The Annihilation Of Time And Space
Critics said no steamboat could make it across the Atlantic. Junius Smith disagreed, and in the end he overcame every obstacle. Almost.
Thousands of onlookers thronged the Battery in lower Manhattan on the morning of April 23, 1838, as the news spread. The black hull of the transatlantic steamer Sirius had been spotted in New York Harbor, sails furled but her stubby smokestack pumping out thick black clouds and her twenty-four-foot paddle wheels churning the water. The night before, she had been sighted from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and early editions of the city’s newspapers were already trumpeting the Sirius ’s nineteen-day crossing from Cork. THE BROAD ATLANTIC BRIDGED AT LAST ! said the headlines. ANNIHILATION OF SPACE AND TIME !
The 700-ton Sirius was a former coastal packet chartered by the British & American Steam Navigation Company, which had been created in 1836 with the audacious and unprecedented goal of establishing regular steamship service across the Atlantic. The guiding force behind British & American was Junius Smith, a Connecticut-born merchant based in London. Smith knew that it was only a matter of time before boilers, smokestacks, and paddle wheels replaced masts, rigging, and sails on the high seas. He was determined to do it first. And he did: On her maiden voyage the Sirius shattered all transatlantic speed records.
The achievement stood unbested for about eight hours. That afternoon a second, larger steamer entered the harbor: the 1,320-ton Great Western , fourteen and a half days out of London. With undiminished enthusiasm the crowd that had welcomed the Sirius earlier in the day cheered the Great Western . Of the occasion Daniel Webster said, “It is our fortune to live at a new epoch.” There could be little doubt that the sailing packets whose masts and yards crosshatched the sky on South Street were doomed to extinction.
Despite the millennial celebrations surrounding the arrivals of the Sirius and Great Western , they were not, strictly speaking, the first steam-powered vessels to cross the Atlantic. The first such ship, the Savannah , was more of a publicity stunt than a genuine attempt to revolutionize ocean transit. The Savannah had been built as a sailing ship at the Crocker & Fickett yards at Corlaers Hook in Manhattan. Her owners, the Savannah Steamship Company, outfitted her with an engine, a boiler, and collapsible wrought-iron paddle wheels—mostly for show, although the steam power could come in handy in calm seas.
When the Savannah journeyed from her namesake port to Liverpool in 1819, loaded only with coal and ballast—“Fickett’s steam coffin” attracted neither cargo nor passengers—she depended chiefly on her sails for propulsion. The small ship could carry enough coal to power her engines for only a fraction of the trip. And when the captain used the paddles with sails unfurled, the ship leaned to one side, causing it to move in a circle. She was under steam a total of about eighty-five hours during her decent but unremarkable twenty-seven-day crossing. Most of those eighty-five hours of steaming took place near land, where people could see her.
In Liverpool the Savannah attracted many interested visitors, including Junius Smith. The thirty-eight-year-old Yankee lawyer had first come to London in 1805 to attend to some protracted litigation on behalf of his brother’s firm. The case kept him in London several years, after which he decided to remain there as a representative of the firm, sending iron, lace, hemp, chalk, and other goods to America and importing cotton, turpentine, clover seed, and timber. Later he did business with his brother’s son Henry.
“Dispatch is the life and delay the death of all business connected with shipping,” Junius Smith wrote his nephew. The time it took ships to cross the ocean, ranging from a little more than three weeks to upward of two months, was a perpetual source of frustration for Smith. The slowness of British vessels particularly galled him. “I notice nuts, cranberries, and apples, by Gratitude ,” he told Henry Smith. “It would have been as well to have shipped the apples by an American ship, as the chances are ten to one that there will not be a sound one left by the time the Gratitude arrives.”
Smith happened to be in Liverpool in 1819 when the Savannah arrived, and he carefully examined the vessel’s machinery. “At that time,” recalled Smith decades later, “I had not the slightest idea of navigating the ocean by steam, nor have we any evidence that such an idea was entertained or broached by the public.” The Savannah lingered in port for a month before casting off again. She went on to be feted by the Swedish government, and the captain, Moses Rogers, received gifts from the czar of Russia in St. Petersburg. But for all the attention she garnered, the Savannah attracted no buyers. She returned to the United States, where she was sold, stripped of her engines, and put into service as a coastal packet.
Neither Smith nor anyone else saw much advantage in propelling ocean-going vessels by steam when sailing packets were doing about as well without sacrificing valuable cargo space for coal and machinery. Not until 1832 did Smith set his sights on inaugurating regular transatlantic steamship service.
That year Smith journeyed to New York with his wife and daughter aboard the packet St. Leonard . Sailing “uphill” against the prevailing westerlies, the passage took fifty-four days. Smith called the experience “humbling.” For those less well-off, such voyages were far worse than humbling. Steerage passengers spent weeks, and sometimes months, all but imprisoned in the cramped, filthy, ill-lit, disease-ridden compartments belowdecks. Well-to-do passengers of delicate constitution were warned to avoid the steerage entrance lest they be overcome by the privy stench emanating from it.
In New York Smith tried to enlist support to establish a line of transatlantic steamships, but the business community proved indifferent to his idea. In early 1833 Smith and his family returned to England aboard the Westminster and had the misfortune of another protracted crossing. It left him more determined than ever. “Thirty-two days from New York to Plymouth and forty to London is no trifle,” he wrote Henry. ”… I shall not relinquish this project unless I find it absolutely impracticable.” His plan was to establish a line of four steamships, two British and two American, running between New York and London.
Through the spring of 1833 he tried to charter an existing ship for a demonstration voyage, but he couldn’t find a suitable one for the right price. Meanwhile, an 800-ton coastal steamer called the Royal William journeyed from Nova Scotia to London, becoming the first vessel to cross the Atlantic principally under steam. The Royal William ’s crossing was not a publicity stunt like the Savannah ’s but a desperate attempt to get rid of an unprofitable ship. As the flagship of the Quebec and Halifax Steam Navigation Company, the Royal William had been quarantined during a cholera epidemic that raged through Canada in 1832. Her many idle weeks in port left the company deeply in debt, and the ship was auctioned for a pittance. The new owners tried to sell her in Boston. When that failed, they decided to risk an Atlantic crossing and try her on the more robust London market.
When the Royal William left Pictou, Nova Scotia, for London in August 1833, she carried eight passengers; cargo consisting principally of timber, a harp, furniture, and some stuffed birds; and 324 tons of coal. With 200-horsepower side-lever engines, the Royal William could churn along at a brisk eight knots. Soon after her departure, however, she ran into nasty weather off the coast of Newfoundland. The gale snapped off the top of the foremast and knocked one of the engines out of commission. Then the ship began to founder. “Things looked rather awkward,” reported the commander, Capt. John McDougall. But once the weather broke, the crew managed to pump out most of the water that had washed over the gunwales, and the ship continued on one engine. After ten days the engineer managed to repair the other one.
Though the Royal William had ample coal for a complete crossing by steam, she still had to hoist her sails for about one day out of every four so that salt deposits could be scraped from her boilers, which ran on seawater. She steamed into the Thames twenty-five days out of Pictou, after a journey of 2,500 miles. Her arrival generated only moderate excitement, for the sailing packets were averaging twenty-four days from New York to Liverpool. Still, the owners were able to sell her for twice the distress price they had paid in Canada. The new owners eventually sold the Royal William to the Spanish government.
Smith, in the meantime, struggled to form his company. In June of 1835 he issued a prospectus detailing his plan “to form a Line, composed of Two British and Two American Steam Ships of 1,000 tons each, which will be sufficient to keep up a communication twice a month to and from New York. … Four steam ships will make as many passages in twelve months as eight sailing ships; and the investment will not equal the cost of eight sailing ships of equal tonnage.” He projected a dubiously precise profit of 4,717 pounds and 10 shillings per round trip. He tried to raise £100,000 by selling stock, but not a single share was purchased. “The patience and labour of forming a company in London is beyond all that you can imagine,” he wrote.
Dionysius Lardner, one of Britain’s leading authorities on steam engines, didn’t help Smith’s cause any when he denounced the idea of regular London-to-New York steamship service as “perfectly chimerical.” Addressing an audience in Liverpool, Lardner argued in 1835 that a steamship could not carry more than 400 tons of coal and still have room for enough passengers and cargo to make a crossing profitable. Assuming a consumption of 20 tons per day and a daily rate of travel of 170 miles (based on the performance of the steam packets then plying the Mediterranean), and allotting 100 tons of coal as an emergency reserve, “the utmost limit of a steam voyage might be taken at 2550 miles; but even that could not be reckoned upon.” Lardner concluded with a pronouncement he would live to regret. “As to the project… of making the voyage directly from New York to Liverpool,” he said, “they might as well talk of making a voyage from New York or Liverpool to the moon.”
Lardner, a lawyer and an ordained minister, had forged a successful literary career as a popularizer of scientific and technical subjects, but as his critics liked to point out, he was not an engineer. His denunciation of plans for steamship service between England and New York may have resulted less from sober analysis than from his interest in the British & American Intercourse Company, which planned to run steam liners between Valentia, a small island off the coast of Ireland, and the port of St. John’s in Newfoundland, a distance of only 1,900 miles. Railroads, a tramway, and short-hop steamers would connect these ports with New York and London.
The Valentia-to-Newfoundland plan got nowhere, but Junius Smith finally managed to raise sufficient capital to launch the British & American Steam Navigation Company with a second stock offering in the fall of 1835. Smith sold investors on steam by recruiting some powerful allies to the embryonic firm’s board of directors, including MacGregor Laird, of the Birkenhead shipbuilding family.
Laird was an authority on steam vessels and published a letter, signed “Chimera,” in the December 28,1835, Liverpool Albion in which he responded to Lardner’s assertion that a steamship could not safely travel more than 2,550 miles without recoaling.
Lardner had assumed an 800-ton vessel with 200-horsepower engines when he arrived at his 2,550-mile limit. The solution, Laird countered, was simply to use bigger ships with bigger engines. Usable hull space increased by the cube of the ship’s length, but resistance, and hence the power required to drive the ship, was only squared. By Laird’s calculations, a 1,260-ton steamer with 300-horsepower engines would be able to reach New York from London in about fifteen days. The trip would consume roughly 525 tons of coal, leaving ample space for passengers and goods.
In 1836 the British & American Steam Navigation Company contracted with Laird’s firm for the construction of a ship to be called the Royal Victoria , after the seventeen-year-old princess and heiress to the British throne. At a planned 1,700 tons—later increased to more than 2,000—it would be by far the largest steam vessel ever built. Smith wrote that in addition to 600 tons of coal, “We calculate to be able to take 600 passengers. Their baggage, provisions, &c, and 1,000 tons of measurement goods. …”
However, the threat of competition loomed. In Bristol the newly formed Great Western Steam-Ship Company had its own liner on the drawing board of the formidable Isambard Kingdom Brunel. At thirty-one Brunel already had an impressive career behind him: resident engineer of the Thames Tunnel under the direction of his father, Sir Marc Brunel; designer of a suspension bridge over the Avon Gorge; and chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, where he had introduced broad-gauge tracks, permitting trains to travel at much higher speeds.
As Brunel’s Great Western began to take shape at the yards of the Bristol shipwrights Patterson and Mercer, Smith and his colleagues sailed into some rocky shoals. The firm hired to build the Royal Victoria ’s engines, Claude, Girdwood & Company of Scotland, became mired in financial difficulties that halted work; then it went bankrupt. Smith quickly turned to Robert Napier, who had made the Royal William ’s crankshaft, but the debacle put British & American months behind schedule.
Work on the Great Western progressed smoothly, and she was launched on July 19, 1837, before a crowd of fifty thousand people. In August the 1,320-ton vessel sailed to London for the installation of her engines. The Great Western and its huge Gothic Revival saloon became the sensation of the season; visitors included the Duke of Wellington.
But Junius Smith was not about to let British & American be upstaged. He decided to sacrifice profit for priority and charter a small coastal steamer for the company’s inaugural voyage. At Laird’s recommendation he hired the Sirius , a 700-ton packet then making regular runs to London, Plymouth, and Cork. Like the Great Western and the overdue Royal Victoria , she came equipped with auxiliary sails.
She was quickly modified for an ocean crossing. The Sirius , like the Great Western , was outfitted with a new device that promised to greatly reduce the burden of steaming at sea. The surface condenser, patented by Samuel Hall, recycled fresh water in the boilers, eliminating the need to scrape off salt deposits every few days.
In late March 1838 the Sirius sailed down the Thames, bound for Cork, her last stop before heading to New York. Near Gravesend she overtook the Great Western , out on sea trials. A race broke out. The Sirius won easily, quickly outdistancing her competitor by more than a mile.
Three days later the Great Western steamed down the Thames for Bristol. Brunel was on board, along with his father and Christopher Claxton, the managing director of the Great Western Steam-Ship Company. As they neared the Thames estuary, a fire broke out in the boiler room. Hurrying down a ladder to help put it out, Brunel fell on top of Claxton; he was knocked unconscious and had to be rowed ashore. Despite the excitement, neither Brunel nor the Great Western was seriously damaged, and with the next tide she continued on her way. However, at Bristol news of the fire scared off some fifty would-be travelers, and the mammoth steamer set off for New York on April 8 with a scant seven passengers.
The mishap aboard the Great Western gave the Sirius another twelve hours’ head start as she steamed away from Cork on April 4 with forty passengers and 450 tons of coal. Capt. Richard Roberts had to quell a near mutiny when the crew balked at going to sea in such a small ship. Twelve days out the weather turned foul, but the ship, according to Captain Roberts, was “behaving nobly and riding like a duck.”
The Great Western , four days behind the Sirius , gained steadily. The stoking crew worked overtime feeding coal to the boilers, and its morale quickly sank. The passengers were unhappy too. “Sea sickness stalks in stifling horror among us,” said one, “and the dreadful cry of ‘steward’—‘steward’—the last ejaculation of despair, comes from a dozen nooks.” To make things worse, the incessant clanking of the ship’s machinery kept the passengers awake. ‘The repose of last night,” said another, “might be compared to tossing in a blanket, and a dance of pothooks and frying pans was nothing to the din of the glorious clatter among the moveables that accompanied it.”
Approaching New York, the Sirius had her own problems. Impeded by headwinds early on, she began to run short of coal in the last leg of her journey. The stokers resorted to burning spars and resin to maintain steam. Still, for Captain Roberts, “it really appeared to me as if Providence smiled propitiously on our voyage.”
As the Sirius steamed through the Narrows on the morning of April 23, 1838, a New Yorker reported that “the news spread like wild fire through the city and the river became literally dotted with boats conveying the curious to and from the stranger.” Thus an enormous crowd was already on hand when the Great Western arrived later in the day, and they greeted it just as exuberantly.
After the celebrations, the tributes, the sumptuous banquets, and the processions of visiting dignitaries, it was time for the two steamers to return to England. Despite the enormous publicity, only forty-nine people booked passage on the Sirius ’s homeward voyage; the capacious Great Western did scarcely better, with seventy-one passengers on board when she left New York in early May.
Upon her return the Sirius showed a loss of £3,500. “I am not disappointed in the result of the first voyage of the Sirius ,” Smith reported to his nephew. ”… The expenses in London, Liverpool, Dublin, Cork, New York were enormous. The directors however think nothing of it, quite satisfied that they gained their object. I told them before she started how it would be, and they do me the credit to acknowledge it.” The Sirius made only one more round trip before returning to service as a coastal packet.
As the British Queen —the new name of the Royal Victoria , to take account of the princess’s coronation in 1837—inched toward completion, Smith made use of the Great Western ’s regular crossings to expedite business correspondence with his nephew. Henry complained about the numerous delays afflicting the Queen . Smith responded testily that “Englishmen had rather spend a few months in completing their work than be blown up in default. They leave that part for the Americans who seem to have profited very little by the death of others.” This came just months after the steamboat Moselle had exploded in the Ohio River, killing 105 people.
By late 1838, however, Smith’s patience had about run out. British & American, foundering under the weight of a mounting debt, was still months away from having a profitable steamer on the line. Smith accused Napier of neglecting work on the British Queen ’s engines in favor of more lucrative contracts from the British and Russian governments.
One year behind schedule, the British Queen finally sailed from London on July 10, 1839. Captain Roberts, late of the Sirius , commanded the vessel; among her 220 passengers was Junius Smith. Some complained that the British Queen ’s sleeping accommodations did not measure up to those of the Great Western , but she routinely made better time. “There is not a faster seagoing steam vessel in the world,” said Captain Roberts in 1840.
In addition to profits, Smith hoped for recognition. “I have only one object,” he wrote in 1838, “which is to record the truth that I am the legitimate father of transatlantic steam navigation.” He campaigned for knighthood, tried to get Washington Irving to write the history of his company, and instructed his nephew to solicit contributions in order to commission a fulllength portrait of him for display in the New York Chamber of Commerce. He had to settle for an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Yale College.
Both companies had second steam liners in the works. Unlike her sister ship, British & American’s President rolled out of dry dock on time in 1840. Brunel’s Great Britain , on the other hand, did not make her first Atlantic crossing until fully six years after the laying of her keel in July 1839. During that interval she underwent two major design changes: an iron hull was substituted for a wooden one, and in 1840 the company dismantled her paddle boxes and installed screw propellers, making her the first screw-driven ocean-going vessel.
Junius Smith was skeptical about both innovations. “I think you had better not have anything to do with screws,” he had advised Henry in 1833, “lest you be screwed harder than you would like.” MacGregor Laird wanted to build iron steamers, but Smith feared that large iron hulls would be too rigid, and that the enormous strains of ocean travel would be too great for the rivets to endure. In fact, he had it exactly wrong: Very long wooden hulls were turning out to be not rigid enough. After one voyage Brunel’s Great Western showed signs of dangerous strain from being lifted amidships by waves that left her bow and stern suspended, a phenomenon known as hogging. Had Smith understood this danger and built the President out of iron instead of wood, his place as the father of transatlantic steam navigation would have been secured. Instead, tragedy awaited.
The 2,366-ton President was an imposing sight as she steamed into New York in August of 1840. At 273 feet she was 7 feet longer than the British Queen and 30 feet longer than the Great Western . Two 270-horsepower engines turned her 40-foot paddle wheels. Like many of the sailing packets of the day, she had false gunports painted on her hull. An enormous carved figure of George Washington stood at the bow. Ten oil paintings depicting the life of Columbus decorated her plush saloon. The President excelled in all respects except speed: her maiden voyage took more than sixteen days. She successfully made several more crossings, but then trouble struck again. Bound from New York to Liverpool in November, she had to turn back after five days; the ship had been slowed by bad weather and lacked sufficient coal for a safe trip.
After stocking up on coal, she completed the run and then laid up in Liverpool for the winter. The President arrived back in New York on March 4, 1841, coincidentally the same day that a new President of the United States, William Henry Harrison, was being inaugurated. When she did not return to Liverpool on schedule, Smith probably assumed that she had encountered fuel problems again.
The President had last been sighted by the sailing packet Orpheus during a furious two-day storm. The captain of the Orpheus saw the steamer “rising on top of a tremendous sea, pitching and laboring very heavily.” In February the ship had shown signs of hogging, and some had deemed her unseaworthy. By April people on both sides of the Atlantic feared the worst, and when word arrived of President Harrison’s death, it was taken as an omen.
“I suppose the ship President is lost,” Smith wrote his nephew on May 3. “I have slight hopes of ever hearing of her again.” The ship had left New York with 136 people on board, including Captain Roberts, “the Columbus of steam,” as he had been called after the voyage of the Sirius , and the Irish comedian Tyrone Power.
The loss of the President doomed British & American. Wary passengers would have nothing to do with her sister ship; the company sold the British Queen to the Belgian government and dissolved. Smith retired to his nephew’s country home in Astoria, New York, where he indulged his passion for gardening.
The Great Western steamed profitably for another six years, but Brunel’s revolutionary iron steam liner Great Britain turned out to be a colossal flop. She was prone to mechanical breakdowns and exhibited a mystifying tendency to lose her way, which was eventually determined to be the result of a defective propeller. Then, in September 1845, faulty compass readings caused by the ship’s iron hull, and a flawed nautical chart that omitted a recently built lighthouse, combined to run her aground in northeastern Ireland, some fifty miles off course.
The cost of her salvage broke the back of the Great Western Steam-Ship Company. Both its ships were sold. The Great Western became a mail packet servicing the West Indies, while the Great Britain carried emigrants to Australia for twenty years and ended up in the Falkland Islands as an enormous storage bin for coal and wood. Despite the Great Britain fiasco, in 1858 Brunel launched a still more ambitious ship, a 19,000-ton monster called the Great Eastern . A combination of paddle wheels and screw propellers was designed to push her iron hull through the water at an astonishing 18 knots. Like the Great Britain , the £1,000,000 liner was a financial disaster of epic proportions, and she had to be sold. The Great Eastern ended up in the hands of Cyrus Field, who used the vessel to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable.
It might have seemed that Dionysius Lardner had been right after all. But one man did figure out how to make a profit running steamers across the Atlantic—get a government subsidy. In 1839 the Nova Scotia shipping magnate Samuel Cunard (who had been a shareholder in the company that originally owned the Royal William ) secured a contract with the British government to carry the mails for a hefty £60,000 a year. Steaming between Liverpool and Boston, the Cunard liners were Spartan compared with the Great Western and the President , but they established a reputation for safety and dependability that their more opulent challengers could not match.
Smith sneeringly referred to Cunard’s Britannia as “the Government pet,” but he wasn’t above licking the hand of his own government. After his return to the United States, he lobbied Congress to pass a law to award contracts for carrying mail to Great Britain by steamer. Smith succeeded in his lobbying efforts only to be underbid in 1847 by Edward Knight Collins, the owner of a successful line of sailing packets.
Disappointed but not embittered, Junius Smith abandoned the shipping business for good and turned his attention to the cultivation of tea. He purchased a two-hundred-acre plantation in Greenville, South Carolina, and for several years experimented with tea plants imported from China. He was beginning to have some success when, in late 1851, an unknown assailant brutally attacked him in his home. One of his neighbors suspected that Smith’s abolitionist sentiments and his kindly behavior toward the local blacks incited the attack. He never quite recovered from the beating, and soon he returned to his nephew’s home in Astoria. In his last year he gradually lost his mind and had to be committed to an asylum, where he died in early 1853 at the age of seventy-two.
A few years after Smith’s death the Collins line went bankrupt despite generous subsidies from the American government. Collins’s liners were huge, luxurious, and fast—one crossed from Liverpool to Sandy Hook in less than ten days—but they encountered misfortune and disaster with appalling regularity. Twenty years after the voyages of the Sirius and Great Western , only Cunard remained from the pioneers of the 1830s to finally dismast the packets and fulfill the vision of Junius Smith, father of the transatlantic steamer.