Is the First Steamship to Cross the Atlantic Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In traveling from the state of Georgia to Liverpool, England, the steamship Savannah established that steam power could be utilized on the open seas. Although the converted packet ship was outfitted only with auxiliary steam equipment and conducted much of its voyage under sail, its voyage is recognized as the first steam-assisted transatlantic crossing.

Summary of Event

The transatlantic voyage of the Savannah was set in motion by a small group of businessmen who gambled that steam power could profitably increase the efficiency of transport on the open seas and thereby revolutionize international commerce. Veteran steamboat captain Moses Rogers had envisioned an oceangoing steam-powered ship as a natural extension of riverboat technology. He had hoped that a successful crossing would conclusively demonstrate that the future use of steamships was inevitable. Established merchants in the shipping industry, however, doubted the practicability of the enterprise. Steamships Atlantic Ocean;steamships Savannah, SS Rogers, Stevens Rogers, Moses Georgia;SS Savannah[Savannah] Parry, Sir William Edward [kw]Savannah Is the First Steamship to Cross the Atlantic (May 22-June 20, 1819) [kw]First Steamship to Cross the Atlantic, Savannah Is the (May 22-June 20, 1819) [kw]to Cross the Atlantic, Savannah Is the First Steamship (May 22-June 20, 1819) [kw]Cross the Atlantic, Savannah Is the First Steamship to (May 22-June 20, 1819) [kw]Atlantic, Savannah Is the First Steamship to Cross the (May 22-June 20, 1819) Steamships Atlantic Ocean;steamships Savannah, SS Rogers, Stevens Rogers, Moses Georgia;SS Savannah[Savannah] Parry, Sir William Edward [g]Great Britain;May 22-June 20, 1819: Savannah Is the First Steamship to Cross the Atlantic[1020] [g]United States;May 22-June 20, 1819: Savannah Is the First Steamship to Cross the Atlantic[1020] [c]Transportation;May 22-June 20, 1819: Savannah Is the First Steamship to Cross the Atlantic[1020] [c]Engineering;May 22-June 20, 1819: Savannah Is the First Steamship to Cross the Atlantic[1020] [c]Trade and commerce;May 22-June 20, 1819: Savannah Is the First Steamship to Cross the Atlantic[1020] Scarbrough, William Vail, Stephen

Rogers was uniquely qualified to lead such an undertaking, as he had been captain of the steamboat Phoenix on its 1809 voyage from New York to Philadelphia, which was the first coastal steam-assisted voyage. He continued throughout his career to be an innovator in the design and sailing of steam vessels, and eventually became partial owner and captain of the Charleston, which was launched in 1817 to establish steamboat service between Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. Rogers soon made connections with a major financial figure of Savannah, William Scarbrough, Scarbrough, William and with the owner and operator of the Speedwell Iron Works of Morristown, New Jersey, Stephen Vail, who had been visiting Savannah. The three men combined resources to mastermind the Savannah project, with Rogers as captain and engineer, Scarbrough as the primary financial advocate, and Vail Vail, Stephen as supervisor of the ship’s partial conversion from sail to steam.

The future use of steam power to propel oceangoing vessels had been discussed in shipping circles for a number of years, and speculation had increased in the wake of the success of steamboat lines running on coasts and rivers. These operations had added convenience and reliability to passenger service and shipping. Packets, or vessels sailing by scheduled departure and arrival times, were also new and popular innovations. Savannah investors were persuaded that converting a sailing ship by adding a steam engine and dual paddle wheels would free it from the vagaries of wind propulsion. Thus, subscriptions to the Savannah Steamship Company sold rapidly when offered in May of 1818, and the company received official corporate status later that year.

The ship purchased by the company was built in the shipyard of Samuel Crockett Crockett, Samuel and William Fickett Fickett, William in New York City New York City;shipbuilding and launched in 1818, sailing south to Elizabethtown, New Jersey, not far from the Speedwell Foundry in Morristown, where it docked for conversion. Almost from the beginning, frightening rumors about the ship circulated among observers, who were shocked by its appearance. A large opening in the deck awaited boiler installation, and holes in the sides of the ship had been left for the paddle wheels. The ship, now officially the Savannah, was nicknamed “Fickett’s steam coffin.” Veteran mariners feared that the firing of boilers in a wooden ship would prove disastrous at sea.

The Savannah had begun life as a conventional three-masted, 320-ton ship, registered at approximately 98 feet long and 26 feet wide. Its relatively small size indicates that it was originally intended as a coastal rather than as an oceangoing ship. The conversion from sail to steam, a process in which the engine, boilers, and paddle wheels had to be built specifically for the Savannah, proved extremely difficult. Design errors and manufacturing failures necessitated the recasting of several crucial parts. The project fell behind schedule, and to avoid the possibility of further delays because of icy conditions, Rogers ordered the Savannah to return in December of 1818 to New York, where the conversion was completed.

The Savannah was unique. It was equipped with one of the largest steam engines of the times, had specially designed collapsible paddle wheels that could be taken in during major storms, and had a tilted smokestack that could swivel to avoid setting fire to the sails. In addition, no expense had been spared in the decoration of passenger cabins, which featured ornamental wood paneling and full-length mirrors.

The Savannah sailed south to what would be its home port of Savannah, Georgia, at the end of March, 1819. Captain Rogers had recruited as sailing master a friend and distant cousin named Stevens Rogers. Although the two were respected seamen, it had been nearly impossible to hire a crew because of fears about the seaworthiness of the Savannah. Also, few passengers joined the voyage. On the trip south, Stevens Rogers recorded in the ship’s log the times and hours sailed under steam, providing evidence that the steam equipment functioned well; but the Savannah’s overall travel time proved unimpressive.

Throughout the conversion and subsequent trip south, official reports hailed the Savannah as a commendable experiment, although with little apparent effect. Free passage was offered to U.S. president James Monroe for a trip from Charleston to Savannah, but he agreed only to visit the ship briefly in the latter port. Reluctant passengers and merchants refused to book space on the Savannah for its transatlantic voyage, all but eliminating hope for a successful commercial venture. In fact, William Scarbrough, Scarbrough, William the Savannah’s owner, along with other Savannah merchants, had been shipping cargo on competing ships. President Monroe, however, indicated that after the transatlantic voyage the ship might be useful in naval operations. Rumors also circulated that the Savannah would be sold to Czar Alexander I of Russia Alexander I [p]Alexander I[Alexander 01];and steamships[Steamships] , who had negotiated with inventor Robert Fulton Fulton, Robert for an oceangoing steamship.

On May 22, 1819, the Savannah departed for Liverpool, England, with plans to continue on to St. Petersburg, Russia. There were no recorded passengers, nor was there freight on board. On the voyage across the Atlantic, the Savannah proceeded under steam power for eighty to one hundred hours, was in sight of the coast of Ireland by June 16, and arrived in Liverpool on June 20, completing the passage in twenty-nine days. Thirty-day passages by sail between New York and Liverpool were fairly common at that time. The Savannah then continued on to St. Petersburg, Russia, with stops in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, and eventually returned to Savannah, Georgia.

Although the voyage had been successfully completed, and although the ship’s design and accomplishments were highly praised throughout its sojourns in Europe, the Savannah failed to make money for its investors. A devastating Fires;shipboard fire in Savannah added to the troubles of the Savannah Steamship Company, forcing the firm into bankruptcy. The U.S. Congress refused to purchase the ship, so it was sold at auction. The new owner removed the Savannah’s machinery and converted into a packet sailing ship. It sailed until running aground on Fire Island in 1821.


Although the conversion of the Savannah is well documented, its transatlantic voyage is not. In later years the Savannah’s accomplishments appeared so unimportant to Americans that Stevens Rogers gave the detailed log to a visiting Englishman. Records of the ship’s machinery and appearance were also lost until, in 1930, it was discovered that a French citizen, Jean-Baptiste Marestier Marestier, Jean-Baptiste , had drawn its outline and written a description of it in his 1824 book Mémoire sur les bateaux á vapeur des Etats-Unis d’Amerique (1824; Memoir on Steamboats of the United States of America, 1957) while it was docked in the Washington Navy Yard for congressional evaluation.

On the whole, Europeans were more interested in ocean steamships than were Americans, who preferred to invest in packet sailing ships. These packet lines came to monopolize the Atlantic shipping industry, but the development of steamship technology continued in Europe. The arrival in 1838 of the Sirius and the Great Western Great Western, SS in New York, both having made the transatlantic crossing fully under steam, marked the beginning of a new era. British steamship lines thus dominated service on the Atlantic for many years, in part because of an American fascination with the advancement of clipper ships.

The daring of the Savannah experiment was later recognized by Americans, however, and May 22, its transatlantic departure date, is celebrated as National Maritime Day in the United States.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Historic Speedwell, Morristown, N.J. http://www Web site of Historic Speedwell, the site of the Savannah’s conversion. Includes a summary of the ship’s history and the history of the Speedwell Iron Works. Accessed December, 2005.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Braynard, Frank O. S.S. Savannah, the Elegant Steam Ship. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1963. Definitive history of the steamship Savannah.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cavanaugh, Cam, Barbara Hoskins, and Frances D. Pingeon. “S.S. Savannah.” In At Speedwell in the Nineteenth Century. Morristown, N.J.: Speedwell Village, 1981. Brief history of the Vail family, the Speedwell Iron Works, and the Savannah. Includes black-and-white photographs and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chapelle, Howard Irving. The Pioneer Steamship “Savannah”: A Study for a Scale Model. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1961. Describes the process used in constructing an accurate model of the Savannah.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dubois, Muriel L., and Miriam Butts. Industrial Revolution Comes to America. Amawalk, N.Y.: Jackdaw, 2001. Portfolio of illustrations, facsimiles, and maps placing the invention of the Savannah in context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Evans, Harold. They Made America. New York: Little, Brown, 2004. Provides the historical context of early steam propulsion in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ridgely-Nevitt, Cedric. American Steamships on the Atlantic. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1981. Concludes that the Savannah was a problematic auxiliary steam vessel and a commercial failure.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sloan, Edward W. “Moses Rogers.” American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. A biography of Savannah captain Moses Rogers.

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Categories: History