Articles, Maritime History


Engineering – The age of Steam.

Since early times ships were driven by oars and sail. The crews of these ships consisted of ordinary seamen who did the work and officers who controlled the ship and decided where it should go.

Then in the 1700’s with the discovery of how to use steam, everything changed. James Watt a Scottish engineer was born in 1736. He established Scotland as the source of a new breed of ships crew, marine engineers. To this day “Scotty” is frequently used as a nickname for ships engineers. (As in “beam me up Scotty”)

The first steam engines were very large and could not be moved, but soon efforts were made to put smaller versions in ships. Great benefits were foreseen as ships would then be independent of the wind and could travel directly to their destination.

Many people were experimenting with steamships, particularly in Britain, France and the United States. The first steamship of any size to sail successfully was possibly in France in 1776. By 1802 what is believed to be the first practical steamer, the “Charlotte Dundas”, towed two barges on the Forth and Clyde canal.

The first steamship to travel across the Atlantic in 1838 with 40 passengers, using entirely its own engines and paddles, (not using the sails, which were also fitted) was the “Sirius”. It was necessary to burn all available wood including the masts to achieve this feat.

With the invention of the screw or propellor, around 1870, ships could go faster, but steam engines using cylinders and pistons were slow. In 1897 Charles Parsons from Birr demonstrated the then fastest ship in the world, the “Turbinia” using a steam turbine which was a major revolution in steam power. This ship can be seen in a museum in Newcastle-on-Tyne,

The last and biggest steamship ever built was the RMS Queen Elizabeth – QE2 – launched in 1969.

This was refitted with diesel engines in 1986.