During the rule of Queen Victoria (1837 1901), the British shipbuilding industry experienced great strides. Especially after the Industrial Revolution, wooden shipbuilding techniques which had lasted for millennia were radically changed with the introduction of steam propulsion and iron materials.
Iron was initially used to reinforce certain parts of a wooden hull and frame, but gradually it became used for more components, with some ships using a timber hull around an iron frame, and others using hulls built of iron plates. These iron ships could be much larger, with lots more space for cargo.
The early steamships had stern or side paddles which were fit for a steam engine. Paddle steamers were not suited to the open sea because in heavy seas the waves lifted one wheel right out of the water while the other one went right under, and this strained the engines.
The key innovation that made ocean-going steamers viable was the change from the paddle-wheel to the screw-propeller as the mechanism of propulsion. These steamships quickly became more popular, because the propeller’s efficiency was consistent regardless of the depth at which it operated. Being smaller in size and mass and being completely submerged, it was also far less prone to damage.
Steamships usually use the prefix designations of “PS” for paddle steamer or “SS” for screw steamer (using a propeller or screw). As paddle steamers became less common, “SS” is assumed by many to stand for “steamship”.As steamships were less dependent on wind patterns, new trade routes opened up. The steamship has been described as a “major driver of the first wave of trade globalization (1870–1913)” and contributor to “an increase in international trade that was unprecedented in human history”.
During the Victorian era, Great Britain remained the leader in shipbuilding technology. The maintenance of her vast colonial empire required the services of an efficient navy. Hence shipbuilding received considerable royal patronage.
By 1890, Britain was building ninety percent of the world’s ships. The royal navy provided protection to the navigation routes and the government even sponsored the shipbuilding industry.
(Photo credit: Rue Des Archives / Heritage Images).