Transatlantic steamer service Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The advent of steam engines greatly increased the speed by which ships could travel between North America and Europe, thus increasing the speed by which passenger traffic and trade could be moved. This technology was part of the United States’ Industrial Revolution and greatly expanded the nation’s access to global markets and culture. Steamers also significantly increased the opportunities for luxury passenger travel, tourism, and immigration to the United States.

Although engineers had experimented with steamships since the late eighteenth century, the first steam engine that was officially used for business was created by Robert Fulton, RobertFulton and used to power a river steamboat in the United States in 1807. In 1819, the Savannah became the first steamer to cross the Atlantic Ocean, taking a month to complete its trip. The British began regular transatlantic steam passenger service in 1838. By then, advances in navigation and technology reduced the length of the crossing to half that of Savannah’s first journey. Advances in technology continued throughout the nineteenth century: During the middle of the century, steamers shifted from paddles to propellers, further increasing their speed and maneuverability. Although transatlantic sailing ships were being phased out by the 1880’s, most steamers still had sails built on them until the late nineteenth century, because their steam engines were not sufficiently reliable.Steamer service, transatlantic

The transatlantic steamer Liverpool.

(Library of Congress)

The British dominated transatlantic steamer passenger service through the end of the nineteenth century, with the Cunard and White Star Lines competing against each another. This competition continued during the early twentieth century, as steamers began to replace steel with iron and the ships grew even larger. The rapid change caused by transatlantic travel and the sheer power of the engineering models behind it encouraged an arrogant belief that the new technology was infallible. This arrogance is believed to have contributed to the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. The vast loss of life caused by this tragedy led to increased regulation of steamers, particularly regarding passenger travel.

Although advances in technology led to the creation of great steamships, they also led to their demise. By the early twentieth century, some ships were beginning to burn oil for fuel. These oil-powered ships signaled the movement toward more efficient travel, as they did not require the immense manpower necessary to shovel coal to keep a steamer moving. Eventually, oil turbines were replaced by diesel engines, and transatlantic steamers were phased out by the mid-twentieth century, after one hundred years of dominating the Atlantic.

Further Reading
  • Adams, John. Ocean Steamers: A History of Ocean-Going Passenger Steamships, 1820-1970. London: New Cavendish Books, 1993.
  • Baker, Rodney, and Leonard Baker. Great Steamers White and Gold: A History of Royal Mail Ships and Services. Glendale, Calif.: Ensign, 1993.
  • Garzke, William, and John Woodward. Titanic Ships, Titanic Disasters: An Analysis of Early Cunard and White Star Superliners. Jersey City, N.J.: Society of Naval Architects, 2004.

European trade with the United States

Immigration

Steamboats

Transatlantic cable

Categories: History Content