100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Steamship
Year of Invention: 1807

What Is It? A ship propelled by steam.

Who Invented It? Robert Fulton (in New York City)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Steamships finally freed ocean travel from the whims of current and wind. They freed river traffic to sail at any time, in any weather. Commerce flourished. Inland farms and factories blossomed, knowing that the rivers and steam power could reliably get their products to coastal ports.

Steam power freed ship builders from the rigid weight and design limits imposed by the need for masts and sails and from the need to design ships so that they could operate in light, irregular winds.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Before steam engines, river and canal traffic was usually horse drawn. The barges were really little more than floating wagons. River traffic moved at a crawl of 2 mph upstream and swept by as fast as the current would carry it when traveling downstream.

Open ocean travel moved as fast as wind and current would allow. Arrival times were always general estimates, plus or minus a couple of weeks depending on the wind.


How Was the Steamship Invented?

Frenchman Marquis Joffroy D’abans was the first to try to build a steamship. He made his first steam launch in 1776 along the banks of the River Seine in Paris. D’abans lowered a small, wood-fired steam engine onto a riverboat. The engine’s rocker arms connected to paddles that looked like flopping duck’s feet. The rocker arms dipped back and forth. The duck-feet paddles thrashed comically, but the ship never moved.

The Marquis’s second try was in 1779. He used a bigger steam engine this time. However, with the engine heaped on its deck, this boat was too heavy and sank as it was launched. D’abans made his final try in 1783 along the River Saone in Lyons, France. His new ship, the Peryscaphe, hissed, wheezed, and puttered slower than a man could walk.

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