Propeller-driven ships are a common sight on the waterways today, but if you’ve ever looked at the intricate design of a propeller, then you may wonder where the technology came from and when it was first implemented. What was the first propeller-driven ship?
The first propeller-driven ship was the Civetta, which utilized a screw propeller on a steam-powered boat.
There’s a lot to unpack about the history of the propeller and the first ships that used them. The expression “standing on the shoulders of giants” certainly rings true with the invention of the propeller, and the rest of this article will discuss the first propeller-driven ships.
History of the Propeller
Anyone familiar with the propeller might not realize how long this simple apparatus has been around.
The principle behind propeller-driven motion has been used for thousands of years, with the screw propeller principle being used in China's rowboats in the third century AD.
The screw propeller was famously used by Archimedes, but it wasn’t used to propel boats; rather, Archimedes famously used it to lift water to irrigate crops and bail boats.
Da Vinci also theorized the use of a screw propeller for flight with his helicopter model featuring a screw shaped propeller over the body of the craft.
In the late 1700s, centuries after the screw had been invented and taken on a multitude of uses, inventors became to consider the screw-shaped propellers for use in watercraft.
The First Propeller-Driven Boat
Czech-Austrian inventor Joseph Ressel is credited with the invention of the boat propeller, although his first design left a great deal to be desired.
Ressel’s job was to secure quality wood for the Austrian Navy, although during his stay in Landstrass, he also experimented with boat propellers. After his transfer to Italy, his tests on ship propellers proved successful, and he filed for a patent in 1827.
The propeller was fashioned with several bronze blades and fastened to a conical base. Both inventor and pioneer, Ressel has also earned his spot as the first person to successfully operate a screw propeller on a steam powered boat.
This vessel, called the Civetta, was the first vessel to be driven by a propeller, capable of reaching speeds up to 6 knots.
In a later test, one of the steam conduits exploded, causing his work to be banned by the Austrian police. In hindsight, many historians believe that the explosion wasn’t caused by a malfunction in the screw propeller design.
For his invention of the propeller, Ressel is honored in Austria to this day. His image can be found on the 500 Schilling banknote, depicting his famous ship Civetta on the back.
One of the unsung heroes in screw propeller design is John Patch, a Nova Scotian mariner who developed a two-bladed propeller. After successfully propelling a rowboat across Yarmouth Harbor, he applied for a patent in the United States, but was rejected due to not being a citizen.
Although he received acclaim from his scientific peers in America, Patch’s patent was washed out amidst several other competing versions of the propeller that became more popular.
Ericsson and Smith
Two other contenders significant in the development of the propeller are Ericsson and Smith, two British inventors who began tackling the problem of screw-propulsion.
Adept at building model boats and taking a vested interest in their means of propulsion, Smith made a model boat propelled by a wooden screw driven by a spring.
Convinced his invention was better than the paddle wheel, Smith took out a patent on the 31st of May, 1835, beating Ericsson by just six weeks.
Smith followed up on the patent by building a model boat to test the idea and debuted his invention at the London Royal Adelaide Gallery of Practical Science.
A London banker called Wright was intrigued by the idea and offered funding for Smith to build a 6 horsepower, 30-foot canal boat. The Francis Smith, as it was called, proved to be a lucky stroke indeed.
The wooden propeller on the Francis Smith broke on a February voyage in 1837, and much to Smith’s surprise, the propeller was all the better for it. With only one turn, the propeller doubled the boat’s speed from 4 mph to 8 mph.
Not to be outdone, Ericsson crafted a 45-foot steamboat with a screw propeller. Completed in 1837, the Francis B. Ogden was debuted for interested members of the British Admiralty on the River Thames. Unfortunately, the Admiralty wasn’t impressed, observing that the screw-propulsion system wouldn’t work well in ocean waters.
Sir William Symonds, Surveyor of the Navy, also couldn’t foresee the screw-propelled system being able to turn quickly enough, making it inefficient in his eyes.
The SS Archimedes
Determined to prove the Admiralty wrong, Ericsson tinkered with his design a little bit, developing a larger boat called the Robert F. Stockton, which he sailed right to America’s doorstep.
In the land of entrepreneurship, Ericsson made a name for himself as the designed of the very first U.S. Navy screw-propeller warship, the USS Princeton.
At this point, Smith reentered the scene, determined to correct the Admiralty’s perception that the screw-propelled ship wouldn’t be seaworthy.
It was no coincidence that on the way back to London September 5th, 1837, the Admiralty spotted a spirited little vessel outfitted with a single turn iron propeller making headway in the waters.
Making headway quickly translated to making waves, and Smith’s propulsion system would be slated as the primary propulsion system in the SS Archimedes. Completed in 1838 by Henry Wimshurst, the SS Archimedes was the first steamship to be powered by a screw propeller.
The SS Archimedes was a tremendous leap forward in propulsion technology and brought the ingenious (and accidental) discoveries of Smith and Ericsson to light. With a new challenger on the scene, paddle steamers finally had some staunch competition.
What better way to settle the debate of paddles versus propellers than a good old-fashioned game of tug o’ war? The screw-driven Rattler squared up against the paddle steamer Alecto and won, pulling the Alecto back at 2.5 knots.
At the end of the day, the credit for the first propeller-driven ship goes to the humble tinkerer Joseph Ressel, who built his own spring-driven propeller.
It’s just unfortunate that Ressel never saw the credit for his invention in his lifetime, but his work did inspire the future of propellers in Smith and Ericsson, both of which contributed heavily to the reputation and the improvement of propeller technology—even if, sometimes, that technology came about because of an accident.
It was Smith and Ericsson who developed the propeller to compete with the paddle wheel and proved without a doubt that the propeller was the superior method of propulsion, prompting its use for both military and commercial travel.
In the famous battle between the Rattler and the Alecto, innovation won out, justifying the countless hours and years of work Smith and Ericsson had contributed to the concept of screw propellers.
Over the years, improvements to the shape and design were made, particularly in the reduction of cavitation, leading to the modern-day propellers we see just about everywhere out on the waterways.