Paddlewheel Steamships

The Clermont was the first steamboat built in the United States

The Clermont was the first steamboat built in the United States and the first commercially successful steamboat in the world. It was powered by a Watt steam engine and measured 41 m (133 ft) long. On its initial trip in 1807, Clermont steamed up the Hudson River from New York City to Albany and back, a distance of 385 km (240 mi), in 62 hours.

The first practical steam-powered vessel was the Charlotte Dundas, a 15-m (50-ft) paddlewheel steamboat that towed two 70-ton barges almost 32 km (20 mi) on the Forth and Clyde Canal in Scotland in 1802. American inventor Robert Fulton sailed aboard the Charlotte Dundas and immediately sensed that there was rich potential for steam in America. After trials with his ship Steam Boat, Fulton designed and assembled the first successful commercial steamboat, Clermont, in 1807.

Clermont measured 41 m (133 ft) long and was powered by a steam engine built by Scottish inventor James Watt. Watt's engine drove two paddlewheels mounted on the sides of the ship. Clermont steamed up New York's East Hudson River from New York City to Albany and back, covering a total distance of 385 km (240 mi) in 62 hours. Fulton's enthusiasm for steamships proved infectious, and soon paddlewheel steamships carried passengers and freight on canals and rivers and on coastal runs across both the eastern United States and western Europe.

In 1818 the American steamship Savannah became the first steam-powered vessel to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Throughout much of this groundbreaking trip, however, the ship operated under sail power. Early steamships relied heavily on sail power because their engines required more coal than could reasonably fit aboard the ship. Moreover, sail power provided a necessary alternative to the notoriously unreliable steam engines of the time.

In 1819 Savannah became the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean
In 1819 Savannah became the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. The ship, which measured 33 m (109 ft), made the crossing from Savannah, Georgia, to Liverpool, England, in 21 days. Records show that the ship was under steam power for only eight hours of the trip, however, probably because Savannah's bulky and unreliable steam equipment required more coal than the ship could carry.

Ships rapidly grew larger, more efficient, and more comfortable, making transoceanic steamship travel more palatable. In 1838 the Great Western became the first steamship to offer regular passage across the Atlantic Ocean. Built and designed by pioneering British ship designer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Great Western measured 72 m (236 ft) long and traveled between Bristol, England, and New York City in just 15 days. Great Western's comfort and reliability initiated a new era in transportation.

The same year, the British government solicited bids to build a fleet of paddlewheel steamships to deliver mail between the United States and England. The paddlewheel steamers were to replace Britain's famous line of packet sailing ships. British ship owner Samuel Cunard won the contract, and in 1840 he established the Cunard Line to provide transatlantic mail service between Liverpool, England, and Boston, Massachusetts, twice a month. Business boomed, and Cunard soon expanded its operations to include passenger service between the two countries.

In spite of their success, paddlewheel steamers posed many problems to their passengers and crew. For example, they lacked stability in the water. When a steamship listed slightly to the side, one paddlewheel lifted out of the water, while the other submerged entirely under the water. This made for an uncomfortable ride and placed great strain on the engine. Paddlewheel steamers also proved impractical as battleships. The large paddlewheels left little space to mount guns, and the engines and coalbunkers filled what little space remained for the crew.

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