The Royal Navy, Ruler of the Seas

From Sail to Steam

Gradual Adoption of New Ways

HMS Warrior, 1861

Caption: HMS Warrior, 1861

In military circles there was initial scepticism that these small steamships could constitute a serious threat. The admirals of the Royal Navy were particularly doubtful about the innovation, but in 1822 they were convinced by the arguments of the famous inventor Marc Isambard Brunel and ordered construction of the first Royal Navy steamship, the HMS Comet. Like all boats of its type, it was a small sailing ship, in the centre of which was an engine and a tall chimney stack, and it was propelled by paddle wheels on either side of the ship.

But the Royal Navy delayed the adoption of steam for its large warships until the end of the 1840s. The reluctance of the military navies was justified. First, paddle wheels were very vulnerable to enemy fire and took up space where the cannon ought to be mounted. Not least, the presence on board a warship of the fire required to run a steam engine together with explosive black powder was reason enough for anyone to fear the worst. The introduction of screw propulsion and the taking on board of mechanical engineering specialists gradually eliminated any such reservations. By the end of the 1840s the Royal Navy was beginning to install screw propulsion engines on several old line vessels. In 1849 the 80-cannon Agamemnon became the first warship specifically built with a screw propeller. It was incorrectly believed that iron hulls would be more difficult to maintain than wooden hulls; during the 1850s wooden hulls were therefore retained, as well as sails, even though engines had been installed and the most vulnerable parts of the ship were protected by iron plates.

Additional Images

S.S. Great Eastern laying the first trans-Atlantic cable, July 1866
Paymaster, Royal Navy, circa 1851-1855