Competition was fierce among the Europeans for the riches of the overseas trade. As the voyages were frequently undertaken by trading consortia from within the chartered company, a great deal is known about the profits of individual round-trips. Standard profits were 100 percent or more. In the accumulation of capital, by countries and by individuals, this mercantile activity was of the utmost importance. Holland's "Golden Century" was the 17th, and England's overtaking of France as Europe's seat of industry also occurred then. The English realized quickly that their merchant ships had to carry enough cannon and other firepower to defend their factories at Bombay and elsewhere and to ward off pirates and privateers on the long voyage to and from the East. In India the English contested trading concessions particularly with France and Portugal; in the East Indian archipelago the contest was with the Dutch and the Portuguese; and in China it was with virtually all maritime powers in northern and western Europe. The result was that the East India merchantmen were very large ships, full-rigged and multimasted, and capable of sailing great distances without making a port.
To secure the strength and competence of these great merchant ships, advances in shipbuilding were necessary. The money was there: profits of 218 percent were recorded over five years, and even 50 percent profit could be earned in just 20 months. Among those undertaking more scientific construction was the British shipbuilder Phineas Pett (1570-1647). Much fine shipbuilding emerged, including ships of the English East India Company, but the company began to freeze its designs too early, and its operating practices were a combination of haughty arrogance and lordly corruption. Captains were appointed who then let out the functioning command to the highest bidder. Education was thin, treatment of sailors despicable, and reverence for established practice defeated the lessons of experience. The merchantmen had to carry large crews to have available the numbers to make them secure against attack. But lost in this effort for security was the operating efficiency that a sound mercantile marine should seek.
It was left more to other maritime markets to develop improvements in merchantmen after the early 17th century. The Dutch competitors of England were able to build and operate merchant ships more cheaply. In the 16th century the sailing ship in general service was the Dutch fluyt, which made Holland the great maritime power of the 17th century. A long, relatively narrow ship designed to carry as much cargo as possible, the fluyt featured three masts and a large hold beneath a single deck. The main and fore masts carried two or more square sails and the third mast a lateen sail. Only at the conclusion of the century, when the Dutch had been decisively defeated in the Anglo-Dutch trading wars, did England finally succeed to the role of leading merchant marine power in the world.
That role was gained in part because Oliver Cromwell restricted English trade to transport in English craft. In 1651 laws were initiated by Cromwell to deal with the low level of maritime development in England. The so-called Navigation Act sought to overcome conditions that had originated in the late Middle Ages when the Hanseatic League, dominating trade in the Baltic and northern Europe, carried most of Britain's foreign seaborne trade. When the Hansa declined in power in the 16th century the Dutch, just then beginning to gain independence from Spain politically and from Portugal in trade, gained a major part of the English carrying trade. The Navigation Act initiated a rapid change in that pattern. After the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, English shipping nearly doubled in tonnage between 1666 and 1688. By the beginning of the 18th century Britain had become the greatest maritime power and possessed the largest
merchant marine until it lost that distinction to the Americans in the mid-19th century.
A further factor in the growth of national merchant marines was the increasing enforcement of the law of cabotage in the operations of the mercantile powers of northern and western Europe with respect to their rapidly expanding colonial empires. Cabotage was a legal principle first enunciated in the 16th century by the French. Navigation between ports on their coasts was restricted to French ships; this principle was later extended to apply to navigation between a metropolitan country and its overseas colonies. This constituted a restriction of many of the world's trade routes to a single colonial power. It became clear that a power seeking an advantage in shipping would be amenable to supporting the cost and fighting that gaining such colonies might require. Geographic knowledge gained economic and political value in these conditions. It was in the 17th century that the Dutch, the French, and the English began trying to fill out the map of the known oceans. Islands and coastlines were added to sailing charts almost on an annual basis. By the mid-18th century all the world's shorelines not bound by sea ice. with fairly minor exceptions, were charted. Only Antarctica remained hidden until the mid-19th century.
Shipping in the 19th century
Once the extent and nature of the world's oceans was established, the final stage of the era of sail had been reached. American independence played a major role determining how the final stage developed.
To understand why this was so, it should be appreciated that Britain's North American colonies were vital to its merchant marine, for they formed a major part of its trading empire as customers for British goods. Under mercantilist economic doctrine, colonies were intended as a source of raw materials and as a market for manufactured goods produced in the metropolitan country. Maine, New Hampshire, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick were rich in naval stores and timber for inexpensive hulls, masts, and spars. And the Navigation Act as amended also granted to the merchant fleets in British North America a monopoly on the transport of goods and passengers within the British Empire. When the United States became independent in 1783 the former colonies were rigidly denied access to the British metropolitan and colonial markets. The substantial trade that had tied Boston to Newfoundland and the British West Indies was severed, leaving the Americans to find an alternative trading system as quickly as possible. New England and the Middle Atlantic states, where there were significant fleets of sailing ships, turned to the Atlantic and Mediterranean
islands as well as to Mauritius and to China. In this way, the merchants in the American ports created direct competition to the British East India Company. In doing so, they needed ships that could sail in the Far Eastern trade without the protection of the British navy and that could operate more efficiently and economically than those of the East India Company.
The British East Indiamen were extravagantly expensive to build. Contracts for their construction were awarded by custom and graft. Captains were appointed by patronage rather than education or professional qualifications. And the journeys to Canton, China, from England in East Indiamen were slow in a trade where fast passages were of value, for example, in guarding the quality of the tea being carried. American merchants were fully aware of these failings of the company and its ships. They set out to gain a foothold in the trade through innovations, particularly after the East India Company's monopoly in Britain's China trade was abolished in 1833.British shipping remained rather stagnant after the development of the East Indiaman in the 17th century. The Dutch became the innovators in the second half of the 17th century and maintained that status until the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars. The British East India Company was paying ?40 a ton for ships whereas other owners paid only ?25. In the 19th century American shipbuilders studied basic principles of sail propulsion and built excellent ships more cheaply. They also studied how to staff and operate them economically. The Americans began to see that even larger ships (that is. longer in relation to breadth) could carry more sail and thereby gain speed and the ability to sail well under more types of winds. For perishable cargoes speed meant that these fast ships reached British and European markets before those of their competitors and with a product in better condition.
In the 25 years after 1815 American ships changed in weight from 500 to 1,200 tons and in configuration from a hull with a length 4 times the beam to one with a ratio of 5 1/2 to I. The faster and thus shorter journeys meant that the shipowner could earn back his investment in two or three years. The Mayflower had taken 66 days to cross the Atlantic in 1620. The Black Ball Lines' nine-year average as of 1825 was 23 days from Liverpool to New York City. Twenty years later Atlantic ships had doubled in size and were not credited as a success unless they had made at least a single east-bound dash of 14 days or less.
The culmination of these American innovations was the creation of a hull intended primarily for speed, which came with the clipper ships. Clippers were long, graceful three-masted ships with projecting bows and exceptionally large spreads of sail. The first of these, the Rainbow, was
built in New York in 1845. It was followed by a number of ships built there and in East Boston particularly intended for the China-England tea trade, which was opened to all merchant marines by the late 1840s. Subsequently the Witch of the Wave (an American clipper) sailed from Canton to Deal in England in 1852 in just 90 days. Similar feats of sailing were accomplished in Atlantic crossings. In 1854 the Lightning sailed 436 miles in a day, at an average speed of 18 1/2 knots. By 1840, however, it was clear that the last glorious days of the sailing ship were at hand. Pure sailing ships were in active use for another generation, while the earliest steamships were being launched. But by 1875 the pure sailer was disappearing, and by the turn of the 20th century the last masts on passenger ships had been removed.
The most fundamental transformation that has ever taken place in transportation was the introduction of machine power to the traction or propulsion of vehicles. Specifically, for the first time in history power was produced within a vehicle from fuels that were either part of the original lading or periodically or continuously added to its charge. Energy production took place within a machine or reactor whose motions were transformed into tractive or propulsive movement. This change may be termed the arrival of the era of machine-powered transportation.
The earliest engines were highly inefficient. They were used to pump water from mines or to refill reservoirs and later to wind cables in elevators within mines. The Boulton and Watt steam engines developed in England in the latter half of the 18th century could produce only a modest output in relation to their fuel consumption. Improvements that increased steam pressures above a single atmosphere allowed the size and weight of engines to be reduced so they might be installed in vehicles.
Like a number of machines, the steam engine was not the invention of a single person in a single place but James Watt, a builder of scientific instruments at the University of Glasgow, was most directly responsible for a successful design. Though it improved incrementally over a period of a generation, the steam engine was fully operable by 1788. Watt entered into a partnership in Birmingham in 1775 with the manufacturer Matthew Boulton, at whose Soho Works the firm constructed a total of 496 steam engines many of which were used, as the earlier steam engines of the British engineer Thomas Newcomen had been, to pump water from mines or to operate waterworks. It was only at the end of Boulton and Watt's partnership that the machinery was applied to transport vehicles.
The key to that introduction was in the creation of a more efficient steam engine. Early engines were powered by steam at normal sea-level atmospheric pressure (approximately 14.7 pounds per square inch), which required very large cylinders. The massive engines were thus essentially stationary in placement. Any attempt to make the engine itself mobile faced this problem. The French military engineer Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot had made one of the first applications of higher-pressure steam when in 1769 he developed a tricycle (with two cylinders) at first intended as a tractor for moving cannon; this is commonly thought of as the first automobile. When two proponents of steam locomotion - Richard Trevithick in Wales and Oliver Evans in Delaware and Pennsylvania - conducted the earliest successful experiments with steam locomotives in the first decade of the 19th century, they both sought to use high-pressure steam. But most of the steam engines constructed and put to use in the last quarter of the 18th century were of Boulton and Watt manufacture and were large and rather weak.
This cumbersome quality of early 19th-century steam engines led to their being used first on ships. In the beginning the discordant relationship of machine weight to power production was a problem, but the ability to enlarge ships to a much greater size meant that the engines did not have to suffer severe diminution. A real constraint was the pattern of natural waterways; early steamboats for the most part depended on paddles to move the vessel, and it was found that those paddles tended to cause surface turbulence that eroded the banks of a narrow waterway, as most of the inland navigation canals were. Thus, the best locale for the operation of steamboats was found to be on fairly broad rivers free of excessively shallow stretches or rapids. A further consideration was speed. Most of the early experimental steamboats were very slow, commonly in the range of three or four miles per hour. At such speeds there was a considerable advantage redounding to coaches operating on well-constructed roads, which were quite common in France and regionally available in England.
The ideal venue for steamboats seemed to be the rivers of the eastern United States. Colonial transportation had mainly taken place by water, either on the surfaces of coastal bays and sounds or on fairly broad rivers as far upstream as the lowest falls or rapids. Up to the beginning of the 19th century a system of coastal and inland navigation could care for most of the United States' transportation needs. If a successful steamboat could be
developed, the market for its use was to be found in the young, rapidly industrializing country.
The question of the invention of the steamboat raises fierce chauvinistic claims, particularly among the British, French, and Americans, but there seems to be broad agreement that the first serious effort was carried out by a French nobleman, Claude-Francois-Dorothee, Marquis d' Jouffroy d'Abbans, on the Doubs River at Baum-des-Dames in the Franche-Comte in 1776. This trial was not a success, but in 1783 Jouffroy carried out a second trial with a much larger engine built three years earlier at Lyon. This larger boat, the Pyroscaphe, was propelled by two paddle wheels, substituted for the two "duck's feet" used in the previous trial. The trial took place on the gentle River Saone at Lyon, where the overburdened boat of 327,000 pounds moved against the current for some 15 minutes before it disintegrated from the pounding of the engines. This was unquestionably the first steam-powered boat to operate. There were subsequent French experiments, but further development of the steamboat was impeded by the French Revolution
In the eastern United States James Rumsey, the operator of an inn at the Bath Springs spa in Virginia (later West Virginia), sought to interest George Washington in a model steamboat he had designed. On the basis of Washington's support, Virginia and Maryland awarded Rumsey a monopoly of steam navigation in their territories.
At the same time, another American, John Fitch, a former clockmaker from Connecticut, began experimenting with his vision of a steamboat. After much difficulty in securing financial backers and in finding a steam engine in America, Fitch built a boat that was given a successful trial in 1787. By the summer of 1788 Fitch and his partner, Henry Voight, had made repeated trips on the Delaware River as far as Burlington, 20 miles above Philadelphia, the longest passage then accomplished by a steamboat.