1897: Steam Overtakes Sail

When did the “Age of Sail” actually end? Not as long ago as you might think.

The SS Savannah, a hybrid rigged ship and paddle-wheeler, made the first Atlantic “steam-assisted” crossing in 1819, but sailing ships remained commercial work horses of the sea throughout the 19th Century, long after they were technologically obsolete.

By the 1890s, however, screw-powered steamships, propelled by technological advances such as the compound engine, finally began to overtake rigged vessels in numbers, as the chart below shows (click on the chart for a larger view).

steamvssail3At the start of the decade, there were still 21,190 rigged merchant ships weighing more than 100 tons in the global fleet, compared with 11,108 steamships, according to data from the 1898 Commercial Year Book, an annual business encyclopedia published by The Journal of Commerce and Commercial Bulletin in New York. Over the next seven years, the number of large sail-powered merchant ships dropped 33.1% to 14,168, while the number of steamships rose 27.7% to 14,183, surpassing the rigged merchant fleet in size for the first time.

By 1900, the number of merchant sailing vessels had dropped to 12,524, while steam-powered merchant ships increased to 15,898, according to the 1901 Commercial Year Book (available in digital form from Google Books).

Finally, it was time to furl the sails.

— wbc

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