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TWO CENTURIES OF REVOLTIONARY CHANGE
The Industrial Revolution
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.
The success of the Charlotte Dundas and the Comet showed that steam power was possible on water. This started a general drive towards the production of steam powered river boats. By 1818 steam powered, sea-going ships were being developed. In 1820 a steamship called the James Watt was launched. At 43 metres long, this was the biggest steamship of the time. She was powered by two Boulton and Watt engines, each driving a paddle wheel. Paddle wheels were the principal method used for power transmission. It was much later that the screw, or propeller, was developed.
In 1822 the Aaron Manby was the first iron ship to be steam powered. She ran between Britain and France at first, but was later used as a pleasure cruiser on the Seine.
All these developments ultimately led to the idea of building a ship large enough to cross the Atlantic under steam. The Savannah had made the crossing in 1819, but the journey had been made largely under sail. It was Isambard Kingdom Brunel who designed and built the first successful steam powered ship capable of an Atlantic crossing. His ship, the Great Western, was a paddle-driven steamship. It was built in Bristol, launched in 1837 and crossed the Atlantic in 1845.
In an attempt to be the first to cross the Atlantic under steam power, an American, Julius Smith, chartered a ship, the Sirius, to race across the Atlantic against the Great Western. However, the Sirius had not been designed to make the Atlantic crossing. Every available space on board was filled with coal. This meant that she could only carry forty passengers. The Sirius left from Cork in Ireland and took 18 days to reach New York. She had used up all the coal she was carrying, as well as much of her wooden superstructure. The Great Western had left Bristol four days later but arrived in New York after only 15 days at sea, and just a few hours after the Sirius. She still had over two hundred tons of coal in her bunkers.
A Model of the Great Western
Maritime technology improved rapidly. Brunel launched a much bigger ship, the Great Eastern, which was powered with a screw propeller as well as paddles. However, this second ship proved to be under-powered.. In 1854 John Elder invented the compound steam engine. He followed this by the triple expansion engine (1981) and the quadruple expansion engine (1894). His inventions meant that one tonne of coal was now doing as much work as three tonnes had done in 1845.
Great Eastern at Hearts Content in July 1866: Photo by Robert Edward Holloway
The development of sea-going steamships in the 18th and 19th centuries led to the rapid expansion of the British Industrial Revolution. Britain became known as the 'workshop of the world'. British products were carried all over the Empire. Within 50 years the cost of carrying goods by ship had fallen by over seventy percent.
A model of the SS Great Britain 1843
Once the Atlantic had been crossed using steam power the potential for long distance travel at an economic price was developed. In the latter half of the 19th century, many emigrants travelled from Britain to other parts of the empire, such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Many European emigrants left for the New World.