Why the World’s Greatest Naval Power Opposed the Use of Steam Ships

Model of steamship, built in 1784, by Claude de Jouffroy. Photo Credit.

Model of a steamship, built in 1784, by Claude de Jouffroy. Photo Credit.

Yet the British were afraid of this change, believing that it might damage their dominance. If steam ships were widely adopted, then all of their superior sailing power would become obsolete. Their well-practiced ability to seize the weather gauge would become useless. Many of their advantages would disappear.

As the British Admiralty said in 1828, “the introduction of steam is calculated to strike a fatal blow at the naval supremacy of the Empire.” And so the world’s greatest naval power, far from pushing for better technology, did its best to hold it back.

Ruling the Waves

Eventually, though, the British realized that they had to change. If they were going to continue ruling the waves, then it was preferable to be in the lead technologically than to cling to a glorious but outdated past.

Three-view of Demologos as originally portrayed to the US government. The resulting vessel differed greatly from this early proposal.

Three-view of Demologos as originally portrayed to the US government. The resulting vessel differed greatly from this early proposal.

One early sign of the shift in thinking came in 1843 when the British steamer the Great Britain crossed the Atlantic. It was the first screw-equipped ship to do this. Screw-driven ships were a major step forward. Screws were less vulnerable and unwieldy than the paddle wheels that were used by early steamships such as the Demologos. Britain was engaging with the latest technology, developing the skills to make the best steam ships.

One motivation to do this was because the French were making progress with their ships. Franco-British relations were tense throughout most of the 19th century. Britain had held out against Napoleon, only the latest in many wars between these neighbors. They were vying for dominance both in Europe and abroad. Though they would end up on the same side when modern war finally came in 1914, many expected the opposite to happen. So when the French launched La Gloire, a steamship made of wood but clad in iron, the British had to try to beat them to the next step. The result was the launch in 1860 of HMS Warrior, the first all-iron, steam-powered, shell-firing ship.

Picture of HMS Warrior by Rennett Stowe via Flickr Creative Commons

Picture of HMS Warrior. First iron-hulled warship. Current location is Portsmouth, England. Commissioned in 1861. Canon EF 28-135 IS. Photo Credit.

Using the Industrial Advantage

Having entered the race toward a steam fleet, the British now made use of their industrial advantages. As the leading nation of the industrial revolution, and the owner of vast shipyards, the British were able to make swift advances.

In 1897, at the Jubilee Naval Review, the steam launch Turbinia raced through the lines of other British ships at an extraordinary 34.5 knots. Throughout the century, British ships continued to be fitted with masts, but these were increasingly secondary to steam engines.

The Sultana on fire, from Harpers Weekly.

The Sultana on fire, from Harpers Weekly.

Britain’s vast empire was the reason she needed a steam-powered navy. That empire also helped to keep the navy moving. With sources of coal and storage bases scattered across the globe, the British were in the best position to refuel their fleets. Having for so long resisted the move to steam, they now found it working to their advantage.

Britain had been slow to move to steam-powered warships but in the end, she would benefit hugely from them.