but shipbuilding suffered most. World capacity had been grossly inflated during the First World War, but peacetime demand was reduced by the decline in world trade. In 1933 launchings from British yards fell to 7 per cent of the 1914 figure. Foreign orders for new ships were markedly reduced. Britain was slow to move into the production of motor vessels which were most in demand; foreign governments provided subsidies to retain orders within their own boundaries. In 1930 ‘National Shipbuilders' Security Limited’ was formed to reduce the number of shipyards and excess capacity. By 1937, 28 firms had been bought and closed, with a capacity of about 3,500,000 tons. The government in 1935 sponsored an ineffective ‘scrap and build’ scheme whereby owners were subsidized to scrap 2 tons of shipping for every new ton they ordered.

Rearmament and the Second World War revived shipbuilding, and after 1945 the world dollar shortage drove shipowners to order in Britain. World trade expanded and kept the boom going, but increasingly foreign yards benefited from this exceptional demand. The Clyde produced a third of British tonnage in the early 1950s (although demand was greatest for tankers and cargo ships); the Wear and Tees a quarter and the Tyne about one-sixth; Belfast, the Mersey, and Barrow nearly one-quarter. In 1956 Britain was third in export sales behind Germany and Japan; by 1977 she produced 4 per cent of world output (compared with 60 per cent in 1910–14), and British owners were ordering ships from overseas. Asia, with its low labour costs and modern equipment, became the most significant continent for ship production. The government responded by further rationalization under British Shipbuilders (1977), a public corporation. Technically backward, the industry was faced with closures and redundancies until the government returned firms to private ownership and a process of private investment in the 1980s. Shipbuilding survives but subject to intense foreign competition. See also merchant navy.

John Butt