Steamship Technical Information

The first steam engine to see commercial success was in 1712, invented by Thomas Newcomen. However, its purpose was restricted to pumping water out of mines due to its mass and inefficiency.1 The first steamboat to make an appearance in Western waters was Shreve’s Washington, which made its maiden voyage in 1816. However, in June later that year, it also became known as the first steamboat to have its boilers explode. This issue became very prevalent in the subsequent years, so much so that it prompted multiple bills to be proposed addressing the safety of steam engines. The first notable legislation was proposed in 1830 by Congressman Charles Wickliffe of Kentucky. Unfortunately, it failed to pass due to a lack of information, so Daniel Ingham, Secretary of the Treasury at the time, collected data to submit to a House Select Committee. This report, called Report 478, was presented to Congress two years later on May 18th, 1832. It addressed six principal issues with steamboat engines: “1. Faulty construction of boilers 2. Use of defective material in their construction 3. Long use of boilers which would weaken them 4. Carelessness and want of skill in the engineers 5. Undue pressure in the boiler beyond its capacity 6. Overheated steam caused by insufficient water supply”. Once again, this legislation failed to pass, this time due to complaints about “Congress not having the power to enact interstate commerce regulation”.2

Below are diagrams of different parts of a typical high-pressure steam engine of the 1830s:

Figure 1. A high-pressure engine of the 1830s. a- steam issues out; b- safety valve; c- boilers

However, this report does aid us by providing insight into the many failures of the steam engine during this time, which may have contributed to the wreck of the SS Forfarshire. One of the main causes of the sinking of this ship was the failure of the pumps that supply water to the boilers. Report 478 emphasized that a lack of water for the boilers results in overheated steam, which was likely the case with the SS Forfarshire.

Figure 2. Two stop-cocks wherein if the bottom one were opened, water should come out showing the level of water in the boiler, and if the top one were opened and steam issued the engineer would know that the correct level of steam is occurring.

Additionally, if a problem did arise onboard a steamboat, many engineers were unprepared and untrained to make the proper repairs. When early steam engines were invented, there was no body of knowledge or experts that the engineers could learn from. Everything had to be learned from scratch, often from experimental techniques. Therefore if multiple failures occurred, many engineers were ill-prepared to make the necessary repairs as they did not understand the hidden mechanical relationship within these engines. Furthermore, the amount of time needed to understand these engines was also intentionally minimized, advertised that any man could learn it within two months. The following year, this timeframe was decreased even further to two weeks.3 These factors combined to form a series of steamboats whose engines were highly susceptible to breaking down being managed by untrained engineers. 

Figure 3. Pressure from the high-pressure steam pipe issuing from the boilers (a) pushes up the sliding valve (b), which is kept in place by the external weight (c) through the rod at (d). When the pressure in the line rises above the weight of (c) – the weight of which should be equal to the maximum pressure of the boiler- then valve (b) is pushed up above the waste steam pipe at (e) and the extra steam pressure is expelled.

Finally, in 1838 a Steamboat Law was finally passed and signed into law by President Martin Van Buren, only a few months after the sinking of the SS Forfarshire. The law set out to protect the lives of those traveling upon steamboats or any vessel propelled at least partially by steam.4 Unfortunately, the law was ineffective and the deaths and explosions only continued in the subsequent years. The SS Forfarshire was clearly not the only steamboat to sink due to issues with the steam engine, and it was far from the last.

Footnote Citations

  1. Chin, Aimee, Chinhui Juhn, and Peter Thompson. 2006. “Technical Change and the Demand for Skills during the Second Industrial Revolution: Evidence from the Merchant Marine, 1891–1912.” Review of Economics and Statistics 88 (3): 572–78.
  2. Brockmann, R. John. Exploding Steamboats, Senate Debates, and Technical Reports the Convergence of Technology, Politics, and Rhetoric in the Steamboat Bill of 1838. Amityville, N.Y: Baywood Pub. Co., 2002.
  3. Brockmann, R. John
  4. Brockmann, R. John