Steamships, Part I: Crossing the Atlantic

For much of this story, our attention has focused on events within the isle of Great Britain, and with good reason: primed by the virtuous cycle of coal, iron, and steam, the depth and breadth of Britain’s exploitation of steam power far exceeded that found anywhere else, for roughly 150 years after the groaning, hissing birth cry of steam power with the first Newcomen engine. American riverboat traffic stands out as the isolated exception.

But Great Britain, island though it was, did not stand aloof from the world. It engaged in trade and the exchange of ideas, of course, but it also had a large and (despite occasional setbacks) growing empire, including large possessions in Canada, South Africa, Australia, and India. The sinews of that empire necessarily stretched across the oceans of the world, in the form of a dominant navy, a vast merchant fleet, and the ships of the East India Company, which blurred the lines of military and commercial power: half state and half corporation. Having repeatedly bested all its would-be naval rivals—Spain, the Netherlands, and France—Britain had achieved an indisputable dominance of the sea.

Testing the Waters

The potential advantages of fusing steam power with naval power were clear: sailing ships were slaves to the whims of the atmosphere. A calm left them helpless, a strong storm drove them on helplessly, and adverse winds could trap them in port for days on end. The fickleness of the wind made travel times unpredictable and could steal the opportunity for a victorious battle from even the strongest fleet. In 1814, Sir Walter Scott took a cruise around Scotland, and the vicissitudes of travel by sail are apparent on page after page of his memoirs:

 4th September 1814… Very little wind, and that against us; and the navigation both shoally and intricate. Called a council of war; and after considering the difficulty of getting up to Derry, and the chance of being windbound when we do get there, we resolve to renounce our intended visit to that town… 6th September 1814… When we return on board, the wind being unfavourable for the mouth of Clyde, we resolve to weigh anchor and go into Lamlash Bay. 7th September, 1814 – We had amply room to repent last night’s resolution, for the wind, with its usual caprice, changed so soon as we had weighed anchor, blew very hard, and almost directly against us, so that we were beating up against it by short tacks, which made a most disagreeable night…[1]

As it had done for power on land, as it had done for river travel, so steam could promise to do for sea travel: bring regularity and predictability, smoothing over the rough chaos of nature.

The catch lay in the supply of fuel. A sailing ship, of course, needed only the “fuel” it gathered from the air as it went along. A riverboat could easily resupply its fuel along the banks as it travelled. A steamship crossing the Atlantic would have to bring along its whole supply.

Plan of the Savannah. It is evident that she was designed as a sailing ship, with the steam engine and paddles as an afterthought.

Early attempts at steam-powered sea vessels bypassed this problem by carrying sails, with the steam engine providing supplementary power. The American merchant ship Savannah crossed the Atlantic to Liverpool in this fashion in 1819. But the advantages of on-demand steam power did not justify the cost of hauling an idle engine and its fuel across the ocean. Its owners quickly converted the Savannah back to a pure sailing ship.[2] MacGregor Laird had a better-thought-out plan in 1832 when he dispatched the two steamships built at his family’s docks, Quorra and Alburkah, along with a sailing ship, for an expedition up the River Niger to bring commerce and Christianity to central Africa. Laird’s ships carried sails for the open ocean and supplied themselves regularly with wooden fuel when coasting near the shore. The steam engines achieved their true purpose once the little task force reached the river, allowing the ships to navigate easily upstream.[3]


Laird’s dream of transforming Africa ended in tatters, and in the death of most of his crew. But Laird himself survived, and he and his homeland would both have a role to play in the development of true ocean-going steamships. Laird, like the great Watt himself, was born in Greenock, on the Firth of Clyde, and Britain’s first working commercial steamboats originated on the Clyde, carrying passengers among Glasgow, Greenock, Helensburgh, and other towns. Scott took passage on such a ferry from Greenock to Glasgow in the midst of his Scottish journey, and the contrast is stark in his memoirs between his passages at sea and the steam transit on the Clyde that proceeded “with a smoothness of motion which probably resembles flying.”[4]

The shipbuilders of the Clyde, with iron and coal closet a hand, would make such smooth, predictable steam journeys ever more common in the waters of and around Britain.  By 1822, they had already built forty-eight steam ferries of the sort on which Scott had ridden; in the following decade ship owners extended service out into the Irish Sea and English Channel with larger vessels, like David Napier’s 240-ton, 70-horsepower Superb and 250-ton and 100-horsepower Majestic.[5]

Indeed, the most direct path to long-distance steam travel lay in larger hulls. Because of the buoyancy of water, steamships did not suffer rocket-equation-style negative returns on fuel consumption with increasing size. As the hull grew, its capacity to carry coal increased in proportion to its volume, while the drag the engines had to overcome (and thus the size of engine required) increased only in proportion to the surface area. Mark Beaufoy, a scholar of many pursuits but with a deep interest in naval matters, had shown this decisively in a series of experiments with actual hulls in water, published posthumously by his son in 1834.[6] In the late 1830s, two competing teams of British financiers, engineers, and naval architects emerged, racing to be the first to take advantage of this fact by creating a large enough steamship to make transatlantic steam travel technically and commercially viable.

In a lucky break for your historian, the more successful team was led by the more vibrant figure, Isambard Kingdom Brunel: even his name oozes character. (His rival’s name, Junius Smith, begins strong but ends pedestrian.) Brunel’s unusual last name came from his French father, Marc Brunel; his even more unusual middle name came from his English mother, Sophia Kingdom; and his most unusual first name descends from some Frankish warrior of old.[7] The elder Brunel came from a prosperous Norman farming family. A second son, he was to be educated for the priesthood, but rebelled against that vocation and instead joined the navy in 1786. Forced to flee France in 1793 due to his activities in support of the royalist cause, he worked for a time as a civil engineer in New York before moving to England in 1799 to develop a mechanized process for churning out pulley blocks for the British navy with one of the great rising engineers of the day, Henry Maudslay.[8]

The most famous image of Brunel, in front of the chains of his (and the world’s) largest steamship design in 1857.

Young Isambard was born in 1806, began working for his father in 1822, and got the railroad bug after riding the Liverpool and Manchester line in 1831.  The Great Western Railway (GWR) company named Brunel as chief engineer in 1833, when he just twenty-seven years old. The GWR originated with a group of Bristol merchants who saw the growth of Liverpool, and feared that without a railway link to central Britain they would lose their status as the major entrepôt for British trade with the United States. It spanned the longest route of any railway to date, almost 120 miles from London to Bristol, and under Brunel’s guidance the builders of the GWR leveled, bridged, and tunneled that route at unparalleled cost). Brunel insisted on widely spaced rails (seven feet apart) to allow a smooth ride at high speed, and indeed GWR locomotives achieved speeds of sixty miles-per-hour, with average speeds of over forty miles-per-hour over long distances, including stops. Though the broad-gauge rails Brunel stubbornly fought for are long gone, the iron-ribbed vaults of the train sheds he designed for each terminus—Paddington Station in London and Temple Meads in Bristol—still stand and serve railroad traffic today.[9]

An engraving of Temple Mead, Bristol terminus of the Great Western Railway.

According to legend, Brunel’s quest to build a transatlantic steamer began with an off-hand quip at a meeting of the Great Western directors in October 1835.[10] Someone grumbled over the length of the railway line, Brunel said something to the effect of: “Why not make it longer, and have a steamboat to go from Bristol to New York?” Though perhaps intended as a joke, Brunel’s remark spoke to the innermost dreams of the Bristol merchants, to be the indispensable link between England and America.  One of them, Thomas Guppy, decided to take the idea seriously, and convinced Brunel to do the same. Brunel, never lacking in self-confidence, did not doubt that his heretofore landbound engineering skills would translate to a watery milieu, but just in case he pulled Christopher Claxton (a naval officer) and William Patterson (a shipbuilder) in on the scheme. Together they formed a Great Western Steam Ship Company.[11]

The Race to New York

Received opinion still held that a direct crossing by steam from England to New York, of over 3,000 miles, would be impossible without refueling. Dionysius Lardner took to the hustings of the scientific world to pronounce that opinion.

Dionysius Lardner, Brunel’s nemesis.

One of the great enthusiasts and promoters of the railroad, Lardner was nonetheless a long-standing opponent of Brunel’s: in 1834 he had opposed Brunel’s route for the Great Western railway on the grounds that the gradient of Box Hill tunnel would cause trains to reach speeds of 120 miles-per-hour and thus suffocate the passengers.[12] He gave a talk to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in August 1836 deriding the idea of a Great Western Steamship, asserting that “[i]n proportion as the capacity of the vessel is increased, in the same ratio or nearly so must the mechanical power of the engines be enlarged, and the consumption of fuel augmented,” and that therefore a direct trip across the Atlantic would require a far more efficient engine than had ever yet been devised.[13] The Dublin-born Lardner much preferred his own scheme to drive a rail line across Ireland and connect the continents by the shortest possible water route: 2,000 miles from Shannon to Newfoundland.

Brunel, however, firmly believed that a large ship would solve the fuel problem. As he wrote in a preliminary report to the company in 1836, certainly drawing on Beaufoy’s work: “…the tonnage increases as the cubes of their dimensions, while the resistance increases about as their squares; so that a vessel of double the tonnage of another, capable of containing an engine of twice the power, does not really meet with double the resistance.”[14] He, Patterson and Claxton agreed to target a 1400 ton, 400 horsepower ship. They would name her, of course, Great Western.

In the post-Watt era, Britain boasted two great engine-building firms: Robert Napier’s in Glasgow in the North, and Maudslay’s in London in the south. After the death of Henry Maudslay, Marc Brunel’s former collaborator, in 1831, the business’ ownership passed to his sons. But they lacked their father’s brilliance; the key to  the firm’s future lay with the partner he had also bequeathed  to them, Joshua Field. Brunel and his father both had ties to Maudslay, and so they tapped Field to design the engine for their great ship. Field chose a “side-lever” engine design, so-called because a horizontal beam on the side of the engine rocking on a central pivot delivered power from the piston to the paddle wheels. This was the standard architecture for large marine engines, because it allowed the engine to be mounted deep in the hull, avoiding deck obstructions and keeping the ship’s center of gravity low. Field, however, added several novel features of his own devising. The most important of them was the spray condenser, which recycled some of the engine’s steam for re-use as fresh water for the boiler. This ameliorated the second-most pressing problem for long-distance steamships: the build-up of scale in the engine from saltwater.[15]

The 236-foot-long, 35-foot-wide hull sported iron bracings to increase its strength (a contribution of Brunel), and cabins for 128 passengers. The extravagant, high-ceiling grand saloon provided a last, luxurious Brunel touch. By far the largest steamship yet built, Great Western would have towered over most other ships in the London docks where she was built.[16]

The competing group around Junius Smith had not been idle. Smith, an American-born merchant who ran his business out of London had dreamed of a steam-powered Atlantic crossing ever since 1832, when while idling on a fifty-four day sail from England to New York; almost twice the usual duration. He formed the British and American Steam Navigation Company, and counted among his backers Macgregor Laird, the Scottish shipbuilder of the Niger River expedition. Their 1800-ton British Queen would boast a 500-horsepower engine, built by the Maudslay company’s Scottish rival, Robert Napier.[17]

But Smith’s group fell behind the Brunel consortium (this despite the fact that Brunel still led the engineering on the not-yet-completed Great Western Railway); the Great Western would launch first. In a desperate stunt to be able to boast of making the first Atlantic crossing, British and American launched the channel steamer Sirius on April 4, 1838 from Cork on the west coast of Ireland, laden with fuel and bound for New York. Great Western left Bristol just four days later, with fifty-seven crew (fifteen of them just for stoking coal) to serve a mere seven passengers, each paying the princely sum of 35 guineas for passage.[18]

A Lithograph of the Great Western.

Despite three short stops to deal with engine problems and a near-mutiny by disgruntled coal stokers working in miserable conditions, Great Western nearly overtook Sirius, arriving in New York just twelve hours behind her. In total the crossing took less than sixteen days—about half the travel time of a fast sailing packet—with coal to spare in the bunkers. The ledger was not all positive: the clank of the engine, the pall of smoke and the ever-present coating of soot and coal dust drained the ocean of some of its romance; as historian Stephen Fox put it, “[t]he sea atmosphere, usually clean and bracing, felt cooked and greasy.” But sixty-six passengers ponied up for the return trip: “Already… ocean travelers had begun to accept the modernist bargain of steam dangers and discomforts in exchange for consistent, unprecedented speed.”[19]

In that first year, Great Western puffed alone through Atlantic waters. Itmade four more round trips In 1838, eking out a small profit. The British Queen launched at last in July 1839, and British and American launched an even larger ship, SS President, the following year.

Among the British Queen’s first passengers on its maiden voyage to New York was Samuel Cunard, a name that would resonate in ocean travel for a century to come, and an object lesson in the difference between technical and business success. In 1840 his Cunard Line began providing transatlantic service in four Britannia-class paddleships. Imitation Great Westerns (on a slightly smaller scale), they stood out not for their size or technical novelty but for their regularity and uniformity of service. But the most important factor in Cunard’s success was outmaneuvering the Great Western Steam Company in securing a contract with the Admiralty for mail service to Halifax. This provided a steady and reliable revenue stream—starting at 60,000 pounds a year—regardless of economic downturns. Moreover, once the Navy had come to depend on Cunard for speedy mail service it had little choice but to keep upping the payments to keep his finances afloat.[20] Thanks to the savvy of Cunard, steam travel from Britain to America, a fantasy in 1836 (at least according to the likes of Dionysius Lardner), had become steady business four years later.

Brunel, however, had no patience for the mere making of money. He wanted to build monuments; creations to stand the test of time, things never seen or done before. So, when, soon after the launching of the Great Western, he began to design his next great steam ship, he decided he would build it with a hull of solid iron.

[1] Walter Scott, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, v. 3 (Edinburgh, Robert Cadell, 1837), 267, 273-75.

[2] John H. Morrison, History of American Steam Navigation (New York: W. F. Sametz, 1903), 406-7.

[3] MacGregor Laird and R.A.K. Oldfield, Narrative of an Expedition into the Interior of Africa, v. 1(London: Richard Bentley, 1837), 5-6, 15, 44-46.

[4] Scott, Memoirs, v. 3, 276-77.

[5] Stephen Fox, Transatlantic Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), 22, 32.

[6] Henry Beaufoy, ed., Nautical and Hydraulic Experiments, with numerous Scientific Miscellanies, v.1 (South Lambeth, 1834). Though the younger Beaufoy announced three volumes, no further volumes were ever published.

[7] The Germanic roots of Isambard are thought to mean either “iron-bright” or “iron axe”., retrieved January 1, 2023.

[8] L.T.C. Rolt, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (New York: Penguin, 1989 [1957]), 25-31.

[9] Fox, Transatlantic, 61-65, 68; Rolt, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, 195.

[10] This story is recounted in the biography of Isambard by his son (Isambard), but no source is given. It may have been family folklore. Isambard Brunel, The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Civil Engineer (London: Longmans, Green, 1870), 233

[11] Fox, Transatlantic, 70.

[12] L.T.C. Rolt, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (New York: Penguin, 1989 [1957]), 113.

[13] Quoted in Brunel, The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, 239.

[14] Quoted in Brunel, The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, 233.

[15] Fox, Transatlantic, 72-75.

[16] But not all of them: by way of comparison, the HMS Queen, a new 110-gun first-rate battleship launched by the British navy in 1839, was not quite as long as Great Western but almost twice as wide, and displaced 3100 tons. Not coincidentally, she was the last all-sail battleship commissioned in the Royal Navy. Fox Transatlantic, 76-77;

[17] Fox, Transatlantic 71, 74-76.

[18] Fox, Transatlantic, 77-78.

[19] Fox, Transatlantic, 79-80.

[20] Fox, Transatlantic, 87-103.

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