comparison with the era of sailing ships, steam sailing vessels
only for a relatively short period of time. Soon these
hybrids had to give way to steam-powered ships without sails and
were ousted from the history of shipbuilding.
1. The Invention of the Steam-Drive
The first low pressure steam-drive was invented in 1765 by the
Scottish engineer James Watt (1736–1812). Fact is, that Heron
of Alexandria (around 60 AD) invented an early version of the
steam turbine, but his “steamball”, named “Aeolopile”,
served more as an amusement for the observer than any real mechanical
Generally the invention of the steamboat has been accredited to
the American Robert Fulton. On his first trip on 7th August
1807, he actually made the journey up the Hudson River, from New
York to Albany without the use of sails. His “Clemont”
needed a full 32-hours to complete the 150-mile trip. Only a few
weeks later, on 4th September, passengers started paying a
fare, to be the first to experience a trip on Fultons “North
River Steam Boat”.
Successful experiments with machine-driven ships had been carried
out, before Fulton commercialised steam navigation. For example,
the Frenchman Marquis de Jouffroy d’Addan, sailed down the
Saône near Lyon, as early as 1776 using steam-drive. Names
like James Rumsay, Samuel Morey or Robert Stevens should also be
The British are more likely to consider William Symington to be
the true inventor of steam navigation. In March 1803 he built the
“Charlotte Dundas”, the first general-purpose steamboat
but he was not able to undertake further development for the purpose
of commercial usage in his lifetime. Credit will probably still
go to Robert Fulton as the inventor of the steamboat.
2. The Steamers
The advantages of steam navigation compared to the usage of wind
power are obvious: With conventional sailing methods you had to
rely on favourable weather, whereas the steam machine enable navigation
independent from the weather conditions, which the sailors had no
way of influencing. It is understandable that the new technique
quickly found a place in shipping. In the beginning of the 19th century,
the construction of steam-powered vessels gained in importance.
The “Savannah” was the first steam-powered vessel to
cross and recross the Atlantic Ocean in 1819.
After a five year building period, the “SS Great Britain”,
constructed by Isambard K. Brunel, was launched in 1843. She
was the “mother of all modern ships” and with a length
of 98 metres, she was not only the largest but also the first iron
hulled screw propeller-driven, steam-powered passenger liner to
cross the Atlantic Ocean at the time. You can still visit this impressive
sixmasted ship today. In 1970 the “SS Great Britain”
was towed from the Falkland Islands back to her home harbour of
Bristol, where she was lovingly restored and can now be admired
as a symbol of Victorian splendour.
The “Great Eastern”, the biggest ship of her day, was
launched in London in 1857. In 1866 the crew of this iron monster
started a very special undertaking: the laying of the first transatlantic
Other famous steam-powered vessels were the “Carnatic”
(90 metres long; on 13th September 1869 she ran aground
on a Coral Reef in the Red Sea), the “Dunraven” (a merchant
ship, which also sank in the Red Sea in March 1876), the “USS Alabama”
(an American steamer built in 1890) and the “Pourquoi Pas ?”,
manufactured in 1908.
3. “Eiríkur Rauði” and “Pourquoi
The whaler mentioned in “Jónas Blondal”, the
“Eiríkur Rauði”, is a threemasted steam
bark. At the end of the 19th century steamers of this kind
were often used for whaling (please note about whaling › about
the history of whaling › The Hunt for Doeglings). The advantage
of the rigging, typical for barks, was that the operation of the
mizzen mast was a lot easier. This allowed more men to take part
in the hunting and processing of the whales.
In the year 982, the Viking explorer “Eric the Red”
discovered Greenland. “Eiríkur Rauði”
is the Icelandic version of his name. The penultimate letter, the
“eth”, is pronounced “th”, like in “father”.
To ensure a realistic portrayal of the whaler in the drawings,
a model of the “Pourquoi Pas ?” was used to
draw the “Eiríkur Rauði”.
The original “Pourquoi Pas ?”, completed
1908 in Saint-Malo, had a very eventful history. Built as a research
vessel, the threemaster was at the disposal of the Doctor and Commander
Jean-Baptiste Charcot (1867–1936) for 28 years. The tragedy
happened during the last expedition in the waters of Greenland:
On 16th September 1936 the “Pourquoi Pas ?”
hit a submerged rock off Bargafjord, 30 sea miles from the
Icelandic seaport of Reykjavík. Charcot and 42 of his crew
were drowned. There was only one survivor.
Photos (from the top): Jens F. Ehrenreich (illustration); IMSI Masterphotos, USA; mcleod/sxc;
Pourquoi Pas ? by kind permission of Olivier Thomas, France