180 Years of Transatlantic Steam

On April 8, 1838, the steamship Great Western..the first steamship to be purpose-built for the transatlantic passenger traffic…left Bristol for New York City. Four days earlier, though, another steamship, the Sirius, had left Cork for the same destination. Sirius had not been designed for the Atlantic run; it was a small channel steamer which had been chartered by the rivals of Great Western’s owners. This competitive enterprise had encountered delays in the construction of their own Atlantic liner, the British Queen, and had chartered Sirius to keep Great Western from scoring a win in the PR battle. Sirius did arrive at New York first, on April 23, but Great Western came in only 12 hours later…its crossing of a little more than 15 days was the fastest ever from England to America.

There were earlier crossings that had been at least partly steam-powered: the American ship Savannah in 1819 (which actually used only sails for most of the voyage), and the Dutch Curacao and the Canadian Royal William, which made their crossings in 1827 and 1833 respectively. But it was the Great Western vs Sirius race which marked the beginning of steam passenger and mail service across the Atlantic.

The paddle wheels and auxiliary sailing rigs of the early steamers gave way to screw propellers and total reliance on steam, and reciprocating steam engines were later supplanted by steam turbines…which in turn have now largely been replaced by diesels and in some cases gas turbines. Aircraft carriers and submarines still use steam turbines, though, with the steam generation done by nuclear energy rather than the burning of coal or oil.

Here’s the British actress Fanny Kemble, writing circa 1882, in annotation of her years-earlier comments about the difficulties and emotional pain caused by slow communications between the continents:

To those who know the rate of intercourse between Europe and America now, these expressions of the painful sense of distance from my country and friends, under which I suffered, must seem almost incomprehensible,—now, when to go to Europe seems to most Americans the easiest of summer trips, involving hardly more than a week’s sea voyage; when letters arrive almost every other day by some of the innumerable steamers flying incessantly to and fro, and weaving, like living shuttles, the woof and warp of human communication between the continents; and the submarine telegraph shoots daily tidings from shore to shore of that terrible Atlantic, with swift security below its storms. But when I wrote this to my friend, no words were carried with miraculous celerity under the dividing waves; letters could only be received once a month, and from thirty to thirty-seven days was the average voyage of the sailing packets which traversed the Atlantic. Men of business went to and fro upon their necessary affairs, but very few Americans went to Europe, and still fewer Europeans went to America, to spend leisure, or to seek pleasure; and American and English women made the attempt still seldomer than the men. The distance between the two worlds, which are now so near to each other, was then immense.

(The quote is one of several passages cited in my post Further Fannyisms)

Also: the ultimate development of the steam-turbine-powered passenger liner was represented by the SS United States. This beautiful ship has so far managed to avoid the the scrapper’s’ torches…the SS United States Conservancy is working to raise sufficient funds to preserve the vessel on an ongoing basis.

Related: 301 years of steam power

8 thoughts on “180 Years of Transatlantic Steam”

  1. It’s interesting to note that the amount of time from these initial steam crossings of the Atlantic until the inauguration of commercial transatlantic air service (by the dirigible Graf Zeppelin) was almost exactly the same amount of time that has passed from the start of the zeppelin service until the present.

  2. Regularly scheduled steam-packet passenger service between the US and Europe was a small revolution. Passengers didn’t have to wait on the whim of a ship captain, a destination for his cargo and erratic weather to boot. The trans-Atlantic service was a quiet revolution … Fanny Kemble was entirely correct. Now with steam-powered engines rather than sails, it was a journey of a week, from New York to Southampton or Bremen – rather than six or more.
    It’s always been a marvel to me, how much life changed for ordinary people, between the beginning of the 19th century, and the end of it. So much change – and over a single lifetime!

  3. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a fascinating account of his 1879 journey from the Clyde to California as a series of essays complied into a book, “From Scotland to Silverado”. This was about a week crossing a stormy Atlantic with unhappy steerage passengers, followed by a week crossing the continental United States in a crowded train. At the end he commented that technology is amazing — only 2 weeks to get from the west coast of Europe to the west coast of America. Only 2 weeks!

  4. Philip Hone, a New York politician and businessman, left a very interesting account of the arrival of “Sirius” and “Great Western” in his diary, which is well worth reading in general. Some excerpts:

    April 23, 1838

    “The British steamer “Sirius,” Lieut. Richard Roberts, of the Royal Navy, commander, arrived here last evening, having sailed from Cork on the 4th. She has performed the voyage without any accident, except the slight one of grounding at Sandy Hook, from which she will have been extricated by this time. She has on board forty-six passengers. The Sirius comes out as pioneer to the great steam-packet which is preparing to come to this country… The arrival of “Sirius” is an event of so great interest that the corporation of the city appointed a joint committee to receive and visit her on her arrival… The “Great Western” (for such is the rather awkward name of this noble steamer) came up from Sandy Hook about two o’clock, passed around the “Sirius,” then lying at anchor off the Battery, and, proceeding up the East river, hauled into Pike slip. She is much larger than her avant-courrier, being the largest vessel propelled by steam which has yet made her appearance in the waters of Europe…She sailed from Bristol on the 8th inst., four days later than the departure of the “Sirius” from Cork, performing thus her voyage, under the disadvantages of new machinery and a prevalence of head-winds, in fifteen days.

    “The city was in a firment during the day, from the arrival of these two interesting strangers. The Battery and adjacent streets were crowded with curious spectators, and the water covered with boats conveying obtrusive visitors on board… The passengers on board the two vessels speak in the highest terms of the convenience, steadiness, and apparent safety of the new mode of conveyance across the ocean… Our countrymen, “studious of change and pleased with novelty,” will rush forward to visit the shores of Europe instead of resorting to Virginia or Saratoga Springs; and steamers will continue to be the fashion until some more dashing adventurer of the go-ahead tribe shall demonstrate the practicability of balloon navigation, and gratify their impatience by a voyage over, and not upon, the blue waters in two days, instead of as many weeks…etc.”

  5. Sgt Mom:

    The 20thC was no different.

    My GF was born in 1905 and passed away in 1992 (on his 3rd pacemaker). He saw the advent of radio and TV, flight from its infancy to the Concord, space travel from purest fantasy with no possibility to man on the moon and probes visiting (and soft landing on) other planets. DarpaNet existed and was becoming the internet just as he passed away. Electrification went from a luxury for the moderately wealthy to an expectation of every home. Ditto phone service, moving from shared, local lines to affordable international calling and nacent cell phone service on the individual level. Medically, he saw the advent of sulfa drugs, penicillin, heart-lung-kidney-liver transplants, blood transfusions, X-Rays to MRIs (as well as pacemakers, personally). Cars went from novelties to ubiquitous, lending to common travel more than 30 miles from your home, almost at a whim, and safe, reliable 1000 mile trips during his lifetime. Shipping of not just mfr goods, but seasonal foods became the norm (I recall him, during yearly vacations back from FL to Iowa, taking BUSHELS of citrus back for people to enjoy… Who would bother with this now?)

    And so few today grasp how unimaginably wealthy they are, it’s all such a given to them… If anything will be the death of our civ, it’s the sheer ignorance of their birthright of wealth for the young.

  6. There are no longer very many steam ships, that is, ships propelled by steam engines. I think the great majority of large ships crossing the Atlantic – and the Pacific – are diesel engine or gas turbine powered. Great diesel engines have replaced the steam turbines in the really big ships, and a few ships, especially large warships use gas turbines and both are far more fuel efficient and easier to maintain than the steam systems. But from the outside you can hardly tell. Railroad locomotives have gone the same way in North America, Europe and much of the rest of the world.

  7. AC…correct, except that nuclear-powered warships do use steam as a working fluid.

    The idea of nuclear-powered merchant ships never really caught on.

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