The history of steam power and its application to water transport is generally well-tilled ground. It is commonly agreed that it brought advantages in terms of speed and reliability and hence facilitated economic development. Why steam was slow to be adopted, the problems of raising capital and how this expensive technology came to run profitably have been discussed. What is less understood are the problems of running early steamboats in a world habituated to sail. What has also been neglected is how, in the early years, the state came to see its role in relation to regulating safety on steam vessels. It was to be many years before the mid-century debate on harbours of refuge and the later concerns and legislation on unseaworthy ships and load lines associated with Plimsoll. Much has been written on the growth of government intervention in the economic and social sphere from the mid-nineteenth century. The debate commenced much earlier, in relation to technological innovation in coastal and short-sea trades. This paper aims to explore some of the early, neglected aspects of this debate between innovation and maritime safety.
This article examines some of these issues. The first section looks at the nature of the use of early steamboats and their economic advantages over sailing vessels. The second section then examines the types of hazard which this new technology introduced, the frequency of accidents and their causes. This leads on to the third section, which explains why there was a call for government involvement, and the fourth section, which analyzes why, despite this pressure, there was virtually no response for the best part of thirty years. Fifth, the action which was eventually taken is examined, explained and assessed for effectiveness. Finally, the topic is placed in the wider contexts of the role of government generally, maritime safety and the problems of new technology.
The operation of Henry Bell's Comet on the Clyde in August 1812 is usually considered to mark the beginning of commercial steamboat services in the UK and indeed Europe.
In modern historiography, the steamship is accorded only modest significance during its early years. That it was confined to rivers, estuaries, coastwise and short-sea voyages is the general verdict on the steamship's progress and impact in the first thirty years of its existence following the introduction of Europe's first commercial steamship service on the Clyde in 1812. In addition, some writers have seized on the minor contribution of steam to statistics on British shipping - both in terms of numbers and total tonnage - to disparage the steamship's role before 1850. Even commentators who have been less dismissive are inclined to view the success and real impact of the steamship as occurring from the mid-nineteenth century, when longer-distance oceanic routes began to be conquered by steam.
In great measure, the debate over the success and impact of the steamship is a matter of absolute and relative judgements with an element of subjectivity influencing choice of measure and approach. We contend that the substantial penetration of river, coastal and short-sea trades by steam represented a significant element of British commerce. We also suggest that statistics of steam compared with sail in the merchant fleet are not wholly appropriate for assessing the impact of a new technology. Such varied and contrasting interpretations are not the concern of this paper, which seeks to demonstrate that whatever its relative role vis-à-vis sail or within the overall context of British shipping, the early steamship during its first three decades or so represented a new and modern business. The focus is on what the steamship offered, and delivered, in business terms. Our definition of business in this context is three-fold; business in the sense of the performance of a transport function; in the sense of traffic; and in the sense of entrepreneurial practice. Each of these will be examined in turn, but before embarking on such analysis, it may be useful to provide a sketch of the nature and progress of steam shipping in its first three decades.
In the literature on the steamship before about 1850, certain themes have received greater attention than others. Popular areas of study have included the growing sophistication of steamship technology and the development of services on particular routes. Within the latter, there has been a fascination not only with long-distance services (notably transatlantic and East Asian) but also, in the British context, many detailed studies of steam shipping on shorter routes, such as cross-Channel or cross-Irish Sea. Domestic regional surveys have proved popular, although these usually embrace a longer time scale. What has not been a feature, though, is statistical analysis. We have undertaken statistical surveys of the early steamship, but only within the first twenty years or so. There has been little or no detailed quantitative consideration of the steamship up to the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, in contributions during the past fifty years or so, most writers have been content to rely on the limited figures of total steamboat numbers and tonnage in B.R. Mitchell and Phyllis Deane's Abstract of British Historical Statistics, published in 1962. This neglect is somewhat surprising because the Parliamentary Papers contain some valuable lists of individual steamships. These are dated 1829, 1835, 1845 and 1851 and have been little utilized.
An important aspect of these lists is that they were not regularly scheduled statements; rather, they were “one-off returns specifically requested by the House of Commons and specially produced by the Registrar of Shipping. In consequence, they represent surveys of steam shipping in Britain at a point in time rather than at the end of a calendar year. The unique feature of these surveys is that they are lists of named vessels not readily available elsewhere. In this essay we analyze these lists to provide a profile of the growth of steam shipping in its first forty years.
While the lists are immensely informative, they require some care in interpretation because they were neither uniform nor consistent in their presentation. What is most important, however, is that all four lists provided the name, port of registry and tonnage of steam vessels. Additionally, most had some unique features. The 1829 list supplied details for many vessels of how they were employed, such as in river traffic, coastal trades or as passenger or towing vessels. The 1835 list provided the basic details only.
This study aims to provide an overall account of the early steamboat, and more especially its impact, in the North Wales context. The emphasis is on “overall” for, to our knowledge, while considerable research has been undertaken, there has been no attempt to draw this together in a unified fashion. Such studies as do exist are somewhat dated and certainly limited in their coverage of the early steamboat. Frank C. Thornley's admirable Past and Present Steamers of North Wales was published in 1952. This, however, offers only a chapter of four pages on “the Early Steamers” - taking the story up to the 1840s - and another of similar length on the tragedy of Rothsay Castle of 1831. Thornley's prime concern was very much on the second half of the nineteenth century. The same is true of a later study, that of Roy Fenton, in a paper on North and mid-Wales steamers, that appeared in Maritime Wales some twenty years ago. He offered “A Chronological survey” of steamboat services but covered the steamboat's first three decades in a single paragraph before embarking on a detailed survey of operators and services post-1850. Fenton, moreover, describes the period 1856-1873 as “Pioneering Years,” which implies that little of consequence had preceded mid-century. This is to underestimate the level of activity in Welsh waters during the early decades of the steamboat and the impact of what was a revolutionary technological advance.
Since these studies, much has been written that serves to enhance our appreciation of the early steamboat. There has been work focussing on the technology and economics of early steam and its revolutionary impact; additionally, and of special relevance, in the late 1980s and 1990s a generation of scholars produced a range of books and papers in the field of North Wales maritime and port history. Also, in a nearby local context, early Irish Sea steam shipping has been the subject of new and highly perceptive research. Apart from its geographical proximity, Ireland was especially significant in the development of steam navigation. Steamboat operation was a relatively costly business. Ireland's different legal system made it easier to promote and capitalize joint-stock companies; hence, Irish companies were to the fore in the pioneering of steamboat services. The present authors draw on all this wealth of fresh material.
Occasionally, in the process of research instances arise where, from the original starting point and thesis, the direction of research shifts so dramatically as to warrant an account of how a paper came to be written. The authors of this paper believe that the twists and turns in the research process underlying this study may prove of interest. Our experience reveals how an initial hypothesis can prove to be totally incorrect and result in its authors being faced with a search for explanations of developments and outcomes that were the complete reverse of those envisaged.
In this instance, the starting point was a different study on which we were engaged, that of the diffusion of the steamship in the two decades or so following the pioneering voyage of Comet in 1812. High among the factors that influenced diffusion were the steamship's special qualities compared with sail: greater speed and the ability to progress against adverse winds and tides that enabled faster and predictable journey times and operation to a schedule. Offsetting such superior features was the need to give up much cargo space to engines, boilers and fuel bunkers, and the higher costs both of construction and operation. One outcome of these higher costs, especially in the long run, was that steamship companies came to be financed through joint-stock organization. Upon consulting an important study of ship ownership, we discovered a reference to the promotion of sixty-seven joint-stock shipping companies in 1824-1825. Such a flush of promotions immediately evoked parallels with two other transport-associated bursts of promotional and speculative activity, the Canal Mania of the early 1790s and the Railway Manias of the 1830s and 1840s. These occurrences have been the subject of extensive consideration by transport and financial historians, but nowhere in our research had we ever seen reference to a “steamship mania.” Here was a new, exciting theme to investigate. What were the causes of the mania, what form did it take, who were the companies and parties involved and what was its outcome and significance? Moreover, it would seem that this spurt of activity in 1824-1825 would have a significant bearing on our study of the pace and form of the diffusion of the steamship.
Ever since the foundation of the first settlement that grew up to be London, the Thames has served as a vital means of trade and transport. The role of the river in these respects developed massively over time, notably from the sixteenth century onwards, and has been charted in Rupert Jarvis’ study on the metamorphosis of the port of London. Jarvis, however, failed to note that in the early nineteenth century, the Thames acquired a new function, that of recreation. Arguably before this date there was some recreational usage, the monarch and nobility besides making heavy use of the river for transport could also enjoy pleasure cruises in their great barges. At the other end of the scale, watermen might occasionally take part in races or celebratory events, and there were the “cutter clubs” of the late eighteenth century when apprentices clubbed together to maintain a boat on the river for Sunday trips to Richmond or Kew. What occurred from the early nineteenth century was recreational usage of a very different order, for it represented the beginnings of more popular recreation and even large-scale tourism which led to a new, closer relationship of ordinary Londoners with their river.
The factor that gave rise to this change was new technology in the form of the steamboat. Steam transformed shipping and ultimately replaced sail, but before 1850 steamboats operated largely on rivers and on coastal and short-sea routes. The special features of the steamboat were that it could operate independent of the wind. Likewise, it was far less affected by tides - a significant matter when operating in the Thames or other estuaries. Such qualities allowed steamboats to fix, and run to, schedules. Additionally, steamboats could run at faster speeds and offered a smoother passage as they did not regularly heel over like sailing vessels responding to the wind. In sum, the steamboat offered more reliable, more regular and, from a passenger standpoint, more comfortable services.
Steam arrived on the Thames in 1815. In January of that year, Marjory commenced services between London and Gravesend, operating between the two locations on alternate days.
Communications between Europe and the Americas have been an essential element in the development of the Atlantic economy. In this context, the coming of steam in the nineteenth century was truly revolutionary in its impact. Not merely did steam bring greater speed; it also brought greater reliability and the regularization of commercial intercourse through scheduled liner services. These attributes were unobtainable under sail, and it was not until the late 1830s that steamships were sufficiently improved technologically to provide a measure of regular, transatlantic steam departures and arrivals. Long before this, however, the concept of liner services had been considered. Indeed, in 1819 an enterprise named the Ocean Steam Ship Company was incorporated in New York. Its organizers stated their aims as “desirous of constructing and employing steamships in navigating the oceans,” but nothing came of this project. In the same year came the much-publicized transatlantic crossing of Savannah. It was a dubious achievement for steam as the engine was used for only about thirteen percent of the whole voyage. More significant was a development in Britain in 1824, little more than a decade after the first commercial utilization of the steamship in Europe, the operation of Comet on the Clyde in 1812. The American and Colonial Steam Navigation Company (A&C), as the venture was entitled, proved unsuccessful, and perhaps this explains its neglect by some historians of transatlantic shipping. The A&C's history, however, merits consideration on a number of counts. Apart from its remarkably early timing, its imaginative ambition and its sad failure, the company is of interest in terms of what it reveals about the level of contemporary appreciation of technology. Living with and understanding technological progress are processes that are nowadays taken for granted; in the early stages of industrialization these were new experiences to be confronted. This paper reviews the thinking that lay behind the formation of the A&C, its unfortunate history and the insight it provides into the prevailing limited understanding of new technology and its operation.
“Global history” is a relatively new historiographical concept, for the words “global” and “globalization” were seldom used before the 1970s. Indeed, it was not until the 1990s that these terms gained scholarly popularity. A clear indication of this is that historians, and even more so publishers, continued to offer “world” rather than “global” histories. Major surveys, such as those by James Foreman-Peck and Rondo Cameron, published in 1983 and 1989, respectively, were titled and marketed as “world histories.“ When scholars addressed the theme of maritime global markets in 1998 at the International Economic History Congress, there were varied interpretations and reservations as to whether globalization differed from the continuing process of internationalization. But in the last decade or so the term global has taken on a clearer conceptual status. “Global world,” “global economy” and “global village” are open to a variety of interpretations, but few would disagree that “[globalisation is…the integration of economic activities via markets. The driving forces are technological and policy changes – falling costs of transport and communications and greater reliance on market forces.“ Such a definition rightly emphasizes the revolution in communications that took place in the second half of the twentieth century in air, motor and sea transport, and especially in satellite technology and the internet. These advances have contributed to the integration and convergence of markets both in terms of prices and living standards.
Today's global economy is built on the foundations of an earlier world economy – created in the late nineteenth century – that was to a considerable degree similarly based on a communications revolution. It is our contention – and a key theme of this essay – that there is a difference between the communications revolution that led to the creation of a world economy and that which in the later twentieth century gave rise to a global economy in that the former was primarily maritime-based.
This essay examines the technological advances that comprised the communications revolution of the nineteenth century with an emphasis on the maritime dimension. These were the steamship, the railway and the telegraph. At first sight the “maritime” appears to be only one of three elements, but we argue that the maritime dimension of the communications revolution and its significance was far wider.
Technological advance is the outcome less of invention than of innovation, for it is not so much the appearance of a new machine or technique but its dissemination that has an impact on economic growth and the pattern of economic activity. The process of dissemination of new technologies varies both over time and space; some new processes are rapidly and widely taken up, others make but slow and narrow progress. This study examines the diffusion of the steamship in the UK from the commencement of commercial services in 1812 through to the early 1830s, just over two decades later. Underlying this examination are two aims; first, to demonstrate that there was a rapid and nationwide diffusion of steamship services, and second, to explain why this development came about.
Our claim for the rapid diffusion for the early steamship may appear to run contrary to the existing consensus on the spread of steamship services. In 1982, Sarah Palmer observed that “the early history of steam shipping has received little attention from maritime historians except by way of contrast with steam's later spectacular development or as a means of demonstrating the resilience of the sailing ship as a mode of transport.” Such an approach largely still persists, and the prevailing orthodoxy is virtually unanimous in its belief in the slow progress of steam shipping. Only a decade or so ago Robert Gardiner noted that “the coming of steam was a complex and long drawn out affair,” and David Starkey, in the same volume, couched his discussion of steam shipping in terms of why the growth of steam was so slow. Such judgements on the spread of steam power arise from the approach of assessing a new technology on the basis of how soon it replaces, takes over and dismisses an earlier technology. This approach is misleading on a number of counts. First, it is highly unlikely for any new technology to rapidly displace a widespread and long-established existing technology. The latter inevitably embodies a heavy investment of capital that is often capable of continuing to operate on an economic and profitable basis. Moreover, operators of an older technology are unlikely to consider change unless forced by necessity or being convinced of overwhelming advantage.
The essays in this volume cover aspects of the history and significance of the early steamship during the first fifty years of its existence. They embrace the period from the first commercial steamship voyage of Comet in 1812 up to the late 1850s. Both theme and period possess substantial historical literatures which extend back well over a century. But within the body of past studies, wide ranging though they are, there remain many lacunae - hence our research. In the case of some of the essays in this volume, we can justly claim to have broken new ground; in others, we have broadened and deepened research into aspects considered by previous writers. Through our work we hope to have added to the sum of knowledge on, and the understanding of, the early steamship. So that readers may gain some appreciation of where our modest contribution resides, it may be of value to review the existing literature on the first half-century of steam navigation. We would emphasize first and foremost that our review is designed to place our studies in context. We do not ascribe any special coherence to this period. On reflection, it might be said that the years between 1812 and the 1850s represent the “era of the wooden paddle steamer,” but such vessels continued to play a significant role after 1860, and early iron hulls and screw propulsion date from the 1830s. Again, it might be argued that the shift from sail to steam - which is not a theme we have addressed in the papers of this volume - only began significantly from around the 1860s with the development of the compound engine - but such observations are very much afterthoughts. This bibliographical and historiographical survey covers the period it does because those years provide the temporal parameters of the papers in this volume. Likewise, its coverage is confined to British commercial steam shipping, albeit abroad as well as in home waters.
The coming of the steamship was one of the great watersheds in the history of humankind. For the first time, transport could be powered independently of the elements of animal or human power. The implications were wide-ranging because the assured power of steam permitted a hitherto unprecedented degree of regularity in the scheduling of services. In turn, this regularized all sorts of commercial transactions, including personal travel, and impinged on the experience of vast swathes of the population through a new discipline of time and a broadening of horizons as the new mode of transport shortened distance and permitted the more rapid transport of goods, people and information. The lives of individuals and institutions were transformed by the coming of the steamship, first at a local level, but within decades of the first commercial voyages at regional, national, international and world levels. The steamship was the prime agent of a world economy and the globalization process. Moreover, the transformation wrought by the steamship took place in less than a century.
Experiments with steam as a means of powering water transport had a long history, but it was during the years around 1810 that the first commercial exploitation began. The United States was the pioneer, with Britain following closely behind. The experiences of these two nations in steam navigation soon diverged; for geographical, political and economic reasons, progress in terms of a diversity of function and an international dimension was more rapid in Britain. The essays in this volume are set in the first forty years or so of the steamship's existence in Britain. They cover a variety of themes, notably diffusion, construction, modernization, government, business, finance, recreation and tourism.
At the outset we must gratefully acknowledge the support we have received in assembling this volume. Eleven of the fourteen essays included have been previously published. They appear in this new setting entirely through the good will and permission of the editors and proprietors of ten important academic journals. These, in the order in which the relevant papers appear, in this volume are Mariner's Mirror, Journal of Transport History, London Journal, Journal of European Economic History, International Journal of Maritime History, Aslib Proceedings, The Northern Mariner/Le marin du nord, Norfolk Archaeology, Maritime Wales/Cymru a'r Mor, and International Journal for the History of Engineering and Technology.
A vital factor in the development of popular travel, popular both in the sense of an attractive and accessible product, was that of improvements in transport. Progress in transport, in terms of passengers, embodies the ability to convey passengers more cheaply, more rapidly and in greater numbers. In the history of both popular recreation and tourism, the widely held view is that the railway was the first transport mode able to provide efficient mass travel facilities. Hence, the railway played a major role in promoting the developments of tourism and resorts and was the instigator of the day excursion. In the latter instance, the story of Thomas Cook's first excursion in 1841, which conveyed over four hundred persons by rail from Leicester to Loughborough for a temperance rally, has become a legend. The outing is held up as the first example of such recreational travel activity involving large numbers, and Cook was hailed as an innovative pioneer who “made the largest single contribution of any man to the growth of a new industry.” In fact, Cook's Loughborough venture was not the first public rail excursion - others had occurred from the mid-1830s. Nevertheless, the beginning of excursion travel is widely associated with the coming of the railway. Pimlott, one of the earliest historians of recreation, observed that the railway excursion “effectively began the era of cheap holiday travel for the masses.” Likewise, lengthier recreational stays away from home involving travel - weekend or longer holidays - for a wider public than the very rich are viewed as a function of the speedier transit brought by rail. In consequence, the early development of some seaside resorts is attributed to their connection with the rail network.
This study argues that the case of the railway in promoting popular recreational travel, introducing excursions and encouraging resort development has been over-emphasized and in some instances has been wrongly credited with a pioneering role. That role, in fact, was played by the steamboat. In fairness to previous writers, some have qualified their studies of the recreational impact of the railway by noting the existence of earlier steamboat pleasure traffic. None, however, has proceeded further and fully considered the extent and significance of that traffic. This paper rectifies this neglect.
This article arises from our view that writers on industrialization and development have largely ignored the significance of the early steamship in the process of economic and social change before the mid-nineteenth century. If one examines studies of industrialization in Britain - the first industrial nation and the European pioneer of the steamship - the importance, and indeed even the coverage attributed to the early steamship is at best modest and in some instances scarcely more than a mention. Where the steamship does appear in general studies of the British experience it is often merely in the form of noting the first instance of steam navigation in 1812 and thereafter suggesting that “the steamship remained essentially a river boat until the middle years of the nineteenth century,” or was “limited to inland waters and narrow seas.” Not until the steamship began to operate in longer-distance oceanic trades after 1850 do general studies afford it any serious coverage and even then the emphasis is on the period following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the development of the triple-expansion engine.
Such interpretations to us fail to appreciate the significant impact of the early steamship. This study is set in the thirty years or so after the appearance of the first steamship in Europe to operate a commercial service in 1812. We argue that during this period the steamship was a pioneering vehicle of change in many of the aspects of attitudes, practice and organization that crucially distinguish a modern from a pre-modern economy. While analysis is focused on Britain, there are wider implications, for a unique feature of the innovation of the steamship was the speed and breadth, nationally and internationally, of its diffusion. Within a quarter-century of its invention, steamships were operating in dozens of countries and served every continent.
The importance of the steamship as an agent of modernization in the context of Britain stems from two factors. Both have to be considered in relation to the railway that is widely held to be the agent of the crucial breakthrough into the modern age, a view that serves to explain the neglect of the early steamship by so many writers. The first of these is that in Britain the steamship preceded the railway by almost twenty years, if the Liverpool to Manchester line is taken as the first genuine locomotive-operated railway.
Relatively little academic study has been undertaken on early British steamboats, where “early” is taken to be the first half of the nineteenth century. Research has focussed on the second half of the nineteenth century when greater boiler pressures gave rise to the compound, and later the triple expansion engine - both much more economic in their coal consumption - which allowed long ocean voyages to be undertaken. Even less has been published on the “very early steamboat,” which we might take as meaning from the in ception of European commercial steamboat services in 1812, when Henry Bell ran Comet on the river Clyde between Glasgow and Helensburgh, until the mid-1820s. Of the steam vessels of this period there has been an absence of thorough academic analysis, especially in the matters of their construction and the builders and engineers involved. A powerful reason for this neglect may well have been that there was perceived to be no single, easily usable source. The authors of this article have discovered a previously unused source that allows us to address a number of questions about the very early steamboats.
The article is in five sections. First, the source is explained and some reasons advanced for its neglect to date. The source is then tested in terms of its authorship and completeness against such other contemporary evidence as is available. Second, the validity of the source having been established, it is summarized in terms of the general trends of numbers constructed, tonnage and horsepower. The two following sections present an examination of the construction of the very early steamboats. Here a key factor is that in the early decades of steam navigation hull building and engine manufacture were separate, distinct and unrelated activities, primarily because each involved different skills associated with very different materials, wood and iron. Moreover, not merely were hull and engine building undertaken separately, but they often took place in locations a considerable distance apart. Hence, the third section considers the matter of who provided the hulls for early steam vessels and the location of their shipyards, while a fourth section poses similar questions of engine builders. A fifth section integrates the analysis and comments on theories of innovation dispersal. The conclusion places the findings in a longerterm context.
Today's global tourism is a development of the mass tourist industry that emerged in the 1960s. That in turn was the outcome, albeit over a much longer gestation period, of the growth of popular international tourism that had its origins in the nineteenth century. Popular tourism is to be interpreted in terms of a clientele which extended beyond an elite of the very rich who traditionally enjoyed the resources of time and money that enabled lengthy and expensive travel abroad. In each of these stages of the evolution of tourism, there are market influences in common, namely those of improvements in transport that reduced the costs and time of travel alongside increases in living standards and the acquisition of more adventurous lifestyles that encouraged would-be travellers to venture further afield. Both demand and supply sides of the market, at all stages, were located in the most developed, industrial economies where technological advances in modes of transport and the rise of incomes were first apparent. Hence, it is generally held that the beginnings of popular, international tourism lie in Europe and particularly with British recreational travel to the Continent in the mid-nineteenth century. In such analyses, great weight is laid on the spread of railway construction in opening up Europe to the traveller and the services of agents, notably Thomas Cook, in the organization of tours. Without doubt, railways were highly influential in the rapid upsurge of travel to and within the Continent during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. In the case of Britain, the number of cross-Channel passengers in 1882 exceeded 500,000 compared with an estimate (albeit we believe an underestimate) of 100,000 forty years earlier. Nor is Cook's business acumen in question; he conveyed 20,000 visitors to the Paris Exhibition of 1867 and some 75,000 to its counterpart in 1878. The beginnings of popular travel to North Western Europe predated the railway, however, and there is considerable evidence of entrepreneurial activity and organized tourism before Cook undertook his first continental venture in 1855. The stimulus to development was the steamboat - the contribution of which to popular tourism has been largely ignored in accounts of the growth of recreational travel to the Continent.
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