Sails to Steam

You’ve seen it all, you’ve seen it all.
Watch the men who rode you,
Switch from sails to steam.
And in your belly you hold the treasure
that few have ever seen, most of them dreams,

                        Jimmy Buffet, “A Pirate Looks at Forty”


A Frigate Off the Coast Near Rio de Janeiro, Michael Zeno Diemer

The romance of sailing ships is impossible deny. Writers are drawn to the heroism and glory of sail. Steam, by comparison, is loud, coal-fueled, smelly and, early in the century at least, unreliable. Yet, more than one author has found spiritual and cultural metaphors in the sweltering belly of steamships as well. Still, when an author sets a story in the mid-nineteenth century, he or she has a huge hurdle to jump: the rapid pace of technological change.

Whether the focus of a novel is on the ship itself or transportation plays a minor role, describing navigation requires choices. In my case that meant deciding what kind of boats plied the Rideau Canal and Ottawa River in late 1832, what sort of ships carried cargo from Quebec and New York to England at that time, and, for a second book, what sort of ship passengers might use between Kolkata India and England in 1835.


Robert Fulton’s Clermont, illustration from Project Gutenberg via Wikimedia Commons

Robert Fulton is generally credited with launching the first commercially successful steamboat, the Clermont, in 1807. Others however had created working models before him, notably John Fitch who sailed his steamboat up the Delaware River in 1787, a trial viewed by men from the Constitutional Convention, then meeting in Philadelphia. Robert Furness and James Ashworth are reported to have run a steamboat in Yorkshire as early as 1788. By 1812 a commercially viable steamboat, built for hotel owner Henry Bell, was operating on the Firth of Clyde. Within ten years there were fifty steamers on the firth.

It is interesting to note that Fulton used an engine built in England in the Clermont. The early steamboat advances all built, of course, on the development of the practical steam engine by James Watt between 1763 and 1777, working in Glasgow. Watt, in turn, built on the work of others. Design of engines and of boat and ship building, thus begun, accelerated throughout the century.

The Napoleonic wars raged throughout the early period, and, in many ways, the Age of Sail reached its peak just as steam began to nibble at its edges. While Britain dominated the seas from China to South Africa to Southampton, and the American Whaling industry expanded, the steamboats rapidly penetrated the interior of North America. At a time when rivers and canals were the primary routes for the movement of goods and people to the interior of the continent, steamboats were a blessing.

Prior to steam, it was common to float goods down the Ohio to the Mississippi to New Orleans, sell the goods—and the boat for lumber—and walk back. Abraham Lincoln, for one, made that trip. A vessel that could make good time upstream proved to be a godsend. Similar expansion occurred on the firths, rivers, and canals of northern England and Scotland and between Scotland and Ireland.

Red River Expedition at Sault Ste. Marie, William Armstrong 1870 via Wikimedia Commons

Red River Expedition at Sault Ste. Marie, William Armstrong 1870 via Wikimedia Commons

Canada rode the steamboat wave as well. The first paddle steamer traveled from Montreal to Quebec in 1809. By 1819 a steamer reached the lower reaches of the Ottawa. The first steam packet traveled the Rideau Canal in the spring of 1832, six months before the opening passage of my next book to be released, The Renegade Wife.

While I discovered I could reasonably use a steam-powered packet for river travel, ocean-going vessels were another matter. Navies and commercial shipping captains were initially reluctant to risk fire or engine failure. The first cross-ocean steamships were hybrid vessels that retained mast and sails. A hybrid vessel, the Savannah, crossed the Atlantic in 1819, but only 1/8 of the voyage was done under steam. In 1838, a ship of the British and American Navigation Company crossed the Atlantic in eighteen days with forty passengers. It ran out of coal part way and had to burn furniture that last part of the voyage. A ship of its rival, The Great Western Steamship Company, followed it into New York Harbor only four hours later. It had left four days after the B&A Navigation ship. Passenger service was on. There would be a long overlap before steam won out, and it would take longer to reach the routes to the East.

The Steamship Great Britain, John Jacob Weber, 1843 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Steamship Great Britain, by John Jacob Weber, 1843 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Gradual improvements in ship design gradually evolved, but the big breakthrough occurred with the construction of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Britain in 1843. It had a state of the art 1000hp engine and an even bigger innovation, the screw propeller. Combining those do made the steamship more viable, although when the SS Great Britain began passenger service from Liverpool to Australia a few years later, she still used sail for much of the trip.

SS Quetta passing through the Suez Canal in the 1880s, item held by the State Library of Queensland (via Wikimedia Commons)

SS Quetta passing through the Suez Canal in the 1880s, item held by the State Library of Queensland (via Wikimedia Commons)

The final impetus for the adoption of steam, particularly by the China Tea Clippers and the Royal Navy came with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The canal provide steamships a shortcut to Asia, and advantage sailing vessels could not use.

Since my next release takes place in 1832, I could assume no transatlantic steam service either for the hero’s commercial ventures in Upper Canada or passenger service when he returns to England. It sequel  is set in India in 1835. Sails it is!




Caroline Warfield lives in the urban wilds of Easter Pennsylvania where she spends time with her own hero and their grandson, enjoys the history all around her, and writes historical romance. The heroes and heroines of Caroline’s Dangerous Series overcame challenges even after their happy ending. Their children seek their own happiness in distant lands in Children of Empire. The first of the new series, The Renegade Wife, set in Upper Canada in 1832, comes out in October. Its sequel, The Reluctant Wife, set in India in 1835, will follow in April, 2017.

For More Information:

Foster, Maximilian, “The Story of the Steamship,” 1901, on Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives: Social and Cultural History – The Future of Our Past, (accessed August 11, 2016)

Fryxel, David A., “History of Steamships,” Family Tree Magazine, (accessed August 11, 2016)

“Fulton’s First Steamboat Voyage,” Eyewitness to History,  (accessed August 11, 2016)

Sichko, Christopher, “The Influence of the Suez Canal on Steam Navigation,” University of Colorado, Boulder, Honors Theses, 2011, (accessed August 11, 2016)

“Steamboats and Paddle Wheelers,” Historical Canada, (accessed August 11, 2016)

“The History of Steamboats,” AboutMoney, (accessed August 11, 2016)

“The Story,” Brunel’s SS Great Britain, (accessed August 11, 2016)

Watson, Ken W., “The First Steamboat Trip,” Rideau Canal World Heritage Site, (accessed August 11, 2016)