In mid-June of 1819, the SS Savannah sounded the death knell for the Age of Sail when it completed the first steam-powered voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. True, the historic hybrid vessel relied on its sails for most of the journey. But this was the start of something big. Steamships and steamboats would eventually become ubiquitous — making passenger sea travel easier, expanding commerce and even changing the nature of naval warfare. The maritime Age of Steam would also fade away but not completely, thanks to the artists who drew inspiration from it.

The useful arts are but reproductions, or new combinations by the wit of man, of the same natural benefactors. He no longer waits for favouring gales, but, by means of steam, he realizes the fable of Aeolus‘ bag, and carries the two-and-thirty winds in the boiler of his boat.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Nature’, Chapter 2 (1836)

American S.S. Savannah, before 1925
Engraving by unnamed artist
Courtesy of the Boston Public Library
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence

Tramp Steamer, 1908
Edward Hopper (American, 1882–1967)
Courtesy of WikiArt: Visual Art Encyclopedia

Foggy Morning on the Thames, c. 1875
James Hamilton (American, 1819–1878)
Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Steadily forging ahead to the beat of her paddles or the thrash of her screw, the steamer even of that day was far more dependable than the sailing vessel. The Lightning clipper might run a hundred miles farther in twenty-four hours than ever a steamer had done, but she could not maintain this meteoric burst of speed. Upon the heaving surface of the Western Ocean there was enacted over again the fable of the hare and the tortoise.

— Robert D Paine, ‘The Old Merchant Marine: A Chronicle of American Ships and Sailors’ (1920)

U.S.M. steam ship Baltic, Collins Line. Builders: hull by Brown & Bell N.Y.; engines by Allaire Works N.Y., c. 1852
N. Currier, lithographers and publishers
Courtesy of the Library of Congress, USA

Steamship Advance, The U.S. and Brazil Mail Steamship Company,
from the Ocean and River Steamers series (N83) for Duke brand cigarettes, 1887
W. Duke, Sons & Co. (New York and Durham, N.C.), publishers
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

On the Steamer Bremen, off Nova Scotia, 1880
William Henry Holmes (American, 1846–1933)
Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Since the invention of steamships, distant countries have become like those that are near at hand. By means of steam one can go from California to Japan in eighteen days. Commerce has become very extensive since the invention of steam, and the countries of the West have in consequence become rich. The nations of the West hope that by means of steam communication all the world will become as one family.

~ Townsend Harris, US ambassador to Japan (in a December 1857 interview)

Steamboats in the Port of Rouen, 1896
Camille Pissarro (French, 1830–1903)
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Steam Launch, Chelsea Embankment, 1888–89
Theodore Roussel (English, 1847–1926)
Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

“America”: A Steamship in Transit, 1861
Utagawa Yoshikazu (Japanese, active ca. 1850–70)
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A Moored Steamer at a Busy Quay, 1890
Andreas Achenbach (German, 1815–1910)
Courtesy of WikiArt: Visual Art Encyclopedia

To appreciate the importance of steamships and steamboats, one needs to keep in mind that they were part of a technological revolution that started before the industrial age kicked off in the
late 18th century. Find out more in ‘History of steam power – The steam engine timeline’ .

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