Paddle steamers - -Switzerland
Paddle steamers - Lucerne-Switzerland
Left: original  from a paddle steamer on the lake of Lucerne. Right: detail of a steamer
Left: original paddlewheel from a paddle steamer on the lake of Lucerne. Right: detail of a steamer
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A steamboat or steamship, sometimes called a steamer, is a boat or vessel that is propelled by steam power driving a propeller or paddlewheel. The term steamboat is usually used to refer to smaller steam-powered boats working on lakes and rivers, particularly riverboats in the USA; steamship generally refers to steam powered ships capable of carrying a (ship's) boat. Nuclear powered ships and submarines use steam to drive turbines, but are not referred to as steamships or steamboats.

Screw driven steamships generally carry the ship prefix "SS" before their names, or "TS" where powered by a steam turbine. Paddle steamers have the prefix "PS". The term steamer is occasionally used, out of nostalgia, for diesel motor driven vessels, prefix "MV".



Early development

As happens often with inventions, development of the steam engine powered vessel involved many people, sometimes working at the same time. One of the first to propose the idea (around 1690) was the physicist Denis Papin who was developing steam engines. In 1707 he constructed a paddle-powered boat, but whether it was full-size and steam-powered or not is unclear. River boatmen took exception to the threat to their trade, and smashed it up.

In 1736 Jonathan Hulls took out a patent in England for a Newcomen engine-powered steamboat, but it was the improvement in steam engines by James Watt that made the concept feasible. William Henry of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, having learned of Watt's engine on a visit to England, made his own engine and in 1763 attempted to put it in a boat. The boat sank, and while he made an improved model he does not seem to have had much success, though he may have inspired others.

In France, by 1774 the Marquis Claude de Jouffroy and colleagues had made a working steamboat that was too slow for river use. In 1783 a new paddle steamer, the Pyroscaphe, successfully steamed up the river Saône for fifteen minutes before the engine failed, but bureaucracy thwarted further progress.

From 1784 James Rumsey built a pump-driven boat (water-jet) that successfully steamed upstream on the Potomac river in 1786, and in the following year he obtained a patent from the State of Virginia. In Pennsylvania John Fitch, an acquaintance of William Henry, had made a model paddle steamer in 1785, and subsequently developed propulsion by floats on a chain, obtained a patent in 1786, then built a steamboat which underwent a successful trial in 1787. The following year a second boat made 50 km (30 mile) excursions, and in 1790 a third boat ran a series of excursions on the Delaware River, but then patent disputes dissuaded Fitch from continuing.

Meanwhile, Patrick Miller of Dalswinton, near Dumfries, Scotland, had developed double-hulled boats propelled by cranked paddlewheels placed between the hulls, and he engaged the engineer William Symington to built his patent steam engine into a boat which was successfully tried out on Dalswinton Loch in 1788, and followed by a larger steamboat the next year. Miller then abandoned the project, but ten years later Symington was engaged by Lord Dundas and in March 1802 the Charlotte Dundas towed two 70 ton barges 30 km (almost 20 miles) along the Forth and Clyde Canal to Glasgow. This vessel, the first tow boat, has been called the "first practical steamboat", and the first to be followed by continuous development of steamboats. Although plans to introduce boats on the Forth and Clyde canal were thwarted by fears of erosion of the banks, development was taken up both in Britain and abroad.

Robert Fulton, who may have become interested in steamboats when he visited William Henry in 1777 at the age of 12, visited Britain and France where he built and tested an experimental steamboat on the River Seine in 1803, and was aware of the success of the Charlotte Dundas. Before returning to the United States he ordered a Boulton and Watt steam engine, and on return built the North River Steamboat (often called the Clermont). In 1807 this steamboat began a regular passenger boat service between New York and Clermont, 240 km (150 miles) distant, which was a commercial success.

In Scotland the ideas of the Charlotte Dundas were taken up by Henry Bell, and in 1812 the Comet began a passenger steamboat service on the River Clyde between Glasgow and Greenock. This was the first commercially successful service in Europe.

River steamboats

As William Henry and John Fitch had foreseen, steamboats on the major American rivers soon followed Fulton's success. Mark Twain, in his Life on the Mississippi, described much of the operation of these vessels. For most of the 19th century and part of the early 20th century, trade on the Mississippi River would be dominated by paddle-wheel steamboats, very few of which survive to the present day, most destroyed by boiler explosions or fires. One of the few surviving Mississippi sternwheelers from this period, Julius C. Wilkie, is preserved as a museum ship at Winona, Minnesota. For modern craft operated on rivers, see the riverboat article.

Incidentally, the cartoon Steamboat Willie introduced steamboat pilot Mickey Mouse to the public.

Lake, loch, estuary and sea-going steamers

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Paddle steamer PS Waverley steaming down the Firth of Clyde.
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Turbine steamer TS Queen Mary.

Henry Bell's Comet started a rapid expansion of steam services on the Firth of Clyde, and within four years a steamer service was in operation on the inland Loch Lomond, a forerunner of the lake steamers that still grace the Swiss lakes. Today the 1900 steamer SS Sir Walter Scott still sails on Loch Katrine, while on Loch Lomond the PS Maid of the Loch is being restored.

On the Clyde itself, within ten years of the Comet's start there were nearly fifty steamers, and services had started across the Irish Sea to Belfast. By 1900 there were over 300 Clyde steamers. The paddle steamer Waverley, built in 1947, is the last survivor of these fleets, and the last sea-going paddle steamer in the world. This ship sails a full season of cruises every year from places around Britain, and has sailed across the English Channel for a visit to commemorate the sinking of her predecessor of 1899 at the Battle of Dunkirk.

People have had a particular affection for the Clyde puffers, small steam freighters on a traditional design developed to use the Scottish canals and to serve the Highlands and Islands. They were immortalised by the tales of Para Handy's boat The Vital Spark by Neil Munro and by the film The Maggie, and a small number are being conserved to continue in steam around the west highland sea lochs.

The Clyde sludge boats had a tradition of occasionally taking passengers on their trips from Glasgow, past the Isle of Arran, down the Firth of Clyde, and one has emerged from retirement as "SS Shieldhall, Steam powered General Cargo-Passenger Steamer available for Trips in the Solent" offering outings from Southampton, England with views of the two triple expansion engines.

Built in 1856, P.S. Skibladner is the oldest steamship still in operation, serving towns along lake [[Mj? in Norway.

Ocean steamships

The side-wheel paddle steamer SS Great Western was the first purpose-built steamship to initiate regularly scheduled trans-Atlantic crossings, starting in 1838. The first regular steamship service from the west to the east coast of the United States began on February 28, 1849 with the arrival of the SS California in San Francisco Bay. The California left New York Harbor on October 6, 1848, rounded Cape Horn at the tip of South America, and arrived at San Francisco, California after the 4-month, 21-day journey.

By 1870, a number of inventions, such as the screw propeller and the steam turbine made trans-oceanic shipping economically viable. This began the earliest era of globalization where trade around the world became cheap and safe.

RMS Titanic
RMS Titanic
The RMS Titanic was the largest steamship in the world when it sank in 1912. Launched in 1938, the RMS Queen Elizabeth was the largest passenger steamship ever built. Launched in 1969, the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) was the last passenger steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean before it was converted to diesel engines in 1986.

The SS Explorer is the last remaining steam trawler in Britain. She was built in Aberdeen, including the last steam engine built there, and was launched in 1955 as a fishery research vessel. Accommodation was provided for researchers, including a computer cabin. Currently she is berthed at Edinburgh Dock, Leith, by Edinburgh, and the subject of a restoration project.

The turbine steamship Royal Yacht Britannia, now retired from service, is berthed nearby at Ocean Terminal, Leith.

External links


  • Clyde Pleasure Steamers - Ian McCrorie, Orr, Pollock & Co. Ltd., Greenock, ISBN 1-869850-00-9

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