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Coal, Steam and Ships
Engineering, Enterprise and Empire on the Nineteenth-Century Seas


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Part of Science in History

  • Date Published: July 2018
  • availability: Available
  • format: Hardback
  • isbn: 9781107196728

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About the Authors
  • Crosbie Smith explores the trials and tribulations of first-generation Victorian mail steamship lines, their passengers, proprietors and the public. Eyewitness accounts show in rich detail how these enterprises engineered their ships, constructed empire-wide systems of steam navigation and won or lost public confidence in the process. Controlling recalcitrant elements within and around steamship systems, however, presented constant challenges to company managers as they attempted to build trust and confidence. Managers thus wrestled to control shipbuilding and marine engine-making, coal consumption, quality and supply, shipboard discipline, religious readings, relations with the Admiralty and government, anxious proprietors, and the media - especially following a disaster or accident. Emphasizing interconnections between maritime history, the history of engineering and Victorian culture, Smith's innovative history of early ocean steamships reveals the fraught uncertainties of Victorian life on the seas.

    • Emphasizes the interconnections between maritime history, the history of engineering and Victorian religious beliefs and practices
    • Offers a clear, analytical understanding of the system-building imperatives motivating marine engineers, shipbuilders, ship-owners and the state
    • Uses eyewitness accounts to show the fraught nature of Victorian steamship enterprises at all levels
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    • Winner, 2018 Anderson Medal, Society for Nautical Research

    Reviews & endorsements

    'This wonderful book about early steamships provides an outstandingly authoritative historical account of the impact of engineering on nineteenth-century global economies. Full of fascinating human stories from the age of Brunel and Cunard to the transformations brought about by rapid connections between old and new worlds, Smith provides a fresh and important way to think about the role of technology in history.' Janet Browne, Harvard University, Massachusetts

    'Steamships transformed world trade in the nineteenth century. Few know as well as Crosbie Smith the story of the businessmen, engineers, and sailors who built and ran the new global fleets of steamers that worked that transformation, and no one has told it with more penetrating insight. Coal, Steam and Ships is a remarkable contribution to the literature of Britain's seaborne empire.' Bruce J. Hunt, University of Texas

    'Coal, Steam and Ships is a masterly analysis of the rich, complex and interconnected intellectual, organisational, technological and cultural processes that transformed the steamship from experimental novelties into the elegantly engineered prime movers of the global economy in fifty years.' Andrew Lambert, King's College London

    'Coal, Steam and Ships tells a story with global significance by bringing together deep scholarship and sophisticated historical understanding. Crosbie Smith's mastery of his subject is formidable. The drama and the dangers of the voyages, the conflicts over finance and innovation, and the delicate relationships between interest groups are vividly evoked. A major achievement by one of the world's most admired historians of science and technology.' Ludmilla Jordanova, Durham University

    'Coal, Steam and Ships is a rich and noteworthy examination of the early decades of regular global operations by steamships as exemplified by the development of five successful shipping companies.' Jan Drent, The Northern Mariner

    'Crosbie Smith's latest book is the culmination of his long train of work on the subject of energy in the British culture … The index is as meticulous as the research; sixty-two pages of extensive cross-referencing ensure that the reader will never be lost.' Larrie D. Ferreiro, Technology and Culture

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    Product details

    • Date Published: July 2018
    • format: Hardback
    • isbn: 9781107196728
    • length: 468 pages
    • dimensions: 235 x 159 x 26 mm
    • weight: 0.89kg
    • contains: 40 b/w illus. 6 tables
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    Introduction: coal, steam and ships
    Part I. North Atlantic Steam:
    1. 'Trust in the promises of God': the moral and spiritual credibility of steam navigation
    2. 'The character of fine workmanship': making Clydeside's marine engineering reputation
    3. 'A swarm of projectors': promises of North Atlantic steam navigation
    4. 'This noble vessel': realizing the promises of transatlantic steam
    5. 'Giving rich promise of serious intentions': Mr Cunard's line of steamers
    6. 'Proprietor of the Atlantic Ocean': politics and patronage on the seas
    Part II. Westward for Panama:
    7. 'Mail-coaches of the ocean': the West India Company project
    8. 'A most perilous enterprise': Royal Mail Steam Packet's vulnerabilities
    9. 'In highly creditable order': RMSP's new board of management in action
    10. 'She was one mass of fire': reading the maiden voyage of the Royal Mail Steamer Amazon
    11. 'An uncompromising adherence to punctuality': Pacific Steam from Valparaiso to Panama
    Part III. Eastward for India and China:
    12. 'Built on a large, commodious and powerful scale': forging P&O's Eastern Mail Steamship system
    13. 'So great a cloud of obloquy and mistrust': locking and unlocking the secrets of a maritime empire
    14. 'A more desirable result in the performance of the vessel': P&O's mail steamers in action
    Part IV. Engineering an Oceanic Economy:
    15. 'She would be perfectly stable and strong': rival systems of engineering economy
    16. 'The engines were imperfect': Pacific Steam's coal economy
    17. 'A constant succession of unfathomable and costly experiments': making credible the marine compound engine
    18. 'The modern Clyde ships': economy and power for ocean steam navigation
    Epilogue: 'The sovereignty of the seas' – the maritime system builders.

  • Author

    Crosbie Smith, University of Kent, Canterbury
    Crosbie Smith was Professor of History of Science at the University of Kent until he retired in 2014 to concentrate on research. Two of his books have won the History of Science Society's Pfizer Award: The Science of Energy (1998) and Energy and Empire (Cambridge, 2009), which he co-wrote with Norton Wise.


    • Winner, 2018 Anderson Medal, Society for Nautical Research

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