Sea Stories

Origins Of Steamships—ocean-steamers Etcetera

As we have been led, in writing about ships of the navy, to refer to steam, we turn aside at this point to treat of that tremendous motive-power.

One night, in the year 1807, a terrible sight

was witnessed by the inhabitants of the banks of the river Hudson in America.

Men love what is marvellous, and they will go a long distance out of their way to see that which is terrific and horrible; but on the night in question there was no need to go far. The farmers had only to look out of their windows, and the sailors of the shipping had only to lift their heads above the bulwarks, to behold a sight that appalled the stoutest hearted, and caused the very hair on the craniums of the timid to stand on end.

The object that created so much consternation was—a “monster of the deep!” At some parts of the river, men could not tell what it was like, for the night was dark when it passed, but a dark, shadowy idea they obtained by the light of the fire which the creature vomited from its jaws; and they formed a tremendous conception of its size and power from the speed at which it travelled, the splashing which it made, and the hideous groans with which it burdened the night-air.

This “fiery monster of the deep” was the first river-steamer, the Clermont!

Before going further into the details of this the first of a class of ships which have, within the last fifty years, almost completely changed the whole system of navigation, let us take a cursory glance at the first attempts made to propel ships by means of steam.

The subject has occupied mankind much longer than many people suppose. So long ago as the year 1543, a naval captain of Spain applied an engine to a ship of about two hundred tons, and succeeded in moving it at the rate of about two miles an hour. The nature of his engine the captain kept secret; but it was noted that part of it consisted of a caldron of boiling water.

This we are told by Thomas Gonzales, the director of the Royal Archives of Simancas; but his veracity is now called in question,—at any rate, nothing further was afterwards heard of the discovery.

The first authentic record we have of steam navigation occurs in a work written by the Marquis of Worcester in 1665, in which allusion is made to the application of engines to boats and ships, which would “draw them up rivers against the stream, and, if need be, pass London Bridge against the current, at low-water.”

Many attempts, more or less successful, were made by ingenious men from time to time. Papin of France in 1690 constructed a steamboat, the success of which may be gathered from the fact that it was ultimately broken up by enraged and jealous watermen! Jonathan Hulls in 1736, and M. Genevois in 1759, were each successful, to a certain extent, in constructing working models, but nothing definite resulted from their labours. Yet we would not be understood to undervalue the achievements of such men. On the contrary, it is by the successive discoveries of such inquiring and philosophical men that grand results are at last attained. The magnificent structures that crowd the ocean were not the creations of one era, or the product of one stupendous mind. They are the result of the labours of thousands of men whose names have never been known to fame.

The men who, working upon the materials supplied by preceding generations, brought the propulsion of boats by steam nearest to perfection, just before the commencement of navigation, were Mr Miller of Dumfries, Mr Taylor, his friend, and tutor in his family, and Mr Symington. All of these were, in a very important degree, instrumental in ushering in the great event. Symington, in 1788, fitted an engine to a large boat, in which he attained the speed of seven miles an hour.

The man to whom the credit belongs of introducing steam navigation is undoubtedly Mr Fulton of America. This gentleman, who was contemporary with those just mentioned, visited France and England, in the former of which countries he endeavoured, unsuccessfully, to carry out his projects, while in the latter he met with Symington, and obtained much valuable information from him.

We have no sympathy whatever with those who seem to rake in to the credit of their own country every discovery and invention they possibly or plausibly can. We did much towards the commencement of steam navigation, but we did not begin it. We pushed considerably in advance of other nations in the invention of apparatus by which boats might be propelled by steam; we constructed models, tried it on a small scale, and found the thing to answer admirably: but we rested there. Meanwhile, an enterprising American came and saw our achievements, ordered an engine in England, carried it across the Atlantic, and commenced the era of steam navigation, on the river Hudson, by building and launching:

The First Steamer.

Robert Fulton, in conjunction with Chancellor Livingston of America, planned, built, and launched a boat in the spring of 1807, which they named the Clermont. It was propelled by steam, and averaged the rate of five miles an hour on its first voyage from New York to Albany, a distance of nearly one hundred and fifty miles.

All discoveries and novelties, great and small, are treated with ridicule at first by the mass of mankind, so it is not a matter of wonder that the crowds which flocked to the wharf to see the Clermont start on her first trip were somewhat satirical and jocose in their remarks. But when the steam was turned on, and they heard the first of that series of snorts that was destined ere long to shake the trembling air of land and sea, and saw the great, uncouth paddle-wheels revolve powerfully in the water and churn it into foam, a shout, tinged doubtless with prophetic fervour, greeted the triumphant engineer as his little steamboat darted from the shore.

Colden, in his Life of Fulton, speaks thus of the Clermont’s first voyage:—

“She excited the astonishment of the inhabitants of the shores of the Hudson, many of whom had not heard even of an engine, much less of a steamboat. There were many descriptions of the effects of her first appearance upon the people of the banks of the river.

“Some of these were ridiculous, but some of them were of such a character as nothing but an object of real grandeur could have excited. She was described by some, who had indistinctly seen her passing in the night, as a monster moving on the waters, defying the winds and tide and breathing flames and smoke! She had the most terrific appearance from other vessels which were navigating the river when she was making her passage. The first steamboat (as others yet do) used dry pine wood for fuel, which sends forth a column of ignited vapour many feet above the flue, and, whenever the fire is stirred, a galaxy of sparks fly off, which, in the night, have a very brilliant and beautiful appearance.

“This uncommon light first attracted the attention of the crews of other vessels. Notwithstanding the wind and tide, which were adverse to its approach, they saw with astonishment that it was rapidly coming towards them; and when it came so near that the noise of the machinery and paddles was heard, the crews—if what was said in the newspapers of the time be true—in some instances shrank beneath their decks from the terrific sight, and left their vessels to go on shore; whilst others prostrated themselves, and besought Providence to protect them from the approaches of the horrible monster which was marching on the tide, and lighting its path by the fires that it vomited!” The Clermont became a regular passenger boat on the Hudson; and the progress of steam navigation continued to advance, until nearly all the navigable rivers of the world, and the great ocean itself, were covered with these clanking ships of commerce, which have added more to the comfort, the wealth, and the power of man—the power of doing good as well as evil—than the feeble human mind can conceive.

The Comet.

It was not until five years after the Americans set us the example that we launched our first passenger steamboat, the Comet, a vessel of about twenty-five tons, with engines of three horse-power. This little vessel was started by Henry Bell, of Helensburgh, on the Clyde. It began its career in 1812, and plied regularly for two years.

Like her predecessor the Clermont, she was regarded with no small degree of scepticism, and with a large amount of surprise by the thousands who saw her set forth. Nevertheless, she soon proved her value, became a successful speculation to her owners, and was ere long followed by many other vessels of a similar kind.

The “Argyle”, afterwards named “The Thames.”

In 1813 the Argyle was launched. This vessel was the first European steamer that pushed out into the more dangerous navigation of the open sea-coast. She was purchased by a company in London. On her passage up, she was as nearly as possible wrecked on a lee-shore, but, by her steam-power, was enabled to go straight against the wind, at the rate of three and a half knots an hour, and so escaped.

One of the passengers has left us an interesting account of this interesting voyage, from which we cull one or two paragraphs:

“The weather had now become so stormy and bad that our captain determined to put in to the port of Wexford, his great object being to navigate the vessel safely to London, rather than, by using great despatch, to expose her to unnecessary risk. We put to sea again at two o’clock p.m., on May 30th, and steered for Saint David’s Head, the most westerly point of Wales. During our passage across Saint George’s Channel, one of the blades of the starboard paddle-wheel became out of order; the engine was stopped, and the blade cut away. Some hours afterwards, a similar accident happened to the other wheel, which was remedied in the same manner.

“About two-o’clock in the afternoon, twelve hours after leaving Wexford, we reached the pass of Ramsay. We remained there for three hours, to oil the engine, and to give the stoker, who had not quitted his post an instant since leaving Wexford, a little rest. In a short time several boats were seen coming to our assistance, the idea prevailing here, as at Wexford, that our vessel was on fire. We landed on the island of Ramsay, a most desolate spot, containing only one habitation; we, however, procured some bread, butter, milk, cheese, and ale, with which we returned to the vessel, and commenced steaming through the straits, and across Saint Bride’s Bay.

“The weather had now become unfavourable, and the sea ran alarmingly high in the bay. On the south side of Saint Bride’s Bay, between Skomar Island and the mainland, is a nasty passage called Jack Sound. Our pilot warned us of the danger of attempting this passage, excepting at high-water and with a favourable wind, as there were several formidable whirlpools, which would seize the vessel and carry her on the rocks. Captain Dodd, however, who knew the power of his engine, insisted on going through the sound, in order to save five hours and another night at sea. The pilot repeated his remonstrances, at the same time trembling for fear; but we passed through all the whirlpools with the greatest ease. Nothing, however, can be conceived more frightful than the aspect of some of the rocks, and especially of those called the Bishop and his Clerks. Had we been in a sailing vessel, our position would have been most perilous; but our steam was all-powerful, and brought us safely to Milford Haven.

“We put to sea again late on the evening of the 31st, and on Friday morning we were in the middle of the Bristol Channel, with no land visible; but towards evening we discovered the high coast that terminates England in the west. As the weather, however, again assumed a gloomy aspect, our new pilot judged that it would be imprudent that night to double Land’s End, so we shaped our course towards Saint Ives.

“On approaching the shore, we perceived a crowd of small vessels making towards us with all possible rapidity, by means of oars and sails. Here, as elsewhere, the alarm was taken, on seeing a vessel, judged to be on fire, steering towards the town, and all the disposable craft immediately put to sea. All the rocks commanding Saint Ives were covered with spectators; and when we entered the harbour, the aspect of our vessel appeared to occasion as much surprise amongst the inhabitants as the ships of Captain Cook must have produced on his first appearance amongst the islanders of the South Seas.

“Another night passed, a night of storm and danger, but the little Thames (the vessel had been renamed by the new company who purchased her) behaved nobly, and next day reached Plymouth. Here,” continues the narrative, “the harbour-master, who had never seen a steam-vessel before, was as much struck with astonishment, when he boarded the Thames, as a child is on getting possession of a new plaything. He steered the vessel, and we passed round several ships of war in the sound. The sailors ran in crowds to the sides of their vessels as we passed them, and, mounting the rigging, gave vent to their observations in a most amusing manner.

“We left Plymouth at noon on the following day, and steamed without interruption to Portsmouth, where we arrived on Friday, June 9th, having accomplished one hundred and fifty miles in twenty-three hours. At Portsmouth astonishment and admiration were, if possible, more strongly evinced than elsewhere. Tens of thousands of spectators were assembled to gaze on the Thames; and the number of vessels that crowded around us was so great, that it became necessary to request the admiral to give us a guard to preserve some degree of order.

“We entered the harbour in the most brilliant style, steaming in, with the assistance of wind and tide, at the rate of from twelve to fourteen miles an hour. A court-martial was at the time sitting on board the Gladiator frigate; but the novelty of our steamboat presented an irresistible attraction, and the whole court came off to us, excepting the president, who was obliged by etiquette to retain his seat until the court was regularly adjourned. On Saturday, June 10th, the port-admiral sent his band and a guard of marines at an early hour on board; and soon afterwards he followed, accompanied by three admirals, eighteen post-captains, and a large number of ladies. The morning was spent in steaming amongst the fleet, and running over to the Isle of Wight. From Portsmouth we proceeded to Margate, which we reached on Sunday morning. Here we remained until the following day, when we embarked for our final trip, at half-past eight in the morning; and about six in the evening arrived at Limehouse, where we moored.”

We have entered thus at considerable length into this voyage, because, besides being the first steam sea-voyage, it serves to exhibit very distinctly how great and how rapid has been the progress of steam-navigation within the last fifty years. In reading such an account as this, in these days of “ocean mail-steamers” and “Great Easterns,” we can scarcely believe that in it reference is made, not to the middle ages, but to the year 1813.


After that momentous era when steam was first successfully applied to useful purposes, human progress and improvement in all departments of science and art seemed to have been hooked on to it, and to have thenceforth rushed roaring at its tail, with truly “railroad speed,” towards perfection!

Scarce had the first model steamboat splashed with its ungainly “blades” the waters of a pond, than river traffic by means of steamboats began. And no sooner had this been proved to be a decided success, than daring schemes were laid to rush over the ocean itself on wheels. Men were not long about it, after the first start was made. Their intellectual steam was up, and the whirl of inventive effort racked the brains of engineers as the wheels of their steamboats tortured the waters of the deep.

And here again the name of Fulton comes into notice. Early in 1814 he conceived the idea of constructing a steam-vessel of war, which should carry a strong battery with furnaces for red-hot shot. Congress authorised the building of such a ship, and before the end of the same year it was launched. Fulton died the following year, but the fame of that enterprising engineer will never die.

The new vessel received the rather quaint title of Fulton the First. She consisted of two boats joined together. Those who were appointed by Congress to examine her and report, gave the following account of this curious man-of-war:

“She is a structure resting on two boats and keels, separated from end to end by a channel fifteen feet wide and sixty-six feet long. One boat contains the caldrons of copper to prepare her steam; the cylinder of iron, its piston, lever, and wheels, occupy part of the other. The water-wheel revolves in the space between them. The main or gun-deck supports the armament, and is protected by a parapet four feet ten inches thick, of solid timber, pierced by embrasures. Through thirty port-holes as many thirty-two pounders are intended to fire red-hot shot, which can be heated with great safety and convenience. Her upper or spar-deck, upon which several thousand men might parade, is encompassed by a bulwark, which affords safe quarters. She is rigged with two stout masts, each of which supports a large lateen yard and sails. She has two bowsprits and jibs, and four rudders—one at each extremity of each boat; so that she can be steered with either end foremost. Her machinery is calculated for the addition of an engine which will discharge an immense column of water, which it is intended to throw upon the decks and through the port-holes of the enemy, and thereby deluge her armament and ammunition.

“If, in addition to all this, we suppose her to be furnished, according to Mr Fulton’s intention, with hundred-pound columbiads, two suspended from each bow, so as to discharge a ball of that size into an enemy’s ship ten or twelve feet below her water-line, it must be allowed that she has the appearance, at least, of being the most formidable engine for warfare that human ingenuity has contrived.”

She certainly was; and even at the present time the Fulton the First would cut no insignificant figure if placed alongside our gunboats, floating-batteries, and steam-frigates.

It is not easy to get intelligent men to believe in things that savour of the marvellous; yet there seems to be a point past which, if once a man be got, he will go on to believe almost anything, no matter how absurd. In those days few people in Europe would credit the truth of this ship’s proportions; but when, in the course of time and from indubitable testimony, they were compelled to believe, they flew to the opposite extreme of incredulity and believed anything, as the following curiously comical paragraph will show. It is said to have appeared in a Scotch treatise on steamships, and is intended for a “full, true, and particular account” of this monstrous American man-of-war steamer. After giving her dimensions three times larger than they were in reality, the author continues:— “The thickness of her sides is thirteen feet of alternate oak plank and cork wood. She carries forty-four guns, four of which are hundred pounders; quarter-deck and forecastle guns, forty-four pounders: and further, to annoy an enemy attempting to board, can discharge one hundred gallons of boiling water in a minute; and, by mechanism, brandishes three hundred cutlasses with the utmost regularity over her gunwales; works also an equal number of heavy iron spikes of great length, darting them from the sides with prodigious force, and withdrawing them every quarter of a minute!” This vessel, although probably intended for an ocean-steamer, was never used as such. But not long after, a vessel propelled by steam ventured to cross the Atlantic, and thus became the parent of commercial steam navigation. This vessel was:

The “Savannah” Steamer.

Unfortunately, little information as to this, the first ocean-steamer, has been chronicled.

She was launched at New York on the 22nd of August 1818, and in the following year made her first voyage to Savannah, from which she sailed for Liverpool soon after, and crossed the Atlantic in twenty-five days—during eighteen of which she used her engines.

The Savannah was about 350 tons burden, and was on this occasion commanded by Captain Moses Rodgers. She was fitted with machinery for taking in her wheels in stormy weather, which was found to work admirably; and she is mentioned as having been seen on the ocean going at the rate of nine or ten knots.

From Liverpool this steamer went to Saint Petersburg, and afterwards returned to Savannah in safety.

This was the insertion of the wedge. Our own country did not follow the lead until 1838, when the good people of New York were thrown into a state of excitement by the arrival of two steamers, the Sirius and the Great Western, from England. So long a time had elapsed since the voyage of the Savannah that men had well-nigh forgotten it, and were disposed to regard these vessels as the first ocean-steamers. Indeed, some narrow-minded and ungenerous writers have asserted that they were the first—totally ignoring the prior claim of the Savannah.

From that period ocean-steamers began to run frequently across the Atlantic. They now do so regularly, as well as to nearly all other parts of the world.

Ocean Mail-Steamers.

The improvements which have taken place during recent years in ocean-going steamships have been great and rapid. The speed attained by some of these magnificent vessels is little short of marvellous. Many persons still living can recollect the time when the voyage to Australia in a sailing vessel lasted six months. What is now the state of matters? By more than one line of steamships the traveller may reach Sydney or Melbourne within forty days. A recent voyage of the Orient, one of the latest and finest additions to ocean steamships, merits more than a passing notice. The Lusitania, which belongs to the same line, steamed from England to Australia in less than forty days, and the feat was regarded as a great one. But the Lusitania has been far outmatched by her sister-ship the Orient, which has actually accomplished the same voyage in thirty-five days, fifteen hours, and forty-six minutes. From Plymouth to the Cape of Good Hope took the Orient only seventeen days twenty-one hours. This is the fastest speed on record. Whether it is the maximum rate possible to ocean steamships, or whether it is destined to be surpassed by a still higher degree of speed, remains to be seen. Many persons are of opinion that the increased facilities of speed which are now within reach of travellers on long voyages will gradually lead to the total disuse of sailing ships for passenger traffic. It may be so, but there are still not a few who would prefer a sailing to a steam ship for a long sea voyage, notwithstanding its so greatly inferior rate of speed. But nowadays everything must be sacrificed to time. “Time flies,” is at present the motto of most instant and potent power with the world; but the day is perhaps not far off when the fiat, “Thus far, and no farther,” must be pronounced not only on the speed of steamships, but on the breathless rush and hurry of the age in general.

The Czar’s Yacht “Livadia.”

Undoubtedly one of the most remarkable craft afloat is the Russian Czar’s steam-yacht the Livadia. To a Scotch shipbuilding firm belongs the credit of having constructed this unique and splendid vessel, and it is certainly a feather in the cap of Messrs Elder and Company, the well-known Glasgow shipbuilders, from whose yard the Livadia was launched in July 1880.

One would imagine that the highest point of comfort and luxuriousness has been reached in the accommodation offered by the Livadia; but this is far from being the only or even the chief respect in which the vessel is remarkable. She is notable from a purely nautical point of view—being the outcome of principles that may be said almost to revolutionise all pre-existing ideas of shipbuilding, though something like the same principle may be found in the circular ironclads of Admiral Popoff.

Hitherto the plan which naval architects have followed, where the desideratum was exceptional speed, was to give the vessel in course of construction length in combination with as fine lines and as perfect proportion as possible. But in the case of an imperial pleasure-boat, like the Livadia, it was an object to obtain an ampler and more drawing-room like accommodation than is compatible with length, narrowness of beam, and fine lines; and the constructors of the Czar’s new yacht have succeeded in securing not only this internal spaciousness and comfort, but also a satisfactory degree of speed.

It was to the united exertions of Admiral Popoff of the Russian navy, and Dr Tideman of the royal dockyard, Amsterdam, that the design of the Livadia was due. It is not easy in words to convey a distinct impression of this curiously-shaped craft, but our description will, we hope, give the reader a pretty correct idea of the vessel.

The constructors of the Livadia, it is believed, chose a turbot as their model for the hull; and in thus taking a flat fish as a suggestion for their vessel, the builders, as a recent writer on the subject points out, followed no extravagant, though certainly a novel, fancy. In broad terms the Livadia may be described as a wide and shallow oval in shape, half submerged, while over this turbot-shaped raft a superstructure is erected, somewhat similar in appearance to an ordinary vessel, and comprising large, lofty, and sumptuous saloons and other apartments.

The Livadia is 260 feet long, 150 feet broad, and 50 feet deep. She is 11,609 tons burden, and her displacement 4000. The two leading merits of the Livadia, due to its peculiar construction, are—first, that its frame can support a superstructure of almost palatial proportions such as would founder any other vessel; and second, that its great breadth of beam keeps the ship as steady as a ship can possibly be, while, at the same time, its lower lines secure a very good degree of speed.

The Livadia possesses powerful propelling engines. There are three sets of these, each with three cylinders, the diameter being sixty inches for the high pressure, and seventy-eight inches for the low, with a stroke of three feet three inches. As much strength and lightness as possible have been secured for the propellers by constructing them of manganese iron; while steel has been largely employed for the engines and boilers, which are, for their weight, the most powerful possessed by any vessel. The estimated horse-power is 10,500, and the ship, under favourable conditions, can make fifteen knots an hour.

The double water-tight bottom of the Livadia is three feet six inches deep at the centre, and two feet nine inches at each end. In this turbot-like lower part is the machinery, and it is the receptacle also for coals and stores of all kinds. The twofold bottom of the ship comprises forty compartments, and the whole is sufficiently strong, it is believed, to withstand the heaviest weather to which the yacht is likely to be exposed, as well as the strain of her powerful machinery.

The entire length of the upper part of the ship, in which are the imperial apartments, and the quarters of the officers and crew, is 260 feet, and the breadth 110 feet. The crew all told numbers 260. The private apartments of the Czar himself are forward on the main-deck, well away from the heat of the engines and the smell of the machinery. A visitor to the ship is chiefly struck, perhaps, by the height to which the decks rise above the hull, the uppermost compartment of all being fitted out as a reception saloon, in the centre of which a little fountain rises out of a bed of flowers. This portion of the vessel is forty feet above the level of the sea. The apartment is luxuriously appointed in the fashion of the reign of Louis XVI. The drawing-room is furnished in a style of equal sumptuousness, in the Crimean Tartar style; but the rest of the imperial apartments are in a simpler order of decoration. Behind the funnels there is another deck-house, containing the captain’s quarters and rooms for the Grand Duke Constantine. It will thus be seen that the Livadia is literally a floating palace, equipped and decorated with that almost Eastern love of sumptuous display which characterises the Russians as a people.

All the three screws with which the Livadia is furnished are wholly submerged in the water—another novelty in the construction of the vessel. One or even two of these screws might suffer serious injury and the ship still remain manageable.

It is not wonderful that the launch of a craft, at once so splendid and so curious, should have caused much interest and excitement in the neighbourhood in which it took place. A distinguished company witnessed the ceremony, while the crowd which lined the banks of the river Clyde numbered 10,000. A short service was conducted by three priests of the Greek Church, and the bows of the vessel were then sprinkled with holy water. After the conclusion of this ceremony, the yacht received her name from the Duchess of Hamilton, and was then launched. The launch was a complete success, the Livadia taking the water in gallant style, though the task was one of more than ordinary difficulty from the circumstance of the great breadth of the ship’s keel-less bottom, which much increased the friction to be overcome. At the luncheon which concluded the day’s proceedings, Mr Pearce, the chairman, who represented the firm of Elder and Company, stated that the principle adopted in the building of the Livadia would probably be more useful in the case of ships of war than of merchant vessels, but that builders of the latter might also derive valuable hints from the construction of the new ship. Whether this will prove to be the case time has yet to show.

A most interesting discovery of a Norse war-ship has recently been made at Sandefjord in Norway. The vessel, there can be no doubt, is one of the kind in which those formidable buccaneers, the Norsemen, used to harry the coasts of Great Britain and France ten hundred years ago. It was found buried in the ground, and seems to have been the sepulchre of some great Viking chieftain, who had probably many a time sailed forth in it to the terror and detriment of some less warlike and powerful neighbour.

The ship is unusually large, and very completely equipped. Its length is about seventy-five feet; and sails, rigging, a number of shields and other instruments of battle, were found on board.

Previous: Wooden And Iron Walls
Next: The “great Eastern”

Add to Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon

Add to Informational Site Network