They walked on water

You know nothing about progress if you do not know the 19th century.

In 1818 the first tiny 90 ton steam powered vessel, The Rob Roy, began using its 30 horse power engine on regular trips from Greenock in Scotland to Belfast in Ireland. Subsequently it became the first international non-sailing ship when it went from Dover to Calais.

Not to be outdone, the very next year America bested this by launching the 350 ton Savannah, setting a seemingly impossible jump to inter-ocean travel. After 26 days at sea out of the port whose name she bore, the ship arrived in Liverpool. It wasn’t easy nor an economic proposition — yet. The 90-horse paddle wheel, sail-assisted steamer consumed ten tons of coal each day so all her holds were crammed with the stuff. So strange a sight was a steamer that she was reported as a “ship on fire”, though the sailing cutter from Cork, Ireland sent out to ‘rescue’ her could not keep up with the bare poled vessel.

What these momentous voyages signaled to the age was certainty. The passage would be no less dangerous in the future, but in the age of sail it had never been a sure thing that you would actually arrive — even if the ship did not sink. There are many stories of voyages to America thwarted by the wind and taking 70 days, that’s more than two months. In 1838 a sailing vessel from Ireland had taken 55 days to come within 100 miles of the coast at New Brunswick before being forced back all the way across the Atlantic by the fierce easterly winds. In 1837 after a voyage of 100 days, one of the 180 passengers on board the Diamond from Liverpool to New York offered a gold sovereign for one of the last potatoes on board and was turned down. Seventeen passengers died of starvation. So think yourself lucky when the low-cost airline charges for a rubber cheese sandwich.

It is easy to forget too that, because of the speed and reliability of commercial shipping after steam, the information age was kick-started. While the as-yet ‘unknown unknown’ of international telegraph would improve worldwide communication to become almost instantaneous by the 1860s, before that date a piece of paper that was physically transported across the sea was all the world had to keep in touch with itself.

By the mid century mail went to France from Britain twice a day.

It seems incredible to us today. Friends and relations died, presidents and kings rose and fell, wars started and ended, all without the rest of the world knowing of such events. Demonstrating how amazingly different the fabric of existence was before and had become after steam power — and how far progress had yet to go — is this proud acknowledgement from 1852: “from every important port in the world we receive intelligence in London within two months — excepting the Australia. Newspapers have arrived in October last from California, only seven weeks after publication.”

By the late 1840s, that is to say the same timescale which comparably for us goes back as far as Prozac, The Simpsons, Michael Jackson’s Bad and George Michael’s Faith, steam-ship travel had become routine. Journey times across the Atlantic were measured in a just a couple of weeks — or ten days if you were lucky. And there was already a clamour to build the Suez and Panama Canals.

Can you honestly conceive that Snapchat, Siri or a phone with a camera attached has achieved in as short a time as much for human kind?


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