How Ocean Liners Used Technology to End The Golden Age of Sail
The mighty sailing ship. For centuries, ships like this had plied the world’s oceans ferrying passengers and cargo to far-flung corners of the globe. But then, in the 1800s something remarkable happened- Technology rocketed forward at an enormous rate and the way people travelled the world’s oceans was forever changed. Now voyages that had once taken months could take only weeks or days and people could enjoy comfort and luxury in an environment that once spelt terror and danger. What technological leaps forward created this huge change in standards?
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m your friend Mike Brady and this is the incredible story of how the ocean liners used technology to end the days of sail and revolutionize travel. We’ve come a long way since the early days of oceangoing travel. In just 80 years in the 1800s, technology jumped so far forward that as aq shipping company it was almost impossible to keep up. Today let’s look at five aspects that changed in those short few decades - we’ll look at the ships that changed the game and how they did it. We’ll consider Comfort. Size. Safety. Power (Campania) - and how the technological advancements were combined to create some of history’s greatest passenger ships. But
first - we need to understand where it all began. Once upon a time if you needed to go somewhere you had a few limited choices - if it was across country you’d book a carriage if you could afford it, or even join a wagon train. But traveling internationally was different entirely; there was only one option and that was by ship. Today we can just jump on a jet in England, fly 20 hours and end up in Australia but not too long ago that was a 3 to 6 month trip and the voyage was brutal.
The ocean is a wild, deadly place; waves can run mountains-high, whipped up by winds that could strip paint off the side of a house. Sailing ships were the vehicle of choice for humankind for centuries, relying on the wind to fill their sails and drive them along. But technological development was slow in the world of sail and these were h-ard times.
Sailing ships, for one thing, were made mainly out of wood for hundreds of years; advanced metal-working techniques hadn’t yet been discovered or applied to the shipping world - and wooden ships can only be built so big. It meant that for a long time we could only travel in tiny, wooden ships and the conditions aboard were horrendous. Imagine 6 months at sea with hundreds of people crammed inside. The ships would leak and the water inside would stagnate and mix with vomit from the dozens of passengers who were seasick. The gloomy inside was only lit by dim oil lamps. There was nothing to do for weeks on end except endure the rolling and pitching of the ship and wait.
Then a few important things happened - iron-hulled ships were developed that could be built much stronger and bigger. Suddenly ships could take more stress at sea and passengers got a little bit more comfort, but not much. Ships were still driven by the wind but the biggest development was still to come. Scientists and inventors had been experimenting with steam power for a long time, making contraptions that could power mills and factories but in 1783 the French marquis de Jouffroy d'Abbans demonstrated a steam-powered boat, the Pyroscaphe. This changed everything; by the early 1800s steam engines were being mounted on boats and ships of different sizes and it was the American ship Savannah which famously crossed the Atlantic ocean first in 1819 even though she was essentially just a sailing ship with a steam engine and paddlewheels bolted on.
It was the brilliant British industrialist Isembard Brunel who combined steam engines and an iron hull in 1845 with the SS Great Britain, the first of its kind to cross the Atlantic ocean. This ship was truly ahead of its time; powered by a propeller instead of a paddle-wheel, it could cross the ocean in just 14 days. Without having to rely on fair winds all the time and with an engine powerful enough to drive it on forward, a new breed of ship that could maintain regular, reliable crossings was born. It was the world’s first ocean liner.
From there things took off - but for the longest time, sailing ships and clippers remained a favourite of seafarers and shipping companies. Steam engines weren’t to be trusted; they were seen as unreliable and even worse - dangerous. They could cause fire at sea and burn a ship to the waterline. It would take a while for steam to become the main choice of propulsion. Enter the SS Atlantic, operated by the White Star Line. The year was 1870 and the company had some stiff competition on its hands.
At the time there was a great migration boom and companies jostled to take control of the market; offering regular, reliable sailings was very important. The ships that were used by lines at the time were small and very uncomfortable. The leaking, creaky wooden-hull ships were gone but passenger amenities were still very basic. This is where Atlantic and her sisters changed the game. They were the Oceanic class; a class of initially four smart liners powered by sail and steam engines that were built to a size and style of comfort never before seen at sea. They were so
influential White Star even ordered two more be built. The first major stepping stone for ship owners was to entice the general public to go to sea in the first place; for too long people had been suffering in small, dimly-lit packet ships being tossed around like a cork. White Star Line knew that to court more passengers, a new standard of comfort and luxury would have to be set. On the old ships, if you were a well-to-do passenger you’d have been allotted a small room with a tiny cot to squeeze into. There were no public rooms; if you were lucky you’d be invited to take meals with the captain in the great cabin at the stern of the ship but otherwise your only areas to explore would be your cabin and the ship’s upper deck. Atlantic and the other five Oceanic class steamers were like a space-age leap forward. Across two passenger
decks were spread a small variety of rooms for Cabin-class or first class passengers to enjoy; amidships was an ornate dining saloon with comfortable seating that during the day could serve as a lounge; it even had a pair of bookcases and two working marble fireplaces. Ladies had their own boudoir and toilets and faucets with running water and within convenient walking distance were neat, well-appointed single or double cabins that were a remarkable step forward when compared to the older ships. Fascinatingly, the bathrooms were even steam-heated. These were some of the first ships to have such a system set in place. Hot water was even available, heated by steam from the boilers. If you needed to get a steward’s attention you could ring an electric bell and summon him.
The Migrant Class were berthed in dormitories forward of and behind the Cabin class rooms. They were provided with four hospital compartments, and available bedding ; something that many other ships had simply never offered. The Oceanic class’s design allowed for substantially better ventilation than what would have been seen on ships previously, and far better lighting. These ships had dozens of abnormally large portholes to allow natural light in, a revolutionary and thoughtful step in an era when steerage passengers were previously simply locked away below deck in ships that had no portholes cut into the hull, and practically forgotten about until the voyage was over. Not only that but up on deck the big cargo hatch covers were
fitted with massive skylights that could allow even more natural light to flood in from above. Even if berthed on the tween deck, the lowest deck for passengers, plenty of natural light would still be let in. With that much bright light a passenger could easily forget that they were even so far down within the ship. Early on, Atlantic’s migrant passengers had nowhere to take their meals; they simply ate on small benches at the ends of their bunks but then after a 1872 refit Migrants were given their own benches to eat at. It doesn’t sound like much but it was a big deal for the time when migrants were often considered little more than cattle. Atlantic and her sister ships were industrial wonders when they were introduced from 1871. The
contemporary press described them as being more like “an imperial yacht than a passenger liner”. The White Star Line had wanted to capture the market’s attention by focusing on comfort - and they did just that. But comfort was not all and even great passenger ships are at the mercy of the world’s vast oceans.
In 1873 the Atlantic met a violent and terrifying end… but that’s a tale for another day. If you’re enjoying learning about this fascinating technology you’ll enjoy this. It took a lot of skill in those early days to figure out how to make steam ships as safe and efficient as they could. Complex math and engineering completed on the drawing board would be translated into raw steel, formed into plates and forming the hulls of history’s magnificent ships. Now you can learn skills that can help you shape the world around you and it's never been easier. Let me introduce
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some fun - then once you’ve found out how awesome it is get a full 20% off a year’s subscription. You’ll be designing your own ocean liners in no time! I’ll see you on there! Atlantic and the other Oceanic class ships were still early steamers, relying heavily on sails to draw speed. These were still the early days of iron-hulled shipbuilding too; for the ocean liner to truly triumph over the sailing ship, passenger vessels would need to be bigger and allow more space and amenities. Size was important; it meant ships would handle the wild oceans easier and meant passengers would be drawn to what they thought was a bigger and safer ship.
Just 13 years after White Star Line had introduced Atlantic and the Oceanic class, their competition Cunard was hard at work planning a new generation of liner to capture the public’s imagination. The result was the RMS Umbria and her sister Etruria - largely forgotten to history now but game-changers in their own right. Atlantic had been revolutionary in her day at 3,700 tons but by Umbria’s day ships had grown in size. The Cunard liner was 7,100 gross registered tons and a hundred or so feet longer. This increase in size didn’t come out of nowhere; a huge technological jump forward had made it possible; the introduction of steel.
When designers and builders figured out they could build a ship’s hull from iron it had been a Eureka moment; ships could be built much larger and withstand a greater strain thanks to the sheer strength of the metal. But iron, a core element found in the earth, is strong at the expense of its weight. But in the mid-1800s a new building material had been introduced that changed everything and made iron in ship’s hull construction almost redundant; steel. This metal is an alloy that combines the properties of iron and carbon to create a much stronger, lighter material. It's less likely to fracture under stress and more of it can be used in a ship’s construction without gaining much weight. Back in Umbria’s day when steam engines were relatively underpowered, this was important; you could build a much bigger ship and still go as fast as you needed to maintain a regular sailing schedule.
Umbria’s hull was made of steel and when she was launched in 1884 she was a marvel; Umbria was the largest ship afloat and in service and with an increase in size came a few massive benefits. = A steel hull meant that Umbria could be only 1 fifth longer than Atlantic but with almost twice the internal volume, meaning Cunard could install a huge variety of rooms and amenities for passengers that would make the Oceanic class seem like they were a century old. Instead of relying on a single main saloon serving a variety of functions, Umbria’s first class got access to a suite of spaces including a smoking room, music room and ladies’ private saloon. Even second class got their own smoking and ladies room and at last, unlike on Atlantic, their own dining room. The spaces were richly and ornately decorated with carvings and heavy velvet furnishings; in this age passengers could at last forget, even momentarily, that they were on a ship and might be forgiven for thinking they were actually in a hotel.
There was another huge change too; Atlantic and ships like her were still lit by oil-burning lamps; but Umbria and her sister ship were lit throughout by electric bulbs, eliminating the fire risk and enhancing the image of comfort and modernity at sea. From the outside though there was another huge visual change that conveyed sheer power. Umbria still could rig sails - she and Etruria were the last to be rigged as barques - but clearly they didn’t just need to rely on sail any more. Steam had proven itself at last,
and while ships still kept sails as an auxiliary or backup, they didn’t depend on them. Just looking at Umbria’s layout you can tell that sails were no longer the main event; instead onlookers would have been drawn to the two enormous smokestacks in the middle of the ship. These two funnels gave the ship an air of size, power and confidence and highlighted the fact that the Umbria was powered by a reliable steam engine. The relationship between funnels and giving an
impression of size and speed was born in this era and we’ll get back into it later in this video. But size brought other benefits; bigger ships could carry more coal, more boilers and larger engines. Not only that but a longer hullform is more efficient at moving through the water. Umbria was fast for her day, capturing the transatlantic speed record at 19 knots, but she still carried old compound steam engines like the Atlantic had - and also like that older ship she used only a single propeller. For ships to go faster while getting bigger, this would have to change - and so too would safety standards. The next huge leap forward would see the liners focus on safety at sea that would help prevent ships from being sunk by minor incidents and that would tempt the general public to be brave and sail away with confidence. The year is 1888 - just a short four years since Umbria was introduced and already the next generation of ocean liner had been born.
Once steel had become the main ingredient for building ships the sky was the limit; suddenly there were no restrictions on the size of a ship because weight and strength of ships’ hulls had at last caught up. Enter the SS City of New York and her sister City of Paris, two of the most beautiful ships to ever sail and absolute gamechangers for their time. Umbria had been a smash hit back in 1884 but City of New York, conceived by the British Inman Line, dwarfed her. Umbria had been 7,100 gross registered tons; but City of New York was an
enormous 10,500 GRT. We already know that a bigger ship means more space for passengers; but City of New York wasn’t just big. She was fast; this 560 foot long giant could steam along at 20 knots and she and her sister stole the speed record from the Umbria and Etruria. The secret to their success was simple; another technological leap forward that would change the ocean liner forever.
Umbria and Atlantic had both employed an early type of engine called a Compound Steam Engine. This type of engine dated all the way back to the 1700s and worked by pushing steam through massive cylinders in two stages. This meant your engine could capture the power of the steam as it entered the first cylinder at high pressure before it was blasted into the next cylinders in the engine at lower pressure. City of New York’s engines improved on this concept; these were bigger triple expansion steam engines that introduced a third stage, capturing the power of steam at high, medium and low pressures. This type of steam engine
became the standard for passenger ships right up into the 20th century, powering monstrous ocean liners like Olympic and Titanic that were four or five times larger than City of New York. But that was a long way off; back in 1888 the City of New York’s triple expansion engines were a big deal; but not just in and of themselves. City of New York’s real secret was below the waterline outside the hull because instead of just one propeller, the new Inman ship boasted two. This was the first time a pair of propellers was mounted to an express liner. Ships with single propellers had been prone to shaft failure; it meant they had to carry all those extra sails and rigging in case the propeller shaft broke. But a twin-propeller ship doesn’t need to worry about that; City of New York didn’t need to carry sails for propulsion.
From the outside she still looked a little old fashioned with the three masts and the bowsprit - the long spar that emerged from the ship’s bow, a relic from the days of sail. But these features were just mainly for looks - City of New York was every bit a modern liner and the twin propellers coupled to the powerful triple expansion steam engines meant this massive ship could steam faster than the smaller, more lithe Umbria. Of course the new Inman ships brought even greater enhancements to passenger luxury and comforts; but aside from their size and powerplant the real major developments were to safety at sea. In the early days, a breach in the hull meant a ship was doomed; the outer skin was only a single layer thick and the interior of ships weren’t split into sections meaning any water flowing in could have its run of the ship. Ships like City of New York changed all that. She was fitted with a full length double-bottom, then a revolutionary feature. It was essentially a second inner-skin that would protect the ship from any damage on grounding, a fairly common accident type at the time. The inside of the ship’s hull was then subdivided
into 16 watertight compartments by tall steel bulkheads that rose up inside the ship’s hull. Thanks to disasters like the sinking of Titanic we’re all well aware of how these worked and where they might fail, but at the time this kind of technology was essentially brand new and untested. In fact City of New York’s bulkheads were even better-designed than that of future ships like Titanic; they went as high in the hull as the upper decks, meaning that closing the watertight doors would completely prevent water from spilling over the top. Then the ship was divided lengthways as well; a midline bulkhead separated all the boiler and engine rooms into two. If one side of the ship was pierced in a collision then the water was contained only to that boiler or engine room. With the others undamaged and dry it could still move under its own power. The extensive, almost obsessive subdividing of City of New York and her sister ship City of Paris would come in very handy. In 1890 the latter was steaming for Liverpool when her engines raced
and then disintegrated. The force was like an explosion; chunks of engine block pierced the hull and water roared in but the watertight bulkheads kept her safe and she was towed to port. 9 years later City of Paris was off Cornwall when a navigational error resulted in the ship grounding hard on rocks. Less than a year earlier the steamer Mohegan had hit these same
rocks and sank with the loss of 106 lives. City of Paris suffered extensive damage and was thought to be a writeoff, but thanks to her intricate construction she was salvaged and towed to Belfast where she was completely repaired and returned to service. This kind of damage would have, and did, sink ships from earlier decades but the huge technological jumps forward in such a short amount of time meant that passenger ships were much, much safer by the time City of New York was around. With the introduction of Inman’s two glamorous and technologically advanced City ships, the ocean liner could flaunt an impressive safety suite - but their engines were still relatively fragile; City of Paris’ had exploded in 1890, after all. For the steamship to truly win out designers would need to refine the marine steam engine and get rid of sails for good. In 1892 two special ocean
liners were built by Cunard Line that brought this change; they were named Campania and Lucania. RMS Campania was a smartly proportioned liner launched just four years after City of New York but she was the largest passenger ship afloat at the time of her launch at 12,950 gross registered tons, but ships were getting bigger all the time. Campania’s real technological leap was down in the engine room. RMS Umbria had used a two-stage compound steam engine and the City
of New York had been propelled with a pair of triple-expansion steam engines. Campania set out to sea with the largest triple expansion steam engines ever fitted to a Cunard steamship. These babies were some of the largest of their kind ever built; five cylinders in total, putting out some 31,000 indicated horsepower. They stood 47 feet high, about the height of a 3 story building - so tall in fact that they reared up from the bottom of the ship right up to about the level of the superstructure on the upper decks. The engines turned twin propellers and their sheer power could drive the ship through the ocean at a record-breaking 23.5 knots.
In Campania the ocean liner could now cross the Atlantic in 5 days and 12 hours. Just fifty years earlier it would have taken you two weeks in the fastest steamship and a month in a sailing ship. Campania looked the part, taking what Umbria had started with her twin funnels and evolving it to almost freakish proportions; the ship boasted two enormous smokestacks that conveyed a sheer sense of power and stability. Not only that but the sails and multiple masts were gone;
here at last was a very modern-looking steamship and the pattern had been established. Future ocean liners like Lusitania and Mauretania would look almost identical to Campania; just much larger and with more funnels. The ships still sported masts but these now served a different purpose, being used to support cargo-carrying derricks that could aid in loading the ship full of valuable freight. Campania and Lucania relied on their powerful engines to drive them to Atlantic glory; between them they held the prestigious Blue Riband prize for the fastest Atlantic crossing for about 5 years. Then in 1898 a ship came along that took the world by storm.
So far we’ve looked at four special ships that epitomized a technological development that drove the ocean liner to seagoing supremacy - Atlantic for her comfort, Umbria for her size, City of New York for her safety and Campania for her power. Six years after Campania was introduced on the transatlantic run a ship came along that combined all these developments into one and dominated the waves. This ship created a stir and set a new standard for each of those four areas of oceangoing travel. Unlike the last four ships she wasn’t British, but German. She took the Blue Riband from Campania and Lucania in one fell swoop and shocked the British public; the ship was named Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. This ship has gone down in ocean liner legend as revolutionary - but it might be fairer to say that it was actually evolutionary, drawing on lessons and technology refined by the grand ships that had come before it. In Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse the ocean liner
of the 19th century had reached its peak. Less than 80 years earlier sluggish paddle steamers had chugged their way through the ocean crossing the Atlantic in a couple of weeks. Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse could do the trip in 5 days flat but that wasn’t all. She was infinitely more luxurious than Atlantic had been just 30 years prior. Inside the Kaiser boasted palatial saloons and lounges with a first class dining room two stories tall. Atlantic’s passengers had been content with one saloon but
on the Kaiser they could choose between drawing and smoking rooms, a Vienna cafe, a library and stretch their legs on multiple promenades. Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was the first liner to boast suites, with adjoining bedrooms, parlours and baths. Umbria had entered service with a steel hull and enormous tonnage for her time but the Kaiser was more than two times bigger with all the associated benefits. City of New York had pioneered a new standard of safety at sea and the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse incorporated all of these developments; watertight bulkheads and doors and a double bottom. But the Kaiser boasted an additional safety feature; lining the ship’s upper deck were 20 lifeboat stations to the City of New York’s 12 - even though she carried only 100 more people. The Campania’s enormous engines had captured the Blue Riband but the Kaiser’s power triple expansion steam engines and her increased length made her faster.
The ship captured the Blue Riband from Campania and her sister Lucania in March 1898. Campania and Lucania had proudly carried two immense funnels to convey size and power but Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse upped the ante. She was the first liner to carry four. These carried smoke from the boilers and weren’t just for looks - four funnels provided the optimal draft required to efficiently heat the boilers. The result was terrific; the world was impressed by the sight of a four-funneled ship
and the idea immediately caught on. To build and launch passenger liners on the transatlantic run that had less than four funnels from then would appear weak. Overnight every liner that had been built and launched before this German superliner seemed incredibly outdated. The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was impressive - and its four funnels definitely changed the game. But it was pioneering ships like Atlantic, Umbria, City of New York and Campania that had tested new technologies and helped secure the future of oceangoing travel for the ocean liner. The humble sailing ship was left far behind; soon they would be all retired from service, their crews laid off and desperate to forget life-learned skills like sail-making and rope knotting for steam-oriented ones; coal trimming and engineering. Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse’s speed
record saw out the 19th century; in that short 100 years ships had developed so quickly and rapidly that regulations had little time to keep up. Anything seemed possible; a 20,000 ton ship, a 50,000 ton ship. It was all achievable thanks to the efforts of the older ships - but it had been perfected by Germany’s new superliner. Across the world shipping companies looked at the
Kaiser’s four golden funnels and set urgently to work on designing their own four-stacker superliners to challenge the throne. A new technological arms race had begun that would define the early years of the 20th century and see some of history’s greatest ever ships built; it was the era of the four-funnel liner but that is a story for another day.