The first modern catamaran was designed and built by Nathanael Herreshoff in 1876 and patented a year later. However, the concept and construction of catamarans and vessels that operate on the same principles date all the way back to the second millennium BCE among the Austronesian people.
In the rest of the article, we are going to learn what makes a catamaran different from a traditional boat and explore the long history of the vessel’s gradual development to fully answer the question of when was the catamaran invented.
What Is So Special About a Catamaran?
Although they are often perceived as a trend or a fad, catamarans actually do have significant structural differences compared to traditional boats. Catamarans have two hulls instead of only one. The two hulls of a catamaran are joined by the bridge deck to form a single vessel.
One of the most noticeable practical differences between the catamaran and monohull boats is that catamarans are a lot more stable. This is because the beam is significantly wider than a traditional boat’s, giving the catamaran a greater initial stability, albeit with a poorer secondary stability. This makes the boat less likely to capsize, but more difficult to recover once a capsize has begun.
Catamarans also have shallower drafts and displace significantly less water than comparable traditional boats, which means they experience less resistance from the water when moving forward. This, in turn, means that catamarans, whether they are powered by sail or motors, need less energy to move the same mass at the same speed compared to a similarly sized traditional monohull boat.
What Is the History of the Catamaran’s Development?
When most people think of catamarans, the type of vessel they picture traces its history to Amaryllis, a boat designed and built by American mechanical engineer and naval architect, Nathanael Herreshoff. While only in his 20s, Herreshoff created the modern catamaran design, raced his first one in 1876, and patented it the next year.
This kickstarted the modern industry and application of catamarans, but the principles that Herreshoff made use of to design Amaryllis were not all completely new. Similar designs had been trialed by Europeans since the 17th century and used by Austronesians in the Indian and Pacific Oceans going back thousands of years. So then when was the catamaran invented?
Early Austronesian Origins
The history of catamarans among the early Austronesian people is tied to that of outrigger canoes, which are boats that are stabilized through the use of a separate floating device which sits alongside the main hull. There is controversy among academics over whether outrigger canoes developed as scaled down versions of catamarans or catamarans as expanded versions of outrigger canoes.
There is history of both types of vessel going back to the second millennium BCE, though the earliest record that Europeans have of them is from 1521, when they were observed by sailors on Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition to circumnavigate the world.
Petty, Crisp, and the English Prototypes
The first European prototype of a vessel with two hulls was designed in 1662 by famed English economist, William Petty. Although as with any catamaran, this boat was designed to use less energy, move faster, and navigate shallower waters, the concept was just too experimental for Petty’s contemporaries, and it never took off.
A few decades later, toward the end of the 17th century, English navigator and pirate, William Dampier, was on the Indian subcontinent, where he learned of vessels with multiple hulls from the native Tamil speakers. He was the first English speaker to record the word “catamaran” for these, adapting it from the Tamil word “kattumaram.”
The first catamaran built by Europeans to see use was designed and built by English captain Mayflower F. Crisp in Burma in the early 19th century. His vessel was called Original, and Crisp documented its exploits and the rationale behind his design himself in his 1849 book, A Treatise on Marine Architecture, Elucidating the Theory of the Resistance of Water.
Original remained in service for a number of years, during which it largely navigated the Gulf of Martaban, enabling trade between Southeast Asian ports situated on the gulf. In spite of Original’s success, the work of Captain Crisp did not change sailboat designs among his contemporaries.
Herreshoff and the American Catamaran
The final big development in catamaran design came in 1876, when American engineer and naval architect, Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, designed and built his first catamaran, Amaryllis. Herreshoff patented this design in 1877, the year following Amaryllis’ maiden voyage.
Whether due to changes in design or the fact that he was the first to formally patent his design, many consider Amaryllis to be the first modern catamaran and therefore Nathanael Herreshoff to be the inventor of the catamaran, as we know it, in 1876.
Interestingly, Herreshoff never referred to his design as a catamaran in the patent. The patent itself is simply titled “Improvement in Construction of Sailing-Vessels,” and Herreshoff makes references to “the vessel” and “my invention” but never uses the Tamil word that the English had previously adopted for the design.
Catamarans saw a lull in popularity once again after Herreshoff’s design won and was subsequently excluded from a lot of yacht clubs for what was perceived to be unfair competition.
The catamaran design saw its final and longest lasting resurgence in the mid-20th century, when its construction and use started getting picked up across the globe. Perhaps the most popular adoption was by American surfing legend, Hobie Alter.
Alter’s company, Hobie Cat, manufactured and sold small catamarans bearing the same name. The Hobie Cats have become a world standard, with one vessel, the Hobie 16, having sold more than 100,000 units since manufacturing began.
Most people offer Nathanael Herreshoff’s Amaryllis in 1876 as the answer when asked when was the catamaran invented. While it is considered the first modern catamaran, we have learned today about the thousands of years of gradual development across cultures and continents that have shaped the vessel, from early Austronesian rafts to the Hobie Cats of yesteryear.