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Ships and boats

History of steamships

A wooden paddle-steamer from the 1830sA wooden paddle-steamer from the 1830sDuring the later 19th century, large sailing ships almost completely disappeared as steam power took over. The first successful steam-powered vessels were built for use on canals and rivers in the early 1800s. On early steamships, the steam engine turned paddle-wheels that moved the ship along, but by the 1850s most ships were using propellers (first fitted to a steamship in 1839), instead. The first ocean-going steamships kept sails, too, because they could not carry enough coal or water for long-distance voyages, and their engines were not very reliable.

A model of John Fitch's steam-powered boatA model of John Fitch's steam-powered boat

The first steam vessels

Steam engines, perfected by James Watt in partnership with Matthew Boulton in the 1770s, were soon used to power ships. The first steam vessels were built in the 1780s (including a vessel propelled by oars, invented by American inventors John Fitch and Henry Voight) but their designs were not practical.

A cutaway drawing of the Charlotte DundasA cutaway drawing of the Charlotte DundasThe first successful steamboat was the Charlotte Dundas, built by Scottish engineer William Symington, to replace barges towed by horses along the Clyde Canal in Scotland. The 17.7-metre (58-foot) wooden vessel, driven by a single paddle-wheel at the stern, made her maiden voyage in 1802. She towed barges along the canal for a few weeks, before being taken out of service because it was feared that wash from the vessel’s paddle-wheel would cause the canal’s banks to fall in.  

French inventor Marquis Claude de Jouffroy d'Abbans built the first boat to be powered by a steam engine. His Pyroscaphe, fitted with two paddle-wheels, ran against the current of the River SaƓne in France for 15 minutes in 1783.

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