Portcities Southampton
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The ocean liner develops


Steam across the Atlantic

The challenge of the Atlantic

The Atlantic was both a goal and a challenge for steam ship operators.  There were passengers, mail and cargo in abundance. The distances and possible bad weather meant ships had to be bigger and stronger than those on almost any other route.  This meant that liners crossing on the main Atlantic routes developed into the biggest, fastest and grandest of any ships.

In the 1830s a number of steam ships crossing the Atlantic on delivery voyages were still using their sails for longer than they used their steam engines.  The first ship built to operate a regular steamship service across the Atlantic was Brunel’s Great Western, completed in 1837.  She outclassed most other steam ships and for some years provided the only steamer service from Europe to New York.  The other pioneer of Atlantic steamship services, the Cunard Line, initially ran to Halifax in Nova Scotia.

Like the early Cunard ships, the Great Western was a wooden paddle steamer.  Iron construction became general for ocean-going steamers in the 1840s, as better methods of making and working iron became available.  With iron there was no limit on the size of a vessel, as Brunel demonstrated in the 1850s with his Great Eastern, which almost 700 feet in length was six times bigger than any existing ship.

Propellors replace paddles

The Great Eastern used both paddle and screw propulsion.  Paddles had disadvantages for ocean-going steamers, restricting cargo capacity and performing badly in heavy weather.  However, they continued to be chosen for deep-sea ships because the engines available to drive paddles gave greater speed and power than screw propulsion.  But the advantages of the screw, which always remained submerged, meant that marine engines were developed which could drive screw propellors efficiently.  These took a long time to arrive on the Atlantic, however, and Cunard’s first regular mail steamer to be driven by a screw did not cross until 1860. However, screws then quickly replaced paddles for most new ships.  The exceptions were those that needed to be highly manoeuvrable and had to operate in shallow waters.  Many excursion steamers, for instance, were built with paddles right up to and beyond the Second World War.  Some are still with us, such as the Waverley which offers cruises round the UK coast every summer.