Today, a bright, brief, unrealistic moment for
sailing ships. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
Clipper ships were not a
specific design, they were a state of mind. And
that state of mind lasted only a decade. Clipper
ships ranged in size from a few hundred tons to
over 4000. Between one and four hundred were built,
depending on which ones you want to count as
Ocean shipping is a trade-off between speed and
capacity. A longstanding compromise had been struck
by 1845. Cargo moved over the seas in slow-moving,
Then the balance was briefly destroyed. San
Francisco had become the Golden Gate to Western
America. It was a profitable port even before gold
was found in 1848. A booming economy drove shipping
to California. It also drove the market for Chinese
tea. Shipping rates rose from $10 to $60 a ton.
Suddenly it was profitable to build and operate
ships that looked more like racing vessels than
The word "clipper ship" came from the fast little
Baltimore Clipper. It dated back to the War of
1812. The biggest of these, the Ann
McKim, weighed less than 500 tons. But in
1843 it got from New York to Canton, China, and
back with a load of tea in only 92 days. That got
So masts rose into the sky. Hulls developed a
knife-edged bow. And the widest beam was moved over
half-way back. Economy and long life were literally
thrown to the winds. Ships began to look like
they'd sailed out of a child's dream. They were
tall and beautiful. Acres of canvas drove them at
For a while those expensive ships paid for
themselves on a single voyage. Author Nicholas Dean
calls them the SST's of the 19th century -- speed
at any cost. We are moved by their beauty when we
see them in pictures. They touch our minds the way
they touched the 19th-century mind.
But we can see them only in pictures. The financial
boom ended in 1855. After that the fast ships
quickly vanished. The last one afloat was serving
as a barge when it accidentally burned in 1923.
None were among the tall old ships that sailed into
New York Harbor for the 1976 Bicentennial
The new steamers had nothing to do with the death
of the clipper ship. Steam packets were running in
1855, but quietly. The clipper ship had long since
come and gone when steam finally drove sail-driven
merchantmen off the seas.
Strange things happen when you release the
practical constraints that bind the inventive mind.
The results are artificial, of course; but they can
be stunning to see.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds