The first ship to be principally made from steel is the French Navy ship Redoutable, which was launched in 1876 and laid down about 3 years prior. The first ship to be made of all steel is the British Royal Navy HMS Iris, which was launched in 1877 and laid down in 1875.
In the rest of the article, we are going to answer the question of when was the first steel ship made in more detail by looking at the history preceding these ships and learning a little bit more about both of them. We will also briefly touch on HMS Iris’ sister ship HMS Mercury and consider the legacy that steel ships have left behind.
What Is the History of Steel Ships?
To fully be able to answer the question of when was the first steel ship made, it is important to take into consideration the history that led up to the use of steel as a building material in them. To do that, we will need to travel almost two full decades before the launch of the first steel ship and learn about ironclads.
The first ironclads did not have entirely iron hulls and instead used the iron as additions for armor purposes. Wooden hulls were preferable in the early days due to their suitability for long range travel, where fouling was a more serious concern and could slow a ship down significantly.
As the designs and technology improved, engineers saw a lot of benefit in iron hulls, and these started to become the norm. Around the same time, however, steel started to be used in construction, and it offered many benefits and few drawbacks in shipbuilding compared to iron.
Which Is the Earliest Steel Ship?
The 1870s saw three ships built that pioneered the practice of steel construction in ships. The first of these was the French ship Redoutable, which was launched in 1876, and the latter two were the sister ships HMS Iris and HMS Mercury, which were launched in 1877 and 1878, respectively.
The reason there is controversy over whether Redoutable or the Iris class ships get the honor of being called the first steel ship is because their construction was so different.
Redoutable was built with more steel than any ship had been built with in the past, but it still used iron in significant quantities in its construction. HMS Iris and HMS Mercury, on the other hand, are renowned for their all steel design.
Redoutable was a French ironclad built by Arsenal de Lorient. There is controversy over whether it was laid down in 1872 or 1873, but all agree that it was launched on September 18, 1876. A historic vessel in the French Navy, Redoutable was over 330 feet long and had a displacement tonnage of around 9,000 tons.
With a full complement of over 700 members of crew, the warship was a formidable force at the time and served as the basis for its successors in the French Navy, the appropriately named Dévastation class of ships.
Redoutable itself served for just over 3 decades before being decommissioned on March 9, 1910. It was sold the next year and dismantled the year after that.
Although the ship itself was gone, its name would live on in 31 Redoutable class submarines, the first of which, also called Redoutable, was launched in 1928. That class was itself honored in the Le Redoutable class of nuclear submarines that were in commission with the French Navy from 1971 until 2008. Redoutable shares its name with 6 other ships that came before it.
HMS Iris and HMS Mercury
The HMS Iris and the HMS Mercury made up the Iris class of ships, which was notable for being the first to use an all steel design. The latter of the two ships was in commission with the British Royal Navy until 1914.
The two were designed to be dispatch ships, vessels that carry dispatches between ships or between ships and the shore. This practice was made almost entirely obsolete with the advent of undersea cable and radio in the early 20th century, which coincides with the demise of the two ships.
HMS Iris had the shorter career of the two. She was laid down in 1875, launched in 1877, and scrapped in 1905. HMS Mercury was laid down and launched a year later than its sister ship on both counts but was only decommissioned in 1914 and scrapped in 1919, for almost a decade more of service.
The Iris class ships were roughly the same length as Redoutable, but they were both significantly lighter. Weighing less than half of what Redoutable weighed, the HMS Iris and HMS Mercury put together had a lower displacement tonnage than Redoutable.
What Is the Legacy of Steel Ships?
A lot of trends come and go, but steel hulls in ships is something that continues to be a mainstay in shipping worldwide, both civilian and military. Starting around 1940, steel has been the primary material used to build ships, to the point where almost all modern ships are made of steel.
While the technology certainly has improved over the almost century and a half since Redoutable was launched, the shipping world has not had another big material revolution like the switch from wood to iron and then iron to steel.
Because of steel’s versatility and suitability as a material for ships, it is unlikely to be replaced any time soon barring some very significant discovery and development in material sciences.
When answering the question of when was the first steel ship made, there are a lot of criteria to consider for what counts as the correct answer, but we have learned that the two candidates are the partially steel French Redoutable and the all steel British HMS Iris.
The Redoutable was laid down in either 1872 or 1873, in both cases before HMS Iris’ 1875, and launched in September 1876, preceding HMS Iris’ launch date of April 1877 by only seven months.