Today, drama on the high seas opens the Atlantic to
steamships. 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.
Steamboats fairly sprouted
in America after Fulton's success in 1807. By 1816
Pittsburgh was turning out steamboats. That year,
in the Pittsburgh Gazette, we find,
Those who first cross the Atlantic in a steam
boat will [earn great] applause. In a few years we
expect such trips will be common ... Bold will they
be who first make a passage to Europe in a steam
Three years later owners mounted engines on the
packet City of Savannah. They loaded
it with coal -- no cargo or passengers. But they
used steam only when they were still in sight of
land. After that, they raised sail and rode the
Westerlies to England.
Savannah was clearly no real test of
steam. And so began a long argument. Enter a
self-proclaimed English expert on almost
everything. He was the Reverend Dionysius Lardner.
In 1835 Lardner set a theoretical upper limit on
steamboat range. No ship could carry enough coal to
sail more than 2500 miles, he proclaimed.
An American lawyer named Junius Smith had been
there when Savannah steamed into
Liverpool. By now he was sure Lardner was wrong.
The coal capacity of a ship rises as the cube of
its length. Coal burning rises only as the square.
All you had to do was make your steamboat bigger
than ordinary sailing ships.
The great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel also
thought it could be done. In 1837 he began building
the Great Western.
By now Smith had set up a company, but he hadn't
built anything yet. Brunel was going to beat him to
the punch. So Smith hastily bought a coastal steam
packet, rigged it for the open sea, and renamed it
Sirius. It was actually too small, so
he dispensed with cargo and passengers. All he
carried was coal.
In 1838 Sirius set out for New York.
Great Western followed three days
later, and game was on. Both carried more efficient
engines than Savannah had. Still, if
Sirius carried no passengers,
Great Western carried only seven.
Sirius was the faster ship. So
Great Western stokers worked night and
day. Sirius hit bad head winds and ran
out of coal. When people on Long Island saw her
coming, she was burning her supplies for fuel. By
the time she reached New York Harbor, a great crowd
was there to cheer her in.
Sirius had crossed in record time.
Eight hours later, Great Western
steamed in and beat that record by three days.
Neither ship drew many passengers for the return
trip to England. Both took huge financial losses.
But in the wake of the great race everyone began
building ocean-going steam packets. Steam had
conquered the Atlantic, and ocean travel was now
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds