A number of people can be credited with the development of the steamboat. As early as 1690, the French inventor Denis Papin used a steam engine similar to that of Thomas Newcomen to drive a paddle wheel boat. When he sailed a successful model of his vessel down the Fulda River in 1707, Papin was attacked by boatmen who destroyed his craft, fearing--not unreasonably--for their livelihood. Thirty years later Englishman Jonathan Hulls (1699-1758) patented a design for a steam-driven boat, but his proposed engine was so large that the boat would have sunk under its weight. In 1783 the Marquis Claude de Jouffroy d'Abbans designed and built a 150-foot (45-m) ship that used a more efficient steam engine designed by James Watt. It was successfully piloted on a river near Lyons, France, for over a year but the Marquis could not generate enough financial interest in the project and was eventually forced to abandon it.
At the end of the eighteenth century, work on steamboats shifted to colonial America because such great rivers as the Hudson and the Mississippi were ideally suited for steamboat travel. Although several Americans had designed and built steamboats by the late 1780s, most financiers dismissed the work of these visionaries as unprofitable.
James Rumsey, one of these farsighted individuals, produced a jet-powered boat based upon Benjamin Franklin's suggestion that if water were pumped into the front of a vessel and ejected from the rear at high speed, the expelled water would shove the boat ahead. Rumsey eventually demonstrated his boat for George Washington, who invested some money for further development. Rumsey continued but did not have adequate funding, despite Washington's help.
John Fitch was another whose attempts met with defeat. An early steamboat of his was 34 feet (10 m) long with 12 vertical oars connected to a steam engine in such a way that they alternately dipped in the water for a stroke and then were lifted out and carried forward for the next stroke. The mechanism was too elaborate to work well, and the boat suffered many breakdowns. Fitch did succeed in building a small steam launch that traveled over 2,000 miles (3,218 km) as a ferry on the Delaware River.
Oliver Evans (1755-1819) refined the steam engine used for boats, which at that time used condensed steam and atmospheric pressure to move the piston. By 1804 he had invented a high-pressure, noncondensing engine in which the steam itself did the pushing under a pressure many times higher than the atmosphere. Naturally, this required a steam boiler, made of copper, which he made of copper, that could withstand a pressure of 50 pounds per square inch. Unfortunately, the combination of high pressure and nineteenth-century technology made for terrible explosions that plagued steamships for years.
One man who came close to success was Samuel Morey. In the late 1790s, he built several steamboats. His first, while capable of carrying only two people, used its paddle wheel to navigate on rivers for three years. He tinkered with it by moving the paddle wheel from the side to the stern where it increased his speed to 5 miles per hour (8 kph). Robert Livingston (1746-1813), who later helped finance Robert Fulton's successful venture in steamboats, offered to back Morey and his boat in a commercial venture, but Morey declined, apparently out of a desire to control any such lucrative operation himself. Livingston, however, eventually teamed up with Fulton, and Morey lost his financial support. Although Fulton visited Morey and must have been inspired by his steamboat, very little credit came to Morey for his achievements.
Meanwhile in Great Britain, Scottish inventor William Symington (1763-1831) installed a steam engine that powered paddle wheels mounted between the twin hulls of a catamaran. The British Secretary for War saw the ship and commissioned a steam tugboat to tow barges on a canal. The resulting stern-wheel ship, the Charlotte Dundas, was 38 feet (11 m) long and is considered the first functional steamship. It was in regular service for only a month, however, because its wash damaged the canal banks.
Fulton, who rode on the Charlotte Dundas, created the first commercially successful steamboat. He had been commissioned by Livingston, then the American ambassador to France, to build a steamboat. Although Fulton had no direct experience with these vessels, he had worked for seven years as an inventor and engineer in Europe. While building a submarine, Fulton had in fact designed a small steamer, but he miscalculated stresses on the hull and broke the vessel. He learned a great deal from this disaster, and as a result, was able to proceed without the tedious process of trial and error that hampered others. His steamboat was a success in France, and Livingston urged him to build another in America. Fulton did so and in 1807 launched the Clermont in the United States.
Once steamships could operate on rivers, the next challenge was ocean travel. The problem was storing enough coal to fuel the engine. One temporary solution was to combine sail and steam. In 1819, a full-rigged American ship, the Savannah, crossed the Atlantic in 21 days, but used her engine for only a few hours. In 1838, the Sirius made the journey with only engines to power her. The Great Western, launched the same year, was the first profitable steamship to cross the Atlantic.
Also during this time a better means of propulsion, the screw propeller, won out over the paddle wheel, which was ill-suited to rough ocean conditions. In 1838 Swedish inventor John Ericsson used a screw propeller to drive a small ship named the Archimedes. This impressed the creator of the Great Western, Isambard K. Brunel, who was designing the Great Britain, the world's first all-metal liner. After seeing the Archimedes, he scrapped his plans for paddle wheel and substituted a six-bladed propeller that proved a success.
In 1894, steamboat design changed again when Charles Parsons built the first successful steam turbine to increase power and speed. He used steam to drive a vaned wheel much like wind does a pinwheel. His boat, the Turbinia, equipped with three propellers, astounded British naval experts when it reached speeds of 34 knots (63 kph). The first of the giant steam liners, the Mauretania, was launched with turbine power in 1905.
One final change in steamships was their fuel. Coal was used originally, but it was a bulky material that required a great deal of handling to load and unload. Oil eventually replaced coal because it could be pumped aboard quickly, stored in otherwise useless tank space, and also because it boosted the ship's cruising range. Another advantage of switching from coal to oil for the furnaces of steamships was the cleanliness of the engine room, since every aspect of handling, storing, and burning coal made for filthy conditions.
The oil-fired boiler/steam turbine combination remained standard until after World War II, when the gas turbine and the diesel engine slowly replaced it. The gas turbine offered very high power for its very small size and light weight, while the diesel offered reliability and economy. During the 1970s, the energy crisis and the steep rise in oil prices effectively eliminated the steam turbine as a major source of power for merchant ships. It simply could not compete with the efficiency of the diesel. Steam remains in use at the close of the twentieth century on only two types of vessels: very large ships like aircraft carriers that use steam turbines powered by nuclear fuel (a nuclear reactor is used to produce steam, which then turns a turbine), and the liquefied natural gas carrier.