The First Tugboat

Tugboats are the workhorses of ports all over the world but how long have they been around and what did we do before the advent of the steam engine?

The First Tugboat

When navigating a gigantic sea vessel into port, its not like driving a car. You can’t just turn hard to port and swing the aft around into a tight pocket adjacent to the dock. That’s what tugboats are for.

They’re indispensable, designed to guide large vessels into port using massive ropes and thick layers of rubber installed from bow to stern on the contact points of the tugboat. These vessels aren’t new to tight, maritime navigation, often tackling vessels 20 times their size.

In fact, the tugboat’s long and illustrious history goes back nearly three hundred years. Prior to the advent of the tugboat, vessels were secured in their docks using mules and other livestock, pulling vessels with giant ropes.

The First Tugboat Only Existed on Paper

As with so many inventions, the tugboat started off as an idea, conjured into a design patent by Jonathan Hulls. Unbeknownst to Hulls, his steam boat design wouldn’t hot the water for nearly a century and even after all that time had passed, the concept in Hulls’ patent remained much the same.

Born in Campden, Gloudestershire, England, in 1699, Jonathan Hulls is given credit for being the first to design (at least on paper) a steam-powered vessel whose sole purpose would be to pull and push larger vessels into port, whether the waves were riding high in the midst of a storm or on a bright sunny day, with calm winds and smooth sails.

While its not known for certain that Jonathan Hulls conceptualized the first tugboat, there is no competing historical accounts that say otherwise, so he gets the credit. The engine became known as the Newcomen Atmospheric Engine, which sounds like something right out of a modern Hollywood Sci-Fi movie.

However, for the day and age that Jonathan Hulls walked the streets of London, the concept was incredible. His design included continuously-rotating ratchet wheels, kept in constant rotation via the use of ropes from the piston of the engine.

The First Practical TugBoat

Unfortunately, Jonathan Hulls’ dream of seeing his vision made tangible and real, never came to be, at least not in his lifetime. Jonathan passed away at the age of 59 in London, England. His pamphlet illustration was published in 1737 and 22 years later, he died having never seen the eventual tugboat.

It wasn’t until the very early 1800s that steam-powered vessels arrived on the scene. It didn’t take long for the tugboat to follow. At this point, towboats were guided with good old human power, through the use of paddles.

In 1802, the Charlotte Dundas was launched. It was 17 metres in length and operated on steam-power, using a single, horizontal engine that drove a single paddle wheel, centered in the stern of the vessel.

Previous efforts resulted in the construction of a steam tug boat in 1800. However, though the manufacture of the steam tug was completed in 1801, canal owners buried the project, afraid that Lord Thomas Dundas’ William Symington-commissioned steam tug would damage canal banks.

Thanks to William Symington’s persistence on the project, the Charlotte Dundas was manufactured the following year, named after the daughters of the original manufacturer, Lord Thomas Dundas.

The Charlotte Dundas didn’t hit the water until the 4th of January in 1803, towing her first two, 70-ton barges successfully into port.

The Rise and Fall of the Steam Tug

Steam tug boats had several things working against them as the mid 1800s gave way to the mid 1800s. As far as transportation was concerned, rail was taking over, being a much easier way to transport goods in every direction, where steam boats were limited to north and south via river.

While that aspect had an indirect impact on the use of steam, tugboats ultimately me their demise at the hands of the cumbustion engine. There was no competition in the early 1900s when it came to steam versus gasoline or diesel.

Combustion engines start immediately, whereas steam boats could take hours in the early morning to generate the necessary amount of steam to power the craft. Internal combustion engines were also much smaller than their steam counterparts, with more power and fuel efficiency.

For a time, steam tugs worked side by side with their combustion counterparts, with the steam tugs slowly dwindling. They saw a bit of a resurgence in World War 2, as every single vessel was needed to maximise production efforts for the war.

However, steam was on its way out and the late 1930s and early 1940s essentially served as a retirement party for steam tugs.

Tug Boats in the Combustion Era

One of the most popular engines ever developed for tugboats was the Koos No. 2 Engine. Unleashing 450 horsepower, the Cummins V-12 Marine Diesel engine was raw power in the 1950s. In fact, the engine was so spectacular that it wasn’t retired until 1987, after nearly 30 years of service.

Small harbor tugs rarely exceed 400hp today, so the Koos No. 2 was exceptional for its time. Ocean tugs, however, often exceed 4,000hp. The engines on these goliath tugs often weight more than semi-trucks.

These powerful tugs are used today to help haul large barges and equally heavy craft into port, especially when dealing with rough seas. Tugboats today are every bit as essential as the tugboats of the 1800s.

With the immense weight and size of cruise ships, barges, and US Naval Vessels, tugboats have evolved with the times. Where once, a steam tugboat could haul in a three-decker, ship of the line, now a V12 combustion monster hauls in US Aircraft Carriers.

The tugboat is the workhorse of ports and will likely continue to be so for the next century.

All Things Considered

The history of the tugboat, from the days of human power, through the steam-powered glamour of the Age of Enlightenment, to the diesel-powered goliaths of modern times, has been exceptional.

Tugboats also stand as testament to the wonder of human ingenuity and innovation. Just like so many other things as we continue to venture out onto the mystery of the sea.