Every day, over 3,500 oil tankers traverse the waters of this planet, aiming to deliver oil to wherever it is needed (normally whoever is paying the most). Oil tankers are easily some of the biggest ships on the planet. Of course, they didn't just pop out of nowhere. Oil tankers are something that has developed over time. As the world's need for oil increased, the size of oil tankers increased in line with this.
On this page, we want to go through the history of the oil tanker. This means the actual oil tanker. Don't worry. We aren't going to be taking you on a nautical journey from the very first boats. We are sure that you know they had to exist for the oil tanker to exist!
The Early Transportation of Oil
In the mid-1800s, there was a growing need for oil to be shipped around the globe. The very first oil wells had started to be tapped, and the British wanted to ensure that their colonies were packed with all of the resources that they needed.
Because of this, people started to look into the way that other, similar materials had been shipped. One of these was paraffin. Paraffin was being used heavily throughout the British Empire. It was being loaded into wooden barrels and shipped everywhere.
Now, wooden barrels are great, to some extent. They hold the oil in place. However, when you have masses of oil to transport, they aren't so good. Wooden barrels take up space, and they are also exceedingly heavy. This pushes the price of oil transportation up. There had to be another solution...and there was!
The Earliest Oil Tankers
It's now coming up to the end of the 19th Century. 1877, to be exact. Companies are starting to realize how big this whole oil craze is going to be, and how important it is to develop something that would result in the easier shipment of oil tankers. Leave it to the Swedes for this.
While Alfred Nobel was off galavanting the globe, inventing the Nobel Prize, and presumably dynamite, two of his brothers were in Azerbaijan. They formed the oil company Branobel. At the time, it was the largest oil company in the world, although it no longer exists.
While Robert Nobel was the business mind of this business, Ludvig Nobel was the creative. He knew how important it was to develop something that could transport oil easily, so he started to experiment, mostly with ships that already existed. They were just large barges that he threw the oil into. Although, he did also have to deal with the challenge of ensuring that the oil didn't explode because, y'know, those fumes were pretty easy to ignite.
While Branobel expanded, they had more and more cash coming in. This meant that they had money to invest in the development of actual oil tankers. They sent some cash to Sven Alzander Almqvis in Gothenburg, Sweden and told him to get to work. By 1878 he had, and the world's first dedicated oil tanker, the Zoroaster, was launched. This was rapidly followed by a few other ships that followed the same design structure.
The Zoraster wasn't a large ship by any stretch of the imagination. However, for the transportation of oil, it worked.
The oil was kept away from anything that would make it catch alight. The ship was perfectly buoyant. There were a couple of massive tanks in the Zoroaster that would hold the oil.
However, there is a key detail about the Zoroaster that managed to set the world of oil transportation alight (not literally, thankfully). The Nobels didn't patent the design. They wanted oil transportation to be simple. So, a lot of companies started to refine the design (or just straight-up copied it without any modifications)
This open design eventually resulted in the development of several tankers with multiple oil tanks that could be filled up. Although, the Nobels weren't quite done with their designs yet.
Now, the tank design that oil ships had boasted so far worked fine. It was certainly better than the barrel system that was used before. However, it was still problematic. You could only fit so much oil in the tanks, and there was a ton of wasted space. The Nobels knew this, so they started development on a single hull design.
The Moses was the very first oil tanker that would have all of the oil inside of the hull. That's it. The hull would act as the tank. This is a design that is very similar to what we have today.
It was a roaring success, and the Nobels developed several more ships that followed the same design philosophy. Although, loading up the Moses (and other oil tankers at the time) was still irritating. The oil had to be moved onto the ship using drums, and it just took too long...and that is where the world's proper oil tanker comes in.
The Gluckauf was a German ship. It had an untimely end when it grounded itself 7-years after launch, but it had one cool feature that none of the other oil tankers had; it could easily be loaded up.
Like oil tankers nowadays, the Gluckauf could be loaded up from outside of the ship. You could pump oil into it. It made loading the ship incredibly easy.
It helped that the Gluckauf was incredibly fast too. It was purely steam-driven, the first oil tanker that was. Although, companies were still experimenting with oil and wind power here...even after the Gluckauf came to be.
The Suez Canal
At this point in history, most oil trade had been centered on Azerbaijan, but oil was rapidly being found throughout Asia, and companies wanted access to it. They had a problem, however. This was the fact that the Suez Canal, through Egypt, was the best access to this oil. However, the Suez Canal Company didn't want oil being transported through it. They felt that it was far too dangerous. So, naturally, that was the end of the oil trade and we eventually moved onto more sustainable fuel...just kidding.
The companies wanted access to the Suez Canal, so they begged and pleaded to be allowed. They were constantly being told no. However, they weren't taking no for an answer. They wanted to know what ships could go through the Suez Canal. They wanted to know what the owners of the canal believed would be safe, and they wanted to design a tanker that followed this design.
This led to the design of the SS Murex, a ship developed in England. It was the first oil ship to head through the Suez Canal in 1892. Not much more is known about the history of this ship, other than the fact that it was commanded by the Australian Navy (they guided it through the canal), and it was eventually blown up in World War I.
Now the oil companies had accessed to the Suez Canal, the number of oil companies around the world exploded, and more and more oil tankers started to be developed, all with the goal of gaining access to the Suez Canal. However, there was something just around the corner that would set oil tanker development back a little bit.
World War I
Obviously, oil needed to be shipped around during World War I. It would help to keep armies and navies functioning. The problem was that it was a war. Your enemy doesn't really want your army or navy to be functioning. This meant that a good chunk of the oil ships around this time were directly targeted by submarines.
Nobody really bothered to develop much in the way of oil ships during World War I. It was a waste of money. They knew that the ships that they spent years creating would be blown into smithereens pretty quickly.
Obviously, there were ships sending oil out there. Australia ran a few of them, as did the UK and USA. However, nothing major happened in the oil tanker department.
World War II
World War II had pretty much the same issues that World War I had. The oil tankers weren't lasting long. However, unlike World War I, we still had a bit of development in oil tanker history.
Now, we don't want to go into depth on what happened in World War I. However, suffice to say that the US managed to get a ton of oil tankers into the war without actually entering the war themselves (until much later). It was an obvious workaround. They would just sail oil tankers under the flag of another country. Several of them.
The stand out oil tankers here were the T1, T2, and T3 tankers. These tankers were famed for their assistance in the war, with many battles won because of the shipment of oil that they could deliver.
There was still the problem of most oil tankers being blown up, though. They were being blown up far faster than they could be built. So, several shipbuilders pioneered new shipbuilding techniques where they could produce new oil tankers quickly and at a low price. This was a method known as block building and welding, although telling you how that works is out of the scope of this page.
At the conclusion of World War II, oil tankers began their dominance. They slowly started to creep up in size. People's demand for oil was only rising, and there needed to be oil tankers to reach the demand. They had to be much larger than before. The oil tankers in World War II were far too small.
There wasn't really a turning point where supertankers happened. Things just got bigger. One day you had the T2 tanker in World War 2 that could could hold 16,000 DWT of oil, and then the next (although not literally), you had Supertankers that could hold 50x the amount.
The Suez Canal was still very important at the time (and still is), with most oil tanker designs e.g. the Aframax, Panamax, and Suezmax being designed specially for traversing the canals.
Supertankers capped out in size in 1979, though. This was with the development of the Seawise Giant, although that ship was sunk once, and eventually scrapped. It remains the largest oil tanker to ever exist.
At the time of writing, the current largest oil tanker in the world is the Euronav Oceania, which is well over 300-meters in length!
The Future of Oil Tankers
Obviously, the world has a pressing need for oil. This is going to be the case for the foreseeable future. However, it is unknown which way oil tankers are going to develop.
Oil tankers aren't getting larger nowadays. They just seem to be getting much more efficient in the transportation of oil. We reckon that this will stay the same. We won't see an increase in size, but we will start to see more oil tankers hitting the waters, as has been the case for several decades now.
Of course, the oil industry is always going to be at the whims of the economy, and falls in the economy can result in a lower production of oil. So, expect to see the number of oil tankers constantly changing, although we feel an economic lesson is out of the scope of this history!
What we can tell you is that oil tankers are likely to remain as incredibly important ships. They help the world keep ticking over, and shipbuilding companies will always find ways to tinker with the design to make them more fuel efficient.
Don't expect many changes to the actual design of the ship, though. They are bigger now, but the philosophy is the same as in the late 1800s. Pile as much oil into them as possible and take that oil wherever it needs to be. To be honest, we can't see this ever changing. It is the main design point of an oil tanker, after all.