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Almost as soon as the steam engine was invented there were attempts to use it as motive power to drive ships. In the early 1700's the Frenchman, Denis Papin, was the first to try to put a steam engine into a ship. His idea was to use the steam to drive a paddle wheel. Papin was defeated by the design problem of turning the to and fro motion of the piston into the circular motion needed for the paddle. Added to this was the fact that the boilers could not produce enough pressure to provide sufficient power.

In Britain, Thomas Newcomen worked on the same problem, but he came up against the same difficulties as Papin. Newcomen did find a way to produce rotary motion, but his steam engine was too large and bulky to fit into a ship.

The first ship to be powered by steam was the Pyroscaphe which was built by the Marquis de Jouffroy d'Abbans in 1783.  It ran on the River Soane but it proved to be unreliable. The Marquis never developed the idea any further.

The Charlotte Dundas

The first successful steamship was the Charlotte Dundas which was built in 1802 by William Symington. This ship was used as a tug boat on the Forth-Clyde canal. An American, Robert Fulton, was present on one of her sailings and he saw the potential for further development. In 1803 Fulton demonstrated a steam driven boat on the River Seine. Later, in 1807, he developed a bigger paddle steamer, driven by a Boulton and Watt engine, which he shipped to America. This steamer was capable of long-distance river travel and was so successful that a much larger ship was built using the same design. In Britain, a Scottish engineer, Henry Bell, designed a small steamship called the Comet which he ran on the River Clyde in 1812.


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© Shirley Burchill, Nigel Hughes, Richard Gale, Peter Price and Keith Woodall 2016

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