Sail to Steam: A Timeline of the Development of Maritime Steam Power | History Hit

Sail to Steam: A Timeline of the Development of Maritime Steam Power

SS Sirius.
Image Credit: George Atkinson Jnr, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For thousands of years, boats and ships have been an integral part of our lives. Travelling across lakes, rivers and oceans has led to migration, trade, war, exploration, leisure and developments in engineering, science, medicine and technology. Until the 18th century, boats and ships had largely been powered by people (rowing) or sails. The Industrial Revolution led to changes in the way ships were powered. 

This is a timeline exploring some of the key events in the development and use of steam power on ships and how that changed the maritime world.


Thomas Newcomen invented the first steam engine.  


Arguably the first really successful steamboat, the Pyroscaphe was built by Claude-François-Dorothée, Marquis de Jouffroy d’Abbans. She was a paddle steamer whereby a steam engine would power sidewheels, or paddles, that would move the vessel through the water.


Scottish engineer William Symington had been working on ways to improve and adapt James Watt’s engine for marine use (using paddle wheels). With the sponsorship of Lord Dundas, Symington patented an engine in 1801 that would be installed in a new steamboat, the Charlotte Dundas (named for Lord Dundas’ daughter). She was launched in 1803 and was successful in towing barges along the Forth and Clyde Canal. 


The North River Steamboat, also known as the Clermont, was built and used on the Hudson River. She was the first commercially successful steamboat (built to carry passengers).


The SS Savannah became the first steamship to sail across the Atlantic. Some contend this honour as she spent the majority of the voyage under sail rather than using steam power (steamships would also be fitted with sails as an alternative source of power).

Diagram of the SS Savannah, fitted with sails and paddle wheels.

Image Credit: G. B. Douglas, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


The Aaron Manby became the first iron steamship to go to sea, crossing the English Channel in 1822. The use of iron and new materials in ship construction would help in the development and application of steam power at sea.


Inventors John Ericsson and Francis Smith re-invent the screw propeller. Moving away from paddles, screw propellers, fitted to the underneath of the aft of the ship, would mean that ships could travel faster than before. They were also more reliable and less prone to damage than paddles as they were below the waterline.


SS Archimedes was the first steamship driven by a screw propeller.


Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Western undertook her maiden voyage, sailing from Bristol to New York. She was a wooden-hulled paddle-wheel steamship and was the largest passenger ship in the world until 1839. She was however beaten to her destination by the SS Sirius who arrived in New York a day earlier.


Of the 2.3 million tons in the British merchant fleet, steam accounted for 87,000 tons.

Cunard Lines was founded. Major shipping companies like Cunard, Inman and White Star that charted voyages and owned fleets of ships would push forward the development in marine engineering and steam power.


The SS Great Britain, the first large iron ship to be screw propelled was launched. 

A view of the SS Great Britain’s screw propeller.

Image Credit: Howard Dickins from Cardiff, UK, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


HMS Terror and HMS Erebus became the first Royal Navy ships to be fitted with steam engines and a screw propeller prior to Franklin’s final expedition to find the Northwest Passage.

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Cunard’s Washington and Hermann steamships provide a regular Atlantic crossing service. 


The maiden voyage of Brunel’s SS Great Eastern. At 20,000 GRT, she was the largest liner of the late 19th century. 


The launch of the SS Agamemnon, one of the first successful long-distance merchant steamships. Long voyages, such as Europe to Asia, were not practical for steamships due to the need to carry coal, leaving little space for produce. Agamemnon was fitted with a new compound engine that required less coal.


The Suez Canal opened. The waterway was not practical for sailing vessels so steamships dominated the new route to Asia. 

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Steam power made up 1.1 million tons out of 5.7 million tons in the British merchant fleet.


The SS Aberdeen became the first ship to be successfully powered by a triple-expansion steam engine. The triple expansion engine was significantly more economical than other engines so became widely used in shipping.


The Turbinia became the first steam turbine-powered steamship to be built and was the fastest ship in the world at the time. She was demonstrated at the Spithead Navy Review in 1897 and transformed maritime engineering.


Alternatives to steam power that were more efficient and economical were being sought. The Vandal, launched in 1903, was one of the first marine vessels to be powered by diesel. 


RMS Mauretania became one of the first ocean liners to use the steam turbine engine. The use of electricity as a power source was cheaper and more efficient and was soon adopted by shipping companies and navies. Most ships today use steam turbines.

RMS Mauretania and Turbinia. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1911.

Image Credit: Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


The sinking of the RMS Titanic, the largest steamship in the world at the time. 

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Launch of RMS Queen Elizabeth, the largest passenger steamship ever built.


The first nuclear-powered merchant ship was launched. The NS Savannah was commissioned by the US government as a way of demonstrating peaceful uses of nuclear power.


The last major passenger steamship, the Fairsky, was built.

Tags: Isambard Kingdom Brunel Thomas Newcomen William Symington

Charlotte Ward