Two centuries ago, the big question for shipping wasn’t the size of the new generation of ships. It was whether a steam-powered vessel could cross the ocean without burning and sinking.
Seafarers, shippers and financiers of the early 19th century were leery of steamships, and no wonder. Ordinary sailing ships of the era were dangerous enough without the presence of a steam boiler in what amounted to a floating tinderbox.
Historian John Laurence Busch provides a window on this era with Steam Coffin, a fascinating history of the first trans-Atlantic steamship and the entrepreneur whose vision, drive and persistence made it possible.
The ship was the Savannah. The entrepreneur was Moses Rogers, a sloop captain who became fascinated with Robert Fulton’s pioneering Hudson River steamboat, launched his own steamboat venture, and set out to prove the technology could be adapted to ocean voyages.
Rogers and the Savannah had to overcome daunting technical and financial challenges. The biggest hurdle, however, was the psychological barrier in the minds of the shipping public and the men who went to sea.
After Fulton’s innovation, steamboats spread quickly on inland and coastal waters but even experienced mariners were skeptical of steam propulsion in open sea. With the Savannah, Rogers proved it could be done. For the first time, trans-Atlantic ships could schedule arrivals as well as departures.
Steam Coffin is meticulously researched and well written. Busch provides a wealth of detail on the Savannah, Rogers and life in their era but keeps the narrative moving along. Steam Coffin is an absorbing, recommendable book about an innovation that changed shipping and commerce forever.